Thursday, October 30, 2008

Treasured Possessions

Ever hear the old expression, “If you haven’t used it in more than a year, you probably don't need it”?

Really? Could that possibly be true?

Last week I began the daunting task of preparing for a tag sale. The Ultimate, Clean-it-Out, Clear-it-Out, Throw-it-Out Extravaganza. If I hadn’t used it in a year, I probably didn’t need it, right? This would be easy! Oh, the glorious space I envisioned I’d have in my walk-in storage closet!

I began my clean-up by standing in the closet, hands on hips, staring up at three tall stacks of plastic totes—each stack, four totes high. Did we really have this much stuff? I walked out and closed the door. Ah, maybe I’ll begin in my own bedroom walk-in closet. Start small, right?

I walked back upstairs and into the bedroom. Everything that could quite possibly make the “tag sale pile” was three feet over my head and the closet floor wasn’t exactly in viewable condition. Ok…solution! I placed a step-stool on what looked like the closet floor, and for an hour, precariously balanced myself atop the mound of shoes that threatened their escape from the depths of the abyss. An hour later, jubilant and smug with progress, I had myself a small pile of saleable items. A few old belts, a few pairs of jeans, a few blankets, a few handbags. That was easy!

With my enthusiasm for the Ultimate Clean-Out renewed, I felt ready to tackle those menacing totes! But first, I actually needed to haul them down from the leaning tower they’d morphed into. Hmmm…where to rent a crane? Ah, even better, I thought…I now have a husband! Better than what any heavy-equipment-rental-facility could offer me. And free, too!

After much cajoling and quite a few expletives, my husband released the totes from their uncomfortable positions. I could almost hear their lids sigh with relief. Kinda like morning commuters do when they finally reach their subway stop.

As I opened the first tote bin, ready to dig in and throw out, something took hold of me.

There I sat, thumbing through old pictures: me with huge 80s hair (God bless that decade); me at my college graduation—everyone else in beautiful dresses and high heels—with cut off shorts and black converse sneakers (God bless the 90s grunge era); and me with my platinum blond hair with two long jet black streaks running through it (God forgive me for that one!).

The pictures…I’ll always keep. Photographic representations of what life was like during those times. But it wasn’t the pictures that struck my sentimentality chord.

It was the personal mementos that I’ve held close year after year. Ten totes worth.

Sure, I made piles of things to throw away. I mean, who needs old pencils, melted candles, and tape with pushpins and thumbtacks sticking to the dispensers. I even made a recyclable pile (gotta be green!).

But when it came to assembling a pile of things to sell…well, I was stumped. The phrase kept running through my head, like a bad 80s song (God bless that decade, again), “If you haven’t used it in more than a year, you probably don't need it.” Well, what defines need?

Some of these items had been carefully placed in these totes not because I necessarily needed them, but because I wanted them. So what if I hadn’t “used” them in a year. They were part of my past, a glimpse into my history, and I “use” them when I need a reminder of a past I’ll never relive again.

As Oscar Wilde stated, “No man is rich enough to buy back his past." So true. I think we hold on to items from our past—treasured possessions as I like to call them—as a means to hold on to the past itself. It's surprising how many memories are built around the things that go completely unnoticed at the time. And perhaps these possessions aren’t necessarily what we deem so important, but rather the memories each item invokes. For these memories are a way of holding onto the things we love, the things we are, and the things we never want to lose.

What are some of the items I couldn’t seem to part with?:

The SCRUM Sweatshirt:
My brother once handed down a sweatshirt that he’d accidently brought home from a college rugby game. The opposing team was from North Adams State, and the sweatshirt stated that in clear, bold yellow letters across the front. Across the back was the term “Scrum of the Earth”. When my brother gave me this sweatshirt, it was a beautiful, dark navy…crisp and new. What a steal…literally.

I found this sweatshirt in the closet. It is no longer an appealing navy color. More like the color of the clay that masons use on school buildings. Those bold yellow letters? Gone. The front reads NO…SE. Nose? Huh. You can still read the SCRUM on the back, but the rugby ball that used to be replicated now looks like a half moon…or maybe a piece of cheese. And there are more holes in that piece of clothing than the aforementioned cheese. I guess it didn’t help that my former track teammate once ran over this sweatshirt with his sprinting spikes!

Why does this piece of material (can I even call it a sweatshirt now?) mean so much? I’m not sure. Rugby doesn’t mean anything to me. Neither does North Adams State. The word SCRUM is pretty funny. But that’s not why I’ve hung on to this sweatshirt for almost twenty years.

It’s my brother that means something to me.

We haven’t always been close. Haven’t always known the ins-and-outs of each other’s lives. But wearing that sweatshirt somehow brought me closer to him during those years. Whenever I wore that sweatshirt people would say, “Wow! That’s seen a few miles” or “Where on Earth did you get that?” Each time a comment was made about my sweatshirt, I was able to talk about its history…and with that, my brother. Over the years, as the sweatshirt broke down and became threadbare, my relationship with my brother actually became stronger. And that’s something I’m not willing to part with.

