It’s been 10 months since my mum died, and we’re still struggling to clean out the house. We knew she was a saver, and had joked for years about “Heaven help us when the time comes…” But I don’t think any of us truly comprehended the magnitude of the task — I, for one, figured all 7 of us would pitch in for a couple weeks and just get it done.

So naive.

I kid you not when I say my mother saved virtually everything. From her entire 93-year life. The ridiculous as well as the practical, with very little discrimination about what was important or valuable and what was not. From big pieces of furniture to tiny, unidentifiable doohickeys from some long-broken trinket — in her eyes, it was worth saving. A product of the Depression, she simply did not throw things away.

And don’t get me wrong — the house did not look like an episode of Hoarders. She wasn’t living in chaos or squalor. Things were generally “redd up” (basement and attic notwithstanding). But every possible unvisible nook and cranny in a large, three-story house that could be filled with something was filled with something. And for us, her post-middle-age children, it’s like opening a time capsule of not only our long-forgotten pasts, but of her past, long before any of us came to be.

It’s overwhelming. It’s maddening. It’s bittersweet. It’s caused endless laughter as well as a few tears and frustrations that really only the 7 of us can understand or appreciate.

It makes me wish, on any given day, both that I could just turn the keys over to a clean-up company and say, “Here, make it go away,” and that I had a big