Organizational Therapy

August 5th, 2013 11:16 am by Kelly Garbato

Spoiler alert: this is one of those long and rambling posts that’s mostly for my own benefit. There will be others! You have been warned!

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In the days and weeks after Kaylee’s death – and once I was finally able to get out of bed – I tried to bury my grief in busy work. I’ve always loved cleaning; not the dirty, repetitive kind requiring vacuum cleaners and dust rags, the kind that’s gross at best and a tedious weekly chore at worst, but the type that involves organizing and reorganizing things: rearranging closets, purging my life of unwanted possessions, finding the perfect homes for even the tiniest of items. You know, FUN cleaning. There’s something refreshing about the whole process: putting your life back in order. Plus, it’s something I’m actually quite good at – more than once I’ve though about making a job of it.

(And then I remember my utter lack of people skills. Years spent trying to help my younger sister organize her room, most sessions devolving into me arguing with her about what to toss and what not to toss, and lectures about what a slob she was/is. Me working with the public? Probably not the best idea ever. Still, among friends and family I am universally recognized as THE BEST trunk packer ever. Second only to my father. Maybe. Just between us, he wishes he had my skills.)

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Kaylee, Ralphie, and I during happier times.
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So after Ralphie and Kaylee passed, Shane and I tackled a few projects around the house: moving knickknacks, hanging new posters, reorganizing the bookshelves. (I should say “library,” seeing as we have an entire room filled with shelves, but that sounds pretentious, no?) Nothing radical like a kitchen remodel; mostly just redecorating here and there. Or rather adding to the existing decor.

I had this crazy idea that, the more different I could make the house look, the less conspicuous Ralphie and Kaylee’s absences would feel in comparison. So many new things to distract my attention from the holes left by their departure; baubles and frivolities and states of being that never coexisted with them. Does that make sense? It sounds totally reasonable in my head, but less so when spoken from my lips or written on a page. But it has helped…a little. And at this point I’ll take whatever I can get.

(Incidentally, this is also the reason I haven’t been back to work since Ralphie fell ill. Initially I just took a leave of absence to care for one – and then two – sick dogs. But now I’m stubbornly hesitant to go back, as it feels like a much larger step towards normalcy than I’m willing to take, at least not yet. Reverting back to my old routines would only make the loss keener, sharper, more obvious.

And yes, I realize how ridiculously lucky I am, to have paid employment exist only as an option, not a necessity. It’s not a big deal – just part-time office-type work that I can do from home – but it pays well. I’m also lucky to work for my brother-in-law; anyplace else and I would have been fired by now. Hell, maybe I have been, for all I know; I’ve been incommunicado since the first email I wrote informing everyone of Ralphie’s illness. I haven’t been able to bring myself to explain the events that have transpired since. Besides, I figured, the story would filter on down through Shane; ditto if I was fired. So I assume I still have a job, though I’ve yet to test that theory out. Soon, maybe. Just not yet.)

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One memory that hadn’t slipped my mind: how terribly fascinated Ralphie was with Kaylee the afternoon she returned from having major dental surgery in April ’08. Both adorable and uncharacteristic. The photos I took that day are among my favorites (and are all instantly recognizable, since Kaylee’s wearing a baby blue bandage on her leg).
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In addition to reorganizing and redecorating my home-slash-life, I’ve also tried to channel my emotions into more creative projects; things that will help me to both remember Ralphie and Kaylee, and work through everything that has happened: photo albums featuring my favorite pictures of them, a digital picture frame with the same, recording some of my favorite memories of them in my private tumblr journal, writing about them in this here space. It’s that last bit that’s been the hardest. I want to remember – I need to – but it’s all terribly difficult to think about right now, let alone set pen to paper (or key to screen, if you will).

Anyway, here are a few of the things I’ve been working on.

 

Books!

In early June, just a few weeks after Kaylee’s passing, Shane and I went to a library book sale in the city. I wasn’t much in the mood, but I’d been looking forward to it for months (literally since the week they announced it), and I’d be damned if I was going to miss out on cheap books (my own idea of retail therapy). We even shelled out the extra $20 for a Friends of the Library membership so we could be among the first to shop, on the special Friends “preview” night. As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones to have this idea – the place was packed. Still, I came away with a trunk full of new-to-me books: about 100 in total.

