Thursday, February 25, 2021

Among the hardest things to do

Over the past 17 months, there are plenty of things that have been difficult to do, for one reason or another. But I wouldn’t have guessed that dealing with the stuff left behind by someone I never knew would be among the hardest.

I’ve been dealing with lots of stuff that Nigel left behind, something that he wanted to spare me. It’s been difficult, not the least because there’s so much useful stuff in the mix. But the main reason, no doubt, has been that it means disposing of his stuff—the markers of his life. That’s been an ongoing job for the past 17 months, and one I’m (probably) nowhere near completing.

I didn’t realise that there was something that could be even harder.

Nigel’s partner before me, Gary, died roughly a year and a half before we first encountered each other online (“met” is probably too strong and specific a word). Nigel inherited everything from his late partner, who apparently had no blood family (or maybe it was family who cared; I cannot possibly know now). At any rate, Nigel packed everything up and moved it back to New Zealand. And there it sat.

Over the years, Nigel made some effort to purge some of the stuff, but found it too difficult. We moved a box of Gary’s stuff from house to house to house, until it ended up in our storage unit not far from the last house we shared. I brought that box to Hamilton some months ago, put it in my entryway, and there it stayed until recently.

I knew the box was in the way, and knew I had to do, well, something with it. I decided I needed to go through it.

Inside the box were a few things that may or may not be of interest to collectors, but most of it was photos and photo albums of Gary’s life before he met Nigel, stretching back decades. I didn’t know any of the people in the photos, of course, but I remember many years ago Nigel was looking at some of the photos from his time with Gary and he commented that “most of those guys are dead now”. It was The Plague Years, and too many gay men never lived to see the other side.

I looked through all the photos to make sure there were none of Nigel, and there weren’t in any of the albums. However, there were some packets of photos that did have some, and I put those aside to scan the negatives later. There were also a couple photos with stuff (furniture in particular) that was included in the life Nigel and I had—some of which I still have.

There was obviously no point in keeping any of those other photos or the photo albums, but it made me feel bad to just throw them away. Even so, I started throwing them out a couple weeks ago, putting them in the same rubbish as non-recylable packaging, and the assorted landfill-destined detritus of modern life. I felt bad.

To recap, I never knew Gary (of course) nor anyone else from those days before or with Nigel. But I felt like I was erasing Gary’s life, and so, that which was before he met Nigel. There was no alternative.

I kept only that stuff I thought my be of interest to collectors, and some antique photos which, at the very least, may be of interest to folks who collect them. I’d also like to scan those for which complete data was provided (very few) and upload them to genealogy sites so possible distant relatives can find them one day. We’ll see.

I still have some of Gary’s clothes in a vacuum-sealed bag, and those are headed to a charity shop somewhere. I remember Nigel looking at them as he put them in the bag before he removed the air. “He was so little!” he said to me, and to no one. He couldn’t give those clothes away, but I can. And it’s the best thing to do.

Despite knowing all this is the right thing to do, and that it’s what I must do, it still feels weird, like I’m erasing someone’s life. There’s one thing more.

If I’d died, I would have implicitly and completely trusted Nigel to decide what to do with the stuff I left behind, no matter what: Whatever his decision, it would have been the right one. Put more simply, I had absolute faith in him to make those decisions and choices. I also know that it was entirely reciprocal: He’d completely trust me to make these choices. So, the issue isn't whether Nigel would approve—of course he would. Instead, it was all about me, and feeling bad about what I had to do.

The worst worst part, though is that this still only part of the job. I still have to finish going through all the many, many, many things Nigel left behind. I’ll get through all that eventually because he would’ve implicitly and completely trusted me to decide what to do with that stuff, no matter what. I just didn’t know that dealing with stuff that wasn’t even Nigel’s would be among the hardest to deal with.

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