The rubber band around my bulging address book snapped in two, stinging my hand as I tried to stretch it around the book's girth.
The spine of the old book had separated, ripping apart from the weight of particularly poignant cards and notes from family and friends I had stuck in the back of the book as "keepers." The binding screamed in pain, letting me know that even with the thick rubber band to hold things together, I had overloaded the system.
It simply couldn't stand it anymore and fell apart. By the time I'd finished copying names and information into the new address book, I was falling apart, too.
That's because when the job was done, I realized my new address book was 30 percent lighter than the old one. Death will do that to a 15-year-old data keeper. Creating the new book, I was forced to see how many times I had crossed out a name with a diagonal stroke and written "deceased" on the line with the date of death under it.
I held the crumbling old address book in my hand, and then let it drop into the paper basket. Twenty-seven family and friends were gone, their addresses no longer needed for sending the unexpected note, Christmas gift, birthday card or family announcement. My heart sank.
And so I did what I usually do when things overwhelm me: I went into the kitchen.
Surely a cup of green tea with honey and fresh lemon would settle me down. Maybe an afternoon of cooking from scratch would help.
I decided to start with a small chore I had been meaning to do for days: clean out the breadbox. It was littered with odd remnants of bread, the crusts not eaten, the half loaf of French bread drying out for wont of a meal needing the special touch that only French bread can give, the four slices of hearty oatmeal bread I liked for toast about to show the telltale signs of mold.
I gathered up the bits and pieces, intending to throw them out, wipe out the breadbox and sit down with my cup of tea. With my toe on the kitchen garbage can opener, I stopped. Twenty-Seven deaths. If someone had asked me, I would have said, "Oh, I haven't experienced much death so far. Just elderly relatives who lived into their late 80s and mid-90s. They had full and creative lives."
I would have been wrong. This morning I was reminded that I had lost several friends and even children of friends in the last decade. They weren't old, their lives long-lived with hair gone gray and knees that clicked when they walked. They hadn't had the chance to feel the unexpected joy of a Social Security check automatically deposited the second Wednesday of the month, or the freedom of retirement as the day ends and you know you can do anything you want with your time when the sun comes up. They hadn't lived to be old people who understand who they have become, what they value and how the simple pleasures of life thrill them now.
Suddenly I couldn't think of throwing anything out, particularly not that old stale bread. Without hesitating, I pulled out the mixing bowl and gathered up eggs, milk, cream, butter, cinnamon, sugar, vanilla and pecans. Pulling apart the bread and mixing up the other ingredients, it all went into a buttered soufflé dish with a new life as Bread Pudding.
I knew it wasn't any big thing that I had done. This small act of sweetness to leftovers wouldn't change the facts of life, the lonesomeness I feel when looking at the coldness of death. I knew that the recycled bread-into-pudding wouldn't mean a tick to anyone but me.
And that was fine. When the kitchen began to come alive with the fragrance of cinnamon and good vanilla blending into the cream and eggs, filling up the stale old bunches of assorted breads with the creamy plumpness of pudding, I felt better.
I was reminded once again that it's not the blackness that counts. It's the fire inside that keeps us searching for the good things to do with our lives. That fire is what keeps us warm.
Martha Nelson is an award-winning journalist and a former educator, nonprofit executive, chef, and musician. Her first novel, Black Chokeberry, was published in April 2012 and is available everywhere including her website, blackchokeberrythebook.com.