My Concert Stubs:
Music has always been of utmost importance to me.

Guess it all started with me being the first owner on my block of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. From that point on, I’ve always been avid seeker of new music and new varieties of artists. Music is an outlet for me, and as cliché as it sounds, an important manner in which to express myself.

Along the way, I was able to find a friend who appreciates my taste in music…and my sense of humor. She and I have probably been to well over 50 shows together and even began our friendship with a fake I.D. and a fervor for a certain cover band or two.

I found most of my concert stubs held together with an old hair elastic. I hadn’t arranged them neatly in a scrapbook or even stored them in a memory box. They were held together just the way they should be…with a make-do approach and a no-care-in-the-world technique. It reminded me of our attitudes back then.

The concerts and shows we saw back then? Indescribable. But saving these little paper stubs meant more than the actual music. Each one held a hilarious story or an inside exchange amongst two friends. Stories of laughter and the building of a lifelong friendship. There are several other trinkets from this period (the Aloha Mr. Hand T-shirt, the AG hat, and the KH poster stolen like a sleuth), and I’ve saved those, too. But none compare to the tickets that allowed me entry into a priceless time of my life.

After a full week of immersing myself in the Ultimate Clean-Out process, I realized that the leaning tower was going to become a fixture in my life. These totes? They’re not going anywhere…no matter where my life takes me. I hope when I’m gone, people might say, “Boy, she sure had a lot of stuff…but, boy, she sure lived.”

As Irwin Shaw once said, “There are too many books I haven’t read, too many places I haven’t seen, too many memories I haven’t kept long enough.”

And, and damn it, I’m keeping mine. Even if I haven’t “used” them in a year…

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Scarf...

When my mother found out that her cancer had returned, and that she would have to endure endless rounds of toxic chemotherapy, she was overcome with dread.

She didn't dread the inevitable nausea and the complete exhaustion. She didn't dread the needles piercing her skin. And she didn't even dread the daily trips to the hospital that she would have to make for weeks on end. She took all of that in stride—it was her burden to bear. The price to pay for a glimmer of hope.

What my mother did dread was losing her hair.

I remember seeing tears in her eyes when she told me that this new form of chemo would not only cause her to lose her hair on her head, but her eyebrows, too. Everything...rapidly.

I immediately suggested that she look into purchasing a wig, no matter what the cost. I also proposed that she shave off all of her hair before she started to lose it in large clumps. My mother agreed. In a sense, this was her way of taking control.

A few days before my mother took an electric razor to her head, she visited a boutique that specialized in providing wigs for those battling cancer. My mother brought her best friend, and together they found the perfect match.

The day after my mom bought her wig, I visited my parents' house. My mother and father had just returned home from a shopping trip, and when my mom walked up the stairs to the living room, she broke out in a radiant smile. I can still remember that smile...

It had been ages since my mother had looked happy...a by-product of this horrible disease.
Her wig was perfect. She looked terrific...and, for once, everything seemed to be "normal". Life was perfect in that moment.

A few months after this "perfect day", the wig stood on a stand on her bureau. There it remained; a constant reminder of how this disease can change a life at a moment's notice.
My mom's health rapidly decreased in the months to follow, and a new headscarf took its place on my mom's head, and in her heart.

Too embarrassed to be seen without anything adorning her bare head, my mom invested in a colorful patchwork fleece scarf. It was a rare moment when she didn't have it on. It was serving a special purpose: to keep her warm, but more importantly, to keep her dignity preserved.

The night before my mother passed away, she was wearing her scarf. As she clung to life in that dreadful hospital room, she was still clinging to her dignity. In the breaking light of morning, after hours of sitting by her side, my brother and I agreed that it was time to remove the scarf. Without it, she was vulnerable and exposed...yet, there seemed to be a beautiful truth to this picture.

In that moment, my mother was real, and true, and human, and she valiantly showed her scars and the effects of cancer to the world. I couldn't think of a more fitting tribute to her dignity.
The morning my mother died, I left the hospital with her scarf in my hand. On the way home, I used it to wipe away my tears. Later, when I lay in my bed, I clutched that scarf in my hand.
It's an amazing fact that certain smells can call to mind powerful memories.
My mother's scarf carried a certain smell...and even without holding it in my hand at this moment...I can pick up the scent. It's almost impossible to explain the particular scent. The scarf doesn't smell like roses, or perfume, or a floral lotion. It smells like the years of a long-fought battle and the struggle that existed for so long. It smells like sleep, and hospitals, and pain. It smells like tears, and fear, and hope. It smells like courage and bravery. It smells just like my mom.

