I’m sure there are at least two times when your whole life passes before your eyes. One is when you’re dying, and the other has got to be when you’re packing to move. In the latter instance, your life doesn’t pass in a flash; it passes in a slow-motion, never-ending panorama of the things you’ve saved. I’m moving and I am touching everything that is in my house. It is exhausting.
I knew I was going to move when my husband died almost seven years ago. I just didn’t know when, but I decided to start purging about a year after that. His things came first. I gave his suits to a friend of mine who runs a shelter and rehabilitation center for men who get sober and start new lives. They’d go to job interviews in those suits. Bill would have liked that.
After the clothes, I had to confront the paper. Bill saved everything – photos of people we didn’t know, double exposures, duplicates of photos, newspaper articles, programs of shows we’d seen, birthday cards, you name it. I gave special things to his children, like his vinyl records of Irish songs, and a few of his favorite books. I kept a few things for myself that I couldn’t bear to part with; I still wear one of his jackets.
And then, I had to confront my own forest of paper. Bill and I didn’t live most of our lives in the digital age. Our photos weren’t on our phones or computers. They were on paper. We didn’t text happy birthday or anniversary wishes. We didn’t stay in touch on Facebook. We gave each other cards with sweet words written above our signatures. We kept the pieces of paper because they were sent with so much love, and because the person who sent them touched them, and chose them with such care. And we put them away gently.
There is no room for a lot of memorabilia where I am going. It is a small place with practically no storage. And so, before I threw away my precious cards, I read every word. Again. And I let them go. There were no little smiley faces, no emoticons. Only words, real, precious words. And as I let them go, I realized something. I didn’t need the cards to remember him. I remember him more vividly today than ever before. He is here with me, here, now. And always will be. I threw out all but the most important photos of the trips we took together. As if I could forget them, or how it felt to be with him in Egypt, or on a Caribbean Island, or in Guatemala or Spain.
And then, there were the precious mementos of four little children. I sent each of my three daughters a box of the things I’d kept of theirs – little cards they had made for me, their childhood poems, letters from foreign lands. Report cards. I couldn’t throw them away. They are theirs now, and some day they, too, will have to choose what to keep and what to let go. My son Eddie’s things are mine. For now. He is in spirit, and my daughters can have them when I am gone.
I am bone tired every night. I pack every day. I seal boxes and label them until I am dizzy. I put little colored stickers on the boxes indicating the rooms to which they will go. I have given away and thrown away more things than I knew I had. I have replenished the inventory of the Lutheran Mission here in our little town. I have donated half a library to our library. Habitat is coming for a few pieces of furniture next week. I have learned that Sherwin Williams will take back used cans of paint. I make a trip to the recycling center every time I look around. As I touch everything I own, I realize that I haven’t looked at or touched or used most things in a long time. How many books will I read again after reading them the first time? Only a few. Those I have kept. But the sheer volume of what I was holding on to is astonishing. Why have I been keeping so many…things? They’re only things.
I remember asking my mother that same question when I began helping her clean out the old house. Her answer was that she never knew when she might need them. My mother had an excuse; she was a child of the Great Depression. But I have no reason to feel that way. Unless I have little faith that the Universe will provide what I need when I need it.
And there is my homework for the week. To think about that. Really think about it. But right now, I’m just tired. I still have a long way to go.