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Book piles: one of the most beautiful sights known to humankind.
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Among my most prized scores: some Buffy Season 8 comics (much to some young dude’s consternation) and a collection of graphic novels from Marvel’s The Dark Tower series. I didn’t even know that such a thing existed! (I’ve since learned Marvel also has series based on The Stand. Like I don’t have enough to read as it is! At this rate I’m going to have to return to work just to support my book habit.)

Naturally, all these shiny new books came with one major problem: where to put them all? My bookshelves were mostly stuffed to the brim as it was, mass market paperbacks packed in two rows deep, larger books stuffed into the crevices behind even bigger books. I purged my shelves of some unwanted books; listed a few of the nicer ones on half.com, the not-as-nice ones on bookmooch, and the really not-nice ones were earmarked for Goodwill. (I even tossed a few of the more noxious titles – an act that felt as close to blasphemy as this atheist will ever come – including a book from the 80s authored by Rush Limbaugh, whose presence in my collection simply cannot be explained. It is an unexplained mystery for Fox if ever there was one.) Still, I needed more room!

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Tearing shit up.
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And then my eyes turned toward the ceiling, and the built-in shelving around the living room and game room windows. (“Game room” also sounds rather obnoxious; we mostly use the room for storage. But that’s what the old homeowners called it, so.) While the display shelving – home to framed photos and other knickknacks – extends well above my head, it stops short of ceiling height. Thinking it rather unsteady and inconvenient, I had never thought to use the tops of the units for storage. If I was an older woman, perhaps I might have spruced things up with the addition of some plastic vines and flowers. I’m pretty sure that’s what the previous homeowners – all easily eligible for AARP membership – did. But fake greenery isn’t really my thing, and so they remained empty. Naked. An adjective I never used to describe them…until I got it into my head that they might be up to holding books.

After consulting with Shane, who determined that the (shorter, more shoddily constructed) shelves in the game room should at least be able to support paperbacks – and the living room unit, a mix of hardcovers and paperbacks – I decided to give it a try. Stephen King, John Saul, and Piers Anthony were relocated to make room for my new acquisitions. At first glance, the shelf looked dangerously saggy, but we’re both 99.9% sure that it was like that pre-books. (So many of the things in our house are diy projects, with weird corners and angles; almost nothing is completely level. The headaches this has caused.) Just to be safe, he installed some metal brackets for support.

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No, this is really the view from my backyard. REALLY.
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A few weeks and zero accidents later, I transferred another stack of books to the living room unit. At this point I’d created enough extra shelf space (over 29 feet!) that I was able to unpack some books that had languished in storage for upwards of a decade, including my childhood favorites: old Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Bobbsey Twins. I had expected to find some Choose Your Own Adventures too, but nope. At first I thought that I’d left them behind at my parents’ house but, upon further reflection, I think I borrowed them all from the library instead of buying them on my own. Bummer.

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With room to spare!
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At first I was worried that filling every last nook and cranny with books would make my house look as though it’s occupied by hoarders, but really it feels quite cozy. The books frame the view of the outside – trees and pond and greenery – beautifully. I wish I’d done this sooner. Well, almost. The timing ended up being just perfect.

 

Digital Photo Frame(s ?)

About the same time I was tearing apart the library, I stumbled upon this old digital photo frame my mom gave me. This got me thinking – why not buy a large, souped-up one so we could look at photos of the animals 24/7?

We do have a number of photos on display at our house – including some rather large 16″x20″ portraits of the dogs and cats that hang over the bookshelves in the library (pro tip: build the “matting” into the photo to save money!); e.g.:

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Ozzy, Ralphie, Peedee,
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Rennie, Kaylee, Jayne, Lemmy,
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and Mags and Finnick.
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But wait! There’s still room for five more portraits!
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Not that I plan on adopting another dog anytime soon,
but it’s nice to have options…
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– but there isn’t enough wall space in the world to hold all my favorites. A digital frame with nearly limitless space, on the other hand? Gold.

Luckily, the old owners installed an outlet in the kitchen wall, at around 5′ height. I assume they put a small television there, maybe on some floating shelves mounted to the wall. But I’ll be damned if we ever knew what to do with the outlet – other than cover it up, that is. (I mean jeez who puts on outlet smack dab in the middle of the wall?) Finally! A use for it.

