Reality Check – I Just Can’t

Mom in her room in my house

In the three years before my mom died, I moved her three times, once into my house, once into assisted living and finally, into a nursing home for the last seven months of her life. I never thought that could happen. Each move was intense as I had to keep paring down all her possessions while trying to keep her as comfortable, secure and content as possible. She couldn’t quite grasp what the challenge was for me. My mom’s transitions were taking place in the middle of Michael’s cancer. I thought I’d go mad trying to balance everything. After my experience with her, I became obsessed with not wanting to put my kids through anything similar. So I started planning how I might make their lives easier than mine by tackling the downsizing of my possessions while I was still fit and able. However, I’ve learned that some goals are harder to achieve than we think.

The top half of the closet

I can’t remember how long my mom hung on to my dad’s clothes after he died. She used to talk about how handsome he looked in his suits. During their lean economic times, dad wore the same jacket and slacks to work every day. When their financial life improved, they used to to go a very stylish men’s shop in the neighborhood, Saper’s, where dad would get fitted for winter suits and summer suits. Tailoring was done right there in the store where a personal stylist helped select color-coordinated shirts and ties. Dad’s part of the closet was like a beautiful artist’s palette, the suits lined up in dark blues, grays and tan clusters, punctuated by pastel peach, yellow, robin’s egg blue and lilac shirts with starched collars and multi-striped ties draped over the hangers. I don’t know if mom just needed them to be there or if she periodically took them out, smelled them, or wrapped herself up in them, the way sad partners do when they miss the touch of their people. After some years passed she was finally able to let them go. I remember thinking that I couldn’t understand how a closet full of clothes provided her such solace. I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever feel that way. Of course that was at a time when I was positive I’d be gone long before Michael, based on our family histories. The best laid plans…

My mourning quilt. Family photos are silkscreened onto the material.

Within a week of his death in late May 2017, I scooped up almost all of Michael’s clothes and donated them to a local charity. I had my kids choose a few items for themselves, something that reminded them most of their dad, while I kept some comfortable T-shirts for myself to snuggle in when times got rough. The truth is, Michael left me a mourning quilt assembled from pieces of his clothing. He had it made over three and a half years earlier, shortly after we received his unexpectedly dire prognosis, a year and a half after we’d hoped he’d been cured. I had no idea the quilt existed. Having received this surprise right after he died made eliminating his wardrobe significantly easier for me than it might’ve been otherwise – mom only had three months to ponder dad’s absence before he was gone, while Michael and I had five years to struggle with the concepts of death and absence.

In any event, I knew Michael wasn’t his clothes and I didn’t much care what he wore. His half of our closet remains empty except for some ties which I keep thinking I might turn into an art project, and a couple of matching jackets with our names and the logo of his business embroidered on them, vestiges of his music store days. They fall into the “I just can’t” category. No one was as surprised as me to discover that I would have a that’s-off-limits attitude when the time came to get rid of “stuff.” I thought I had all the materialist business sorted out long ago. For years I’d been thinking about how I’d manage dealing with the accumulations of things that were part of building a life, especially one with the same person with whom I occupied the same living space for decades. The additional internal pressure I felt about not wanting to saddle my kids with the detritus of our lives while they grieve is big for me. And yet, during the past six years, I’ve surprised myself with the absolutely irrational thought processes which have informed my decisions on what stays and what goes. After I emptied the clothes closet, I turned my attention to all of the shelves Michael had built to house his burgeoning collections. I pared down the spice racks in the kitchen. Between the two of them I now have eight empty shelves. I was never the adventurous, ambitious cook that Michael was – who needed all those random bottles? However, I found myself unable to part with a couple of his own concoctions for his favorite recipes, simply because I couldn’t stand tossing away anything he’d created for himself. Logical? Not exactly. So there they sit, all these years later.

Michael’s spice creations.

We shared a study. The drawers in his desk are empty. I placed photos on the shelves which once housed school books and all his lesson plans, along with piles of resource materials for his classes. One tall oak unit with adjustable shelf heights is now virtually empty. I don’t spend much time in that room so its somewhat hollow feeling isn’t a big factor in my daily life. In any case, those empty spaces remind me that I have been able to get rid of some things.

