It’s dredging up a profound sense of loss I thought I’d already worked through.
This story was originally published in The Wind Phone on Medium.
The text pinged my phone, “Unboxed all the Christmas. I know it’s hard to see but is there anything you’d want to set aside? A lot of it’s junk, tbh.”
The word junk landed like a punch to my gut.
“How can she call it junk?!” I fumed at my brother, who has been living with my husband and me since Dad passed away seven months ago.
“It’s Mom’s Christmas decorations, it’s not junk!” I raged, as I looked at the picture accompanying the text. A blue plaid comforter — the one that was on Dad’s bed when he died — laid out on the garage floor, and covered with so many Christmas items only slivers of the blue fabric peek through.
The text was from my twin sister. She has taken on the momentous task of going through Mom and Dad’s home, and everything in it, so the house can be sold.
Mom and Dad lived there for fifty years. The influence of their depression-era upbringing is evident in all the belongings they never got rid of. Things my sister is now wading through, trying to decide what to keep, what to sell, what to donate, and what to discard.
I’m grateful she’s doing it.
I don’t think I could.
In fact, I know I couldn’t.
That’s when I realize I’m not actually mad at my sister, or at what she’s doing.
I’m angry about what it’s doing to me.
Seeing Mom and Dad’s possessions — especially ones that evoke sentimental feelings, like Christmas decorations — strewn across the garage floor instead of safely tucked away in the attic until next Christmas, reminds me of all that’s gone, or soon will be.
The mom I’ve always known, as she slowly slips behind the veil of dementia.
My childhood home.
The gathering place for our entire extended family after my siblings and I grew up, moved out, got married, and built families of our own.
The house has been sitting empty for nearly two years. Well, empty of Mom and Dad. But not empty of memories and mementos of their life together. Of our family’s life there.
I grew up in that house, from age eight to nineteen. It was where I was living when I met my husband. It’s where I planned our nuptials and made my wedding dress using Mom’s sewing machine. It’s where we celebrated birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
I’m not ready to say goodbye to all of that.
I don’t want to forget.
And I’m afraid once it’s all gone, that’s exactly what will happen.
After living less than a ten-minute drive from my parents my entire adult life, in 2018 my husband and I made the decision to retire early and move across the country. We’d always wanted to live in the mountains. Our kids were grown and gone. We’d called the same city home our entire lives. We were ready for a new adventure.
I knew when I left that Mom and Dad were on the downhill slope of their lives.
I reasoned with the doubts I had about leaving. I would only be a day away by plane. My brother offered to fly me home anytime, thanks to the ridiculous amount of air miles he’d accumulated from years of cross-country business travel.
And, Mom and Dad gave me their blessing.
A year after we moved, Dad fell and broke his hip. I was on a flight to San Diego that afternoon. I spent a month there, living with Mom while Dad was in the hospital and rehab.
When I returned home to North Carolina, I realized that month was a gift. A gift compliments of the fact I no longer lived there.
Had I still been living in San Diego, I would have visited Dad in the hospital and rehab. I would have stopped in to check on Mom periodically.
But I would not have set aside my entire life to spend a month with them. I would not have moved in with Mom and slept in my childhood bedroom. I would not have had breakfast and dinner with her every day, at the same kitchen table she shared with Dad for so many years. I would not have walked the neighborhood each morning, resurrecting memories from the years I spent there as a kid.
The month I spent living with Mom in my childhood home is a memory I cling to. It’s a memory that only exists because I chose to move away.
I forged a closer relationship with both of my parents during that stay.
Over the course of those four weeks, Mom began referring to me as her angel.
“See her angel wings,” she joked with a neighbor one afternoon, as she pointed toward my back. The three of us laughed. She was kidding of course. But I recognized the seed of truth buried in her jest. Not one to overtly show her emotions, the kidding was her way of expressing how much she appreciated me being there. She was capable of taking care of herself back then, it was the company she appreciated.
I appreciated it, too.
I got to know her better during that stay. In ways that I never could have, had I remained in San Diego. Because while I would have seen her more frequently, it would have been in smaller pieces. A few hours here. A birthday or holiday celebration there. Sure, that would have been nice, too. But all those occasions would have been crowded with other people.
The four weeks I spent living with Mom were intimate. It was just the two of us.
Sitting with Dad at rehab — all day, every day — was intimate, too.
I saw sides of Mom and Dad I had never seen before. I added a new dimension to my relationship with my parents.
As I sit here now, across the country, on the receiving end of another text from my sister as she liquidates Mom and Dad’s house, I recognize the root of my anger.
It feels like she’s erasing Mom, Dad, and our family’s life in that house.
My head knows that’s not what she’s doing. But my heart is less rational.
It’s dredging up all the feelings of loss I thought I’d already dealt with.
The loss of Dad.
The loss of the Mom I spent all that time with three years ago.
The loss of the house I grew up in.
The loss of the place I forged a closer relationship with my aging parents.
I realize I’m not done grieving, and probably won’t be for a long time.
My logical mind takes me back to my Hospice volunteer training, and the knowledge that the grieving process is not linear, it’s circular. Even though there are five stages — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance — you don’t move through them in order, checking off each stage as you move on to the next. You cycle through them, sometimes over and over.
My heart tells me I’m back at Anger.
I’ve been here before, right after Dad died.
My head tells me that like last time, I will get past these feelings. And eventually, I will move on to Acceptance.
My heart reminds me I’m not there yet.
I tell myself, it’s okay.
With grief, it’s important to meet people where they are.
So I try to extend that same grace to myself.