I tasked Shane with finding me a few options on Amazon; finally we settled on a Viewsonic 15″ frame. It’s on the large side (though not the largest available), with an attractive metallic brown frame and matting for that extra-fancy feel. You can load it up with photos and the slideshow will cycle through them all, randomly or in order, with various transitional effects. We leave it running during the day, when we’re at home and awake; located in the central point in the house, someone is almost always looking at or passing by it.

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The price has since dropped, but at the time it cost around $200 – which the credits we earned by racking up nearly $10,000 in vet bills on our Amazon card more than covered. (Probably that money would have been better spent on dog food, but I totally needed this. Trust me.)

We decided to hang it horizontally, since that’s how a majority of my photos are oriented; eventually I hope to buy a smaller version to display my favorite vertical photos (already I have a few hundred set aside). For my office desk, maybe? That makes the most sense, since I spent so much time sitting in front of the computer; but I’d also kind of like something for the bedroom, so that I can wake up to photos of Ralphie and Kaylee. But that seems like rather much for a grand total of ten (maybe) minutes of viewing time, don’t you think? Anyway.

Rather than rely on the frame’s internal memory, Shane installed a 30GB memory card. At around 600KB per photo (give or take), I can fit more than 30,000 photos on it. Crazy, right? It’ll be years before I fill it up.

Actually, allow me to clarify. Right now I have more than enough photos to fill up two to ten cards, depending on whether you calculate based on number or size: there are 63,984 files in 50 folders – 136 gigs total – dating from 1975 up until the present day. (Wow, that sounds unbelievable, even to me. And I’m the one taking all these pictures!) Of course I don’t want to put every food photo and blurry shot of a dog streaking by in the frame; that would be boring and unattractive. Instead I had to comb through these tens of thousands of pictures to find my favorites – 2,158, at last count – touch them up as needed, and then resize them to the proper dimensions. No small feat, this took me the good part of two weeks.

Flickr came in super handy with this task. Rather than comb through every single photo, I started with those I’d uploaded to Flickr – the ones that had already been cherry-picked, in other words. My established favorites. But since I didn’t join until 2006, that still left 2001 (we adopted Ralphie in July of that year) through mid-2006. Those were the folders that I plodded through one file at a time, and damn, was it a bleary-eyed task. I went to bed at night and dreamed about clicking through photo after photo of blurry dog fur and patio floors. (Very rarely do I ever delete a photo, even bad ones. Now that file sizes are so huge, it’s a habit I’m trying to rid myself of.)

Still, it was strangely refreshing. Revisiting old memories, rediscovering things I’d long since forgotten. Moments both happy- and sad-making, sometimes alternating, other times simultaneous. (Yes, I’m currently in the middle of The Uglies.) Bittersweet and intoxicating.

I’d forgotten how red (now brownish beige) the fur on Rennie’s face was when she was a younger pup. How skinny – even painfully so – she had been. Peedee, too! He’s no fatty now, but three-year-old Peedee had the teeniest, tiniest little waist!

The fun that Ralphie and Peedee had together (those first awful, stressful weeks notwithstanding). And Ralphie and Kaylee! My own memories insist that they mostly ignored one another, but pictures from the early days prove me wrong. Committed to pixels, staring at me from the screen, are scenes of them (gasp!) actually playing together!

While it was a useful shortcut, relying on Flickr was risky at best. In the early years, especially, I didn’t upload many personal photos – and when I did, they were often in a resolution too small than that required for the photo frame (1024×768). For these reasons, I decided to go through the originals for 2006, and stumbled upon quite a few pictures that I loved, but had forgotten, since they never made it onto Flickr. Shots of Kaylee and Jayne during their first days with us; old pictures of Ralphie and Shadow playing. Not aesthetically interesting by any standard, but meaningful to me. It dawned on me that by using Flickr as a sort of filter through which I viewed and utilized my photos – I rely on the sets on Flickr to do everything from find photos to decorate my blog posts, to choose which pictures I should print out and send my family – I was missing out on some really great stuff.

Now I’m left wondering whether I should upload all the files I made for the photo frame to Flickr as well. Many are duplicates – easily deleted after the fact, I suppose – but quite a few are not. And there’s some really lovely stuff in there! Flickr’s a big part of my photo management, and I can’t escape the feeling that it’s incomplete – naked, even – without these new-found favorites. But oh, the work!

And I also still need to go through the originals for 2007 and possibly 2008, since the Flickr folders were likely incomplete. Oh, and pre-2001. Gotta get some childhood photos on there.