Thankfully, I convinced Michael to unload his massive vinyl and CD’s collection, acquired over 27 years of owning that music store, before he died. The room where that was housed, with floor to ceiling shelves, is frozen in time. A few months after he sold everything, including almost all the racks, he got really sick. That room became our hospice space, with a hospital bed and a recliner for me. After Michael died, I used the room as a sorting station for the hundreds of posters and miscellaneous music items he left behind. One side of the room still has a full shelving unit of books and memorabilia. The other side has one mostly empty remaining unit and a big blank wall. I got stuck in that room, out of energy for figuring out what’s next for the space. Ideas are still spinning, though. Maybe one day I’ll implement one of them.

The one remaining CD rack.
The completely barren cassette rack mounted in the upstairs back hallway.

Of course this dilemma I’m in is not simple. The half-emptied spaces in my house are a little weird but not weird enough to put the brakes on purging more stuff. The real obstacle is that lots of what I unearth as I make my way through my house, not only holds my interest, but also stimulates both my memory and my wistful sentimentality. Reason and practicality are quickly relegated to the background as I indulge myself in all the feelings stirred up by each object, most of which I’m sure won’t hold much allure for my family. Maybe. For example, how can I part with the shelves of Grateful Dead CD’s, lovingly accumulated by Michael the Deadhead, basically laying out a timeline of all the concerts he attended over so many years? Throw away history? Not me.

Grateful Dead CD’s.

I still haven’t been able to unload a single bottle of his hot sauce collection, still lined up on the unit he built just for them. Their names still make me laugh – Spontaneous Combustion and Evaporate Your Eyebrows, for example. Michael was no more these bottles than he was his clothes but I just can’t dump them. My attempt to feel less wacky about them has been to add some photos to the shelves which proves I’m not preoccupied with the sauces. Right?

Hot sauce.

I’ve found comic books stashed in unexpected places, after I thought I’d dispersed all of them. Are they worth anything? Who knows? I find the idea of exploring that route exhausting. So back on the rack they go, right next to all the DVD’s of old television shows that I didn’t know we had. I’ve told myself that Michael probably used some of them in the film and history class he taught, but maybe he just needed to have them because he loved them. Whatever the case might have been, for now they’re also in the I just can’t pile.

So many Sherlock Holmes episodes.

Of course it’s not all about Michael. After my mom died, I found envelopes with my dad’s handwriting on them which were filled with old postage stamps. Evidently there was a time during his retirement when he decided to have a hobby, unusual for a guy who spent most of his waking hours studying the stock market. I bought some stamp collector storage books and neatly filed them away. So of course I have those. Then I found a bunch of old slides from my mom’s family and from my life in the early ‘70’s. At some point I got an old school handheld slide projector and then promptly stashed everything in a drawer. I found those items in my current digging and sorting activity. I’m keeping them for a future project. So many future projects.

Dad’s stamps.
More stamps.
Handheld slide projector
Old slide
Old slide
Old slide.

The I just can’t pile is getting hefty. Beatles books and Beatles singles collections. Autographs and Michael’s meticulous music compilations, all in chronological order. A missed box of unopened cassette tapes. A couple of storage tubs filled with cards and letters stashed for the past fifty-five years, the length of time since I left home at age seventeen. I even have two ceramic sculptures that I made when I was twelve.

Beatles singles collection
Michael got this Taj Mahal autograph for me.
One of the boxes of cards and letters, opened.
My sculptures made when I was 12.

The walls of my house are crammed with photos, posters and art. Even after giving each of my kids part of Michael’s button collection, I still have two full displays. I love all this stuff and yet, am relatively certain no one will want any of it after I’m gone. What a quandary.

I still have tubs of my son’s things piled up in his old room and in closets, which I’m hoping to have him remove from my space. Their disappearance might help me feel like I’m making progress toward my goal. While he’s living like a minimalist, my house is his storage unit. I actually find that somewhat entertaining.

My son’s stuff
And more of my son’s things.

That goal of mine keeps getting deferred as I dither around confronting the fact that my intellectual plans don’t necessarily coincide with my emotional needs. Recently I decided that in order to stay sane, I’d have to forgive myself for my internal conflict. I’m just going to do my best which will likely be imperfect in one way or another. Sometimes you just can’t let it all go, despite your best intentions. And that’s the way it is.

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