I have many “things.” We’re talking two rooms of the house are filled floor to ceiling with boxes filled with things. I have been trying to go through some of those boxes to get rid of what is no longer necessary in my life. Most of those things are not necessary at all, but very many of them still give me pleasure–when I get around to looking at them.
Before my diagnosis with cancer I had to clear a pathway to the windows in both of my storage rooms so that someone could open and shut the windows while painting their frames from the outside. I moved more than twenty boxes into the hallway to make way. The painters never did get to me in 2011. In fact, they did not get to painting my windows until fall of 2012. I have been walking past those boxes for all of these months.
There were times when I considered dragging them back into storage, but never did. I was told not to overdo it after surgery. I was too weak and tired during chemotherapy and radiation. I was in pain after radiation. I was too tired to care about the task or too busy with work or overwhelmed with life events.
In December I bought four bookcases because some of the boxes contained books. The unassembled bookcases from IKEA joined the boxes in the hallway. From time to time I sat down to watch TV and went through boxes discarding old papers. I rarely watch the TV any longer. It is something I turn on in the background while I read students’ papers or work on projects. As a result, it got to the point where new boxes joined the original boxes. Most of the new additions related to my recovery. There were special cushions I bought when the radiation burns around my hips made it painful to sit down. Even now when I am told I am cancer-free I am reluctant to toss them out. There’s a cane I bought when my joints hurt so bad that I feared I might fall. I never used it. I couldn’t even figure out how to adjust it to my height when I needed it. There were boxes filled of get well cards. My friend Roberta sent me a card every few days for months. I bought many books on dealing with cancer. They joined the towering evidence of my inability to clean house.
This month all of that changed. I assembled the bookshelves and they now line one wall of my office/dining room. There was plenty of room for the books. There are no more boxes in the hallway. I have thrown out mountains of old papers, even parting with things that evoked strong memories. I did not throw out everything. If that happens, it will be a sign that I have accepted my mortality can no longer be held at bay.
Some people have a bucket list. There are places they want to go and things they want to do before they die. My friend Roberta took her sister to the Grand Canyon before her sister died. I understand that the trip did what it was supposed to do. Roberta’s sister was at peace. I am not the type to jump from an airplane or climb a peak.
My dad had a shopping list. He always said that he would live as long as he had a shopping list. We never thought the list would end because he wanted the best he could find: the best belt, the best coat, the best umbrella. My dad loved to say that it only cost a little more to go first class. My dad died within 48 hours of being diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. When he was gone we found lots of reminders of his affinity for lists. He had written inside of every closet how much paint and time it took to paint the room. We found a list of his favorite jokes that he would tell at parties. He used his own code for some of them, but we knew every one of those jokes by heart. In his calendar he had written, “Iron suits,” for every Saturday for the rest of the year. We found index cards and notebooks in which he had written his own clothing sizes (as if one walks around shopping and cannot recall one’s own sizes). We never found a single shopping list. I think he should have warned us when he finished it. As I saved a few of my dad’s old lists, I could not help but think of what might have happened if my dad had gone to the hospital that last time with a shopping list in his wallet. Might he have survived?
The decision to clean house must be a sign that I am getting older. It seems like my mom started to obsess about such things in her fifties, too. It has become a familiar refrain that she asks us when we three kids would like to come over and help her empty her house. We usually do what she asks of us, but I have noticed that none of us are working on this task. Maybe we are behaving superstitiously.
As I went through my boxes I was reminded of many happy times. I found the birthday card my Aunt Arlene sent me in which the recipient was referred to as “buzzard breath.” I laughed over that card before I finally parted with it. For many years my aunt has sent me insulting birthday cards and I have usually returned the favor. Today is her birthday. I sent her a card with a picture of the mighty redwoods in California. It said that they were reminders of someone’s long ago efforts to cover the earth with majestic trees–and thanked her for having done it. It will probably be the last time I do this. I tried to call her today to wish her a happy birthday, but she never quite figured out who I was and I never quite got around to the birthday wishes. She will not long be with us and I cried when the call was done. I am not sure what she might have left to accomplish here on earth, but I am glad that my mom made it out to see her sister this week and will get to see her again tomorrow because the happiest memories are not cards. They are time spent with people we have loved.
I found a folder of compliments from people with whom I worked in the long ago past. When I first started work as an attorney I often struggled to figure out what people wanted of me. I sometimes worked with people who challenged me not only to be my intellectual best but to exercise my emotional intelligence. I used to need that folder to keep me motivated when it seemed that I was not quite mastering the lessons someone was trying to teach me. I no longer need someone else to do that, but I smiled as I recalled some of the people who wrote those compliments. I tried to throw the memos out, but in the end I saved them again because I might want to look at them again and recall how I learned to be a lawyer.
I even found a folder containing some old love letters from my ex-husband. I usually tell people who ask me for relationship advice that I have not got the slightest idea how to make things work. I point to my track record as proof of the truth. But I was reminded that there was a time very long ago when I thought I knew my heart and his. I might have known my own, but I might not have known his. Reading those cards and letters again reminded me of what might have been.
The thing about my boxes of stuff is that they do more than collect dust. They periodically remind me that life is a journey to be treasured. It tests me sorely at times, but it enriches me as well. It is a record of what was and what might have been. Sometimes those dust “mights” are what I need to keep going.