Luckily, it’s super-easy to keep the digital frame up to date – once you’re caught up, that is. Every time I sort through a new batch of photos, I just copy my favorites into a folder specially designated for the frame, and then edit and resize them as time permits. Copy everything onto the SIM card once a month (or whatever), and you’re good to go.

While most of pictures are my own, I did throw a few weird ones in the mix: Firefly artwork, because that’s where Kaylee and Jayne’s names come from; stills of Kill Bill‘s O-Ren Ishii, because Rennie; and some Golden Girls, since they’re awesome and give me the fuzzy wuzzies.

So the frame hangs in our kitchen, right next to the brand-spanking new bulletin board we put up.

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We used to have a smaller cork board, but decided to upgrade to something bigger. Initially we considered moving it around the corner, into the laundry room – but it’s way more convenient where it is, in the central point of our house; and besides, our other alternative (populating the kitchen wall with five to six smaller pieces of framed artwork, to blend in with the digital photo frame) was entirely too much work.

I did however buy two of the posters I’d thought about framing and pinned them onto the bulletin board instead.

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These are from Cara’s (of Chickpea magazine) etsy shop, sewindieshop. The left is a chart of vegan egg replacements; the one on the right, a measurement conversion chart. Super-handy, and really pretty too. You can even get them in a range of colors to match your decor!

Also on there: a calendar from Animal Place; a print-out of important dates – birthdays, anniversaries, adoption days, etc. – so that I don’t have to remember to record them on a new calendar every January; some Flying Spaghetti Monster propaganda; and assorted fliers and coupons (including, yes, one for a book store; I am so predictable).

When we first hung the new frame, I worried that a constant barrage of photos might exacerbate my grief rather than help it to heal. Sometimes it does just that. Some days – usually multiple times a day – I’ll catch a glimpse of Kaylee out of the corner of my eye, and it feels like a fist to the heart. The feeling of missing her, uncontrollable and helpless, hits me like a tidal wave; an emotion that’s both ever-present yet, at that exact moment, completely unexpected in its sheer intensity. Crippling. Soul-emptying.

Yet, more often than not, I catch myself actually smiling. Caught up in reminiscences of days past – happier days, days when Kaylee’s calming presence warmed my heart and make everything seem, if not alright, then at least a bit better than it might otherwise have been. And as I said earlier, this particular project helped me to remember things I didn’t even realize I’d forgotten – moments recaptured, to be frozen in time once again. Recollections and feelings that I don’t ever want to let slip away again.

Oftentimes I find myself standing there, staring, captivated for minutes at a time, unable to tear myself away. It’s rather addictive, especially at the beginning, when all the photos seem fresh and new.

This is a way for me – us, Shane and I – to remember, even when we may not want to. The frame is filled with ghosts: not just Ralphie and Kaylee, but also Ozzy, Shadow, Hook, Woody, and Gypsy (my parents named him; yes, I KNOW); eventually to be joined by Goliath, Jodie, Bucky and Cap, Shannon and Shana: old friends from my childhood and adolescence. As they flit by in their designated five-second cameos, so too does a sense of loss. But it’s outweighed by far by the love I hold in my heart. That’s their home now.

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My Own Personal Wonder Woman.
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And Kaylee. Oh, Kaylee. When I’m the one to shut things down for the night, I’m always sure to power the frame down when it’s on a photo of Kaylee. That way, her face is the last to leave me at night, and the first to greet me at morning light.

(She’s also my desktop background – PC and laptop. Respect.)

 

Photo Albums

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Back when Shane and I relocated from New York to the Midwest, my grandmother gave me this set of photo albums, housed in its own nifty cabinet. In addition to shelves for the albums, there’s a little drawer for keepsakes and such, and the doors display six 4″x6″ photos (Ozzy, Ralphie, Peedee, O-Ren, Kaylee, and Jayne, all dressed up for FSMas ’07. Or in Ozzy and Jayne’s cases, Halloween. So hard to photograph, those two!) It was a really thoughtful present, but having already transitioned to digital picture-keeping, I never knew quite what to do with it. Once Ozzy passed away, I imagined devoting one of the six albums to him, but never found the time. No time like the present, eh?

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Dried pineapple was one of Ralphie’s favorites.
Shane bought him a bag that last week; this is what’s left.
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I pored through our pictures and ordered 80 of my favorites for each of the dearly departed: Ozzy, Ralphie, and Kaylee. Actually, it was more like 100 each; even though the albums only hold 80 photos, I found it impossible to narrow them down. Rather than write on the backs of each – the internet pretty much killed my handwriting – I typed up and printed out 2″x4″ labels containing names, dates, and memories specific to each photo. Then came the tedious task of arranging, labeling, and archiving the photos: upwards of 240 all told.

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As you can imagine, this took forever: lots of time and even more emotional energy. But it was well worth it. Oftentimes, when I find myself missing Kaylee, I wander into the hallway where our photo albums are kept, and leaf through her pictures. Sure, I could pull up Flickr and click through the many photos I have stored online (and I often do), but it’s just not the same; it lacks a certain visceral quality.

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When a person dies, they leave behind so many belongings: books and shirts, photographs and artwork, entire houses packed with stuff. A multitude of things that their survivors can hold onto. But dogs? Not so much. Collars, harnesses, and leads. A few locks of fur. In Kaylee’s case, her shindig dress and ink impressions in clay and ink; that’s about it. Everything else – beds, blankets, toys, dishes – my dogs share. Community property. Aside from photos and the occasional video, there isn’t much for me to remember them by. There’s very little to touch, to stroke, to snuggle.

Note to self: research art projects involving non-toxic paint to try with the dogs.

 

Black Mourning Ribbons

This was the first project I started – and the last to finish. The day after we said goodbye to Kaylee, I got it into my head that I needed mourning ribbons to hang on the doors, as a visible way of marking the event and signaling to others what we were going through (even as some might scoff that Ralphie and Kaylee were “just” dogs). To give you an idea of what I was picturing, I wanted something that looked like awareness ribbons, but black. Black, of course, is the color of mourning; and similar to black armbands, black ribbons are a public display of grief. Black ribbons are also used for melanoma awareness, as I learned during my hours of searching.

As it turns out, actual awareness ribbons? Nearly impossible to buy online. Car magnets and window decals are plentiful, but the 3D thing seems to be a rarity. We decided to make our own but, not being crafty people, it took us a few tries before we found the right material. First we ordered a spool of thick black ribbon on Amazon, but it wasn’t rigid enough to hold a shape. After much more searching online, we decided to visit a craft store to see if we could find something more suitable. (Take that, internet! You haven’t made everything obsolete!) Finally we realized that what we needed was ribbon with built-in wire. Luckily, Michael’s had some black wire ribbon in stock, so we snatched it up.

We took our fifteen feet of black ribbon home and promptly tossed it in a cabinet – where it sat, untouched, for nearly two months while I busied myself with other stuff (see: above). Eventually, I convinced Shane to give it a go, and he finished all six ribbons in about as many minutes. The wire allowed the ribbon to keep its shape rather nicely, and he used double-sided fabric tape to secure the ribbon in the middle. We hung four of them on the front doors (double doors, front and back) and put the extras in the front window and on the fridge.

By the time we got around to actually hanging these, I felt a little weird about it; shouldn’t we be taking them down and trying to move on by this point? But it’s something that I’d really wanted to do – in those early days, the thought provided a strange and inexplicable source of comfort, as if we were publicly asserting our right to grieve for “just dogs” – and to not do so might have felt even more wrong. Also, regrets. I don’t need any more. So we went ahead and I’m glad that we did.

When we finally do decide to take them down, the ribbons will be one more thing to add to Ralphie and Kaylee’s memory boxes. Or, you know, wherever I’m storing their keepsakes by then. I’ve considered shadow boxes – I think it’d be an especially nice way to display Kaylee and Jayne’s Firefly outfits – but I’m afraid I don’t know the first thing about assembling them.

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…and so that’s what I’ve been up to, friends. If you’re still here, thanks for sticking with me and reading through to the end. As I said from the outset, this post (like so many others lately) was for me; for some reason or another, I felt it important that I record what I’ve been up to, the steps I’ve taken and the projects I’ve relied on to help me process what’s happened and work through the grief. Perhaps it’s insurance for next time…I have five more little buggers, ticking time bombs who will some day break my heart too. But I think it’s more than this; I long to remember every piece of Ralphie and Kaylee, right down to the tiniest details – including the very steps I’m taking to help me remember. If that makes any sense. I’m really not the best judge of what’s logical lately.

On that note.

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