Making peace with the silence that death brings


My son-in-law Daryl and I were in my late husband’s woodworking shop on a recent evening doing a little project. Well, Daryl was doing the project — I was supervising and my stepdaughter was getting dinner.

Daryl was making a brace to stabilize my dogs’ portable exercise pen I acquired to use at camp or when attending dog sports. He left the building for a few minutes, and while I sat there waiting for his return, I suddenly was struck with how deafening silence can be.

I admittedly have not spent a lot of time alone in Jim’s workshop since he died six and a half years ago, but I have been in and out, usually with a specific purpose in mind. My friends and I cleaned it up and reorganized its contents last fall, and I often enter it, looking for a screwdriver or a piece of wood or a how-to book or some other thing I know is there somewhere.

Until this year when I traded in the pickup truck and made room in my garage, the lawn mowers had resided in the workshop so I constantly was dealing with them during the spring, summer and fall months. My boat winters there too.

I thought I had made my peace with that place, but it turns out I haven’t. I hadn’t really gone in and just sat down in a chair and looked around and listened. I hadn’t truly heard the silence there that only death can bring to a place.

From the lawn chair where I was perched, I could see my husband’s handiwork, his love of woodworking and his love of comfort. His CD player containing the Cher CD he last listened to, the huge tube TV that no longer works with modern technology, the propane gas furnace mounted to a wall that keeps paint from freezing and condensation from forming on tools, the well-insulated building that stays cool in summer and warm in winter, the preserved jigsaw puzzle depicting the ship we spent our honeymoon on that he and I had put together, coated with a sealant and hung on the workshop wall.

All touches that are so Jim. So many memories flooded in as I sat there, it was almost overwhelming. And on top of that, it was his birthday evening.

I was surprised at my near-tears status, and of how suddenly the feeling came on. I was surprised at how the unfairness of cancer and death too soon made me want to throw something in my fury.

I felt sadness over time lost, and regret over the time Jim never got to spend with his woodworking hobby he loved so much. I felt anger that he didn’t get to meet his son-in-law and see his daughter’s happiness. I wanted to cry and scream and declare the unfairness of it all to a world that has so many problems of its own.

But, it wouldn’t change anything. So I kept that all inside, puttered a little with things, opened small drawers containing bolts and screws and gadgets, wondering at some things — like what does one do with a whole bag of springs — and finally settled again.

Jim was still working on building his workshop when pancreatic cancer took his life. He hadn’t finished trimming out windows, or mounting shelves to store wood. It was a work in progress. A true labor of love.

It still feels like unfinished business to me, because I was aware of his hopes and dreams for his time in his workshop during his retirement. He had grand plans, and encouraged me to learn more woodworking skills too.

He had wanted to do woodworking with me.

He and I had done some projects together. He would make simple furniture and I would finish it with sanding and stains. But he was in command of the projects and the place.

Jim was making an entertainment center for my parents when he died. My Dad took over the project after Jim’s death.

And I know Jim would have loved working with his son-in-law in his workshop, passing on the things he had learned, and learning some things from Daryl too. He would want his workshop to be used.

I think I eventually will take comfort here, hanging out in the epicenter of Jim’s hobby. It will just take time. I’ve had more time to come to terms with Jim’s belongings in the house, although I have yet to tackle his closet in the bedroom. Many of the things in the house were shared anyway, and we have grown accustomed to each other in our new world.

But I haven’t figured out where I fit in this other place, which was so much a sanctuary for Jim and really was his alone. He knew the purpose of everything stored here, and where he had put it and why — even how he had come by it.

I hope someday I don’t feel like I’m intruding on Jim’s space, and that I will be able to sit alone in his silence and feel only peace.






Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.