We spend our lives amassing things. From the time we’re born, people bring us “stuff.” Rattles and onesies, teddy bears and tub toys, shoes we can’t even walk with yet and savings bonds for our future. As we grow older, our stuff expands to include books and knick knacks, framed photos and candles, pillows and magazines, cars and tech devices.
As the late comedian George Carlin said in his brilliant piece on “stuff,” “That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff…Your house is a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”
Marie Kondo has created a worldwide phenomenon out of stuff: assessing it, caressing it, thanking it, then sending it out to pasture if it doesn’t spark joy.
A few days ago, as I pulled out of my driveway to go to work on a Friday morning, I saw tables set up in front of my neighbor’s house. Cars were lining the streets and people were covering her lawn picking through “stuff” all over tables and tarps, the front porch and sidewalk. My neighbor—a close friend—passed away a couple of weeks earlier and her friend was cleaning the house of all of her earthly possessions.
My eyes filled with tears as my car rolled closer and I saw her dining room table in the driveway. A month earlier, before I even knew she was ill, we spent Thanksgiving gathered around that table, toasting the hostess and filling our hearts and bellies with love. The plates and glasses, serving trays and coasters, silverware and serving pieces—they were all there on the front lawn, strangers picking through them like a hawk on a carcass. And there was the roasting pan that was the home for every holiday turkey she ever made us. Now with a $3 price sticker on its lid.
I pulled the car over, got out and walked toward the goods. I refused to make eye contact with the roasting pan or table. I couldn’t. The memories were still too fresh. I stepped backwards and leaned on the sofa that once held the entire cul-de-sac for neighborhood watch meetings. Her stuff. Her world. Here on the lawn. She’s gone. And here’s all her stuff that she once held so dear, being sold to people who didn’t even know her name.
When my mom died, I took only a few things from her house, including a couple of her shirts that reminded me of her, my parents’ bride and groom wedding cake topper, a small silver box and a yellow hat my mom wore every winter. She got rid of most of her possessions a couple of years before she passed away—before she even knew she would be passing away. “If you want it, put a note on it,” she’d say. “Or it’s gone.”
Clean like you are dying. That was my mom’s motto.
When a person dies, it’s the stuff that’s left behind that’s so difficult for us to part with. Parents who have lost children, keep rooms as shrines, never to be touched—never to be disturbed. Books line shelves, stuffed animals sit on beds, hair clips and brushes are left where they were last placed by the deceased. Strands of hair intertwined in the bristles, containing DNA from their loved one. A sign of life where life no longer exists. The stuff is our touchstone. Getting rid of it entails a separate and equally painful grieving process.
A funeral for our stuff.
On my last pass through my parents’ house, I was forced to discard most of my childhood memories. Shipping them from Michigan to California would be costly, and there simply wasn’t any room for them in my house. So there they went, into Hefty bags—my Crissy doll and Barbies, my pig collection and ads I wrote from my first job. And my childhood mattress. All were pulled out to the curb for the garbage men to take away the following day.
I never thought I’d mourn a mattress, but pulling away from the house, I sobbed so hard as I saw the black and red plaid upholstery, stained from so many years of use, propped up against bags and bins. I pictured my mother sitting on the edge of that bed kissing me goodnight. And my father laying in bed with me telling me one of his fabulous bedtime stories that always began with “Once upon a time…”, always contained at least a couple of “Lo and beholds!” and finished with a “And they lived happily ever after.”
Stuff is filled with the souls of the people who touched it. There’s no doubt about that. What we need to learn is that letting go of things, doesn’t have to mean letting go of the memory of the person who possessed them.
This essay originally published at MariaShriver.com.
Days before my mother left this spiritual plane, she began seeing people surrounding us. She started talking to people in the room the rest of us couldn’t see. One day, as I approached her and heard her talking, I asked who she was talking to. This is what she said.
MY MOM: Did someone just come in?
MY SISTER & ME: Why, what do you see?
MOM: The same man who was here earlier. In the suit coat. He looks like a doctor. He’s holding a piece of paper.
US: Is he talking to you?
MOM: No. He’s looking around, just looking around.
On Day 11 of my mom’s 14 Day journey, she saw two men standing at the foot of her bed. They were standing together, not saying anything to her. They just stood there “inspecting” the situation.
I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife or Heaven. Prior to this I had a single experience in college with a “spirit” that spooked me for many years to follow. But as I grew older, I became more skeptical. So did my mom. She wasn’t necessarily a religious person, or a believer in ghosts or spirits. So when she started having conversations with “people,” I listened. And listened carefully. I believe that what she saw was real. And I believe that someone came down to escort her to her new world, with her official passport to Heaven in hand.