For months, I kept that scarf in bed with me. It then moved to a drawer by my bedside. Now, its permanent home is in my mother's memory box. The other night I opened the box to make sure that the scent was still there.

As I brought the scarf up to my face, my heart pounded with fear that I wouldn't be able to capture the fading smell.

Awash with relief, I realized that it was still there. And while it is fading, I know that the memory of my mother never will.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


A few days after my mom passed away, I went out and bought a beautifully ornate box that I could fill with memories of her. I didn't want to put things away deep within a closet or in a plastic tote that would be stored in my basement. I wanted someting that I could keep within my reach...something I could open when I needed immediate comfort.

This box sits within close reach in my living room, side-by-side with the scrapbook I have put together of my mom's pictures. In the first year that passed after her death, I took comfort in that memory box and scrapbook more than I want to admit. I haven't opened that box in a few months...until last night.

A few months ago I read an article in a magazine about a woman whose father had passed away from cancer. The last passage in that piece struck my soul so deeply that I clipped it out and put it in the memory box. I knew that someday I'd want to explore exactly why these words meant so much to me. Last night after I dusted off the top of that box, I decided to open it and re-read that passage again:

When my father's cancer became terminal and we learned that he'd be going to the hospital for the last time, he insisted that none of his four children travel to be with him.

"I don't want you moping around my deathbead," he said over the phone, mustering a raspy laugh. That was his wish. I didn't care. If he thought I would sit across the country at my work desk while he died, he was crazy.

Once I arrived at the hospital in Michigan, we didn't talk about the fact that I'd come uninvited. Instead, we turned on the TV and watched the Detroit Pistons beat the Chicago Bulls. My dad held my hand and we rooted for three-pointers.

On the plane out to see him, I had imagined there would be dramatic deathbed speeches. I would tell him how much I loved him, and he'd give me advice for living the rest of my life.

Now he just said, "I'm glad you came." That's all I needed to hear.

After reading those last two paragraphs, I sat down on my couch and had a good cry. I had wanted that, too...a long heart-to-heart with my mother, where we'd put to rest all of our unresolved issues. I had wanted to pour my heart out to her and let her know that I was sorry for all the teenage grief I had caused her and for all the biting words a mother and daughter exchange through those formative years. I wanted to tell her how strong I thought she was, having fought valiantly for two years against a disease that took her own father and mother. I wanted to tell her that it was the most unselfish act of kindness to have endured extended lengths of chemotherapy and surgeries to prolong her life for the sake of her kids and grandchildren. I also wanted to thank my mother for all she did for me throughout my life...and most importantly, I wanted to tell her that after she was gone, I would think about her every day for the rest of my life (which I have, faithfully). But mostly, I wanted her to give me advice for living the rest of my life. I longed for a conversation filled with her years of wisdom. I wanted her to tell me how to take care of my father after she was gone. How to keep the family relationships going. How to purchase my first home. How to endure the trials and tribulations of planning a wedding. How to soothe the cries of my first child. All of the answers to these questions still lie with her. Unanswered.

In return, I wanted my mother to tell me that I had turned out ok. That I was a good person who would go on in life to do great things. I wanted her to tell me that I was going to be ok. That my future was bright.

Even if we couldn't have had a conversation, I wanted her to have left me a heartfelt, long letter about all the things she wished for me. In my mind, this would have been something she would have done as she prepared to die.

Mostly, I just wanted her to tell me without a moment's hesitation that she loved me.

But none of this ever happened. There simply wasn't enough time. I honestly think she thought she would have made it out of the hospital just one more time. One more time to tie up loose ends and make life right. It didn't happen.

What I am left with is the memory of me sitting in the hospital the night before she died. I had just been told that my mom had taken a turn for the worse, and I needed to make the call whether to keep her alive or not (we had discussed this as a family, but never in a million years did I think that I would be the person who would actually have to shake my head no when asked if she should be put on life support). I made the calls to my dad and my brother. And as I waited for them to get to the hospital (Dad waiting for Casey to pick him up, and Rob making the 3 hour ride down from Boston), I went back to my mother's room and told the nurses that I need some time with my mother. They were so kind and understanding.

After I closed the door, I looked at my mom in that bed-- so frail, weak, and slowly dying--not able to speak at all...and in a coma. There was no hesitation...I went over, gingerly climbed into bed with her and softly told her everything I needed her to know. How sorry I was that she had been afflicted with this horrible disease, how angry I was that she was being taken away from me, how she didn't need to worry--that Casey and I were going to be happy and that I'd finally found my soulmate, how I'd promise to look after Dad, and how much I'd miss her every day of my life. I can remember sobbing aloud that nothing would be the same without her.

And lastly, I told her how much I loved her. Whether or not she knew I was there or could hear anything I'd said, I wanted her to know that. I didn't get a hand squeeze, like you'd see in the movies...or a clear moment when she was able to tell me she loved me, too. But I did get to tell her.

And maybe that's enough...