It isn’t unusual for dying people to interact with others in their final days. Most often it’s someone they know; sometimes – as was the case with my mom – it was a stranger. Sometimes the interaction is joyful, sometimes quizzical. But to the person dying, who and what they’re seeing is very real.
My mom saw the same man twice that day. At one point he was there with someone else; the next time he was there alone. But it was the same person. Same description. She didn’t seem to be hallucinating. She truly believed she was seeing someone. Maybe it’s not until our bodies start failing that we can truly see the other side. Maybe once our body is half in this world and half in another – and we’re weakened from illness – we allow the spirits in. Perhaps we’re too firmly planted on this plane in our current life to interact with anyone else. Like a video game, we’re not able to advance until we’ve performed a certain amount of tasks on this Earth.
I tried to get my mom on camera talking about these people. But every time I’d start the video, she would stop talking. Maybe this information isn’t intended to be documented. Maybe the dying aren’t suppose to tell us or we’re not supposed to know. In which case, I probably heard enough. The man. The clipboard. His buddy. The foot of the bed. What more was there for me to to be privy to? The part that was intriguing was that my mom said, “He’s just looking around.” Did he see me sitting there? Or did he only see my mom? Maybe the spirits could only see the dying. The clipboard probably contained my mom’s information. Maybe height, weight, a photo of some sort. Stats and “accomplishments” on Earth. Maybe this gentleman was there to gather this information; a greeter sent down to assess the situation. Perhaps he – like an insurance adjustor – just came down to check out the scene. The business at hand. He came down to see if she was truly ready to go. Then he went back “up there” – or wherever he was from – to meet with the angel bosses who would then send her official escort down a couple of days later.
I wondered who my mom’s escort would be. Would it be my grandmother? Would it be a stranger? Maybe they would send my mom’s sibling who died shortly after birth. Maybe it would be the “handsome gentleman” my mom had been talking about – the short one who made her smile.
One thing I knew for sure, someone was in the room with us. This wasn’t a hallucination. She saw these gentlemen with her heart. That was enough to convince me that, indeed, they were there.
My mom traveled in and out of sleep the rest of the afternoon. More relatives came and left. More food was served. The hospice worker arrived early in the evening to clean her up for bed. Carla, the nurse, took out my mom’s dentures and soaked them in a cup full of blue mouthwash that was sitting on the coffee table. She changed my mom’s diaper, slipped a clean pad underneath her hips, placed the oxygen hose back into my mom’s nostrils and kissed my mom on the forehead telling her she’d see her the following night. My mom told Carla to take some cookies home for her daughter. Carla thanked her, packed a Christmas-themed tin full of nut rolls and peanut butter balls, then left for the evening.
Mentally, my mom was still present, but I could see that things were starting to shift. She was sleeping more, communicating less and starting to wander off in her thoughts. She’d rally for awhile, but then her mind was transported to another place in time. It was as if she had one foot in the present, in her family room, and the other in the future, running through a green meadow, with our former family dog, Buffy, at her side.
Up until that point, her exit had been textbook. I knew that within a day, our communication would cease. It’s a very strange concept to know that within 24 hours you’ll never hear this person speak again. While I still had her there, and she was still somewhat able to comprehend, I flipped through my mental Rolodex to think if there were any last-minute outstanding issues that needed to be discussed, words left unsaid, apologies that needed to be made. Yes. There was one. The Skyhawk Incident.
Whether or not I should go there was the dilemma I faced that evening. For 33 years, my mom believed that “A goddamned woman at the golf course” had hit her beloved Buick Skyhawk. I never had the heart to tell her that I was the one who put the three-panel gouge in the passenger side of the car during an afternoon of fun, sun and boys with my girlfriends.
And tonight, as I readied myself for my confession, my mom looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to disrupt the loving moments we had shared over the past few days with an admission of wrongdoing. But I felt an overwhelming need to repent and apologize for my teenage transgression.
As I held her hand, I prefaced the admission by telling her how much I loved her. I’m sure she could feel my pounding heart through my fingertips. What seemed like an hour of silence passed before I finally got up the nerve to say, “Remember that time the Skyhawk got smashed?”
She interrupted my confession, by looking lovingly into my eyes. She brushed my bangs off my forehead, and let her hand linger on my cheek. “You’re such a good girl. You’ve always been such a good girl,” she said, as a tear made its way down my face, settling in the corner of my mouth.
I took a deep breath and said, “That goddamned woman at the golf course.”
She nodded her head and we left it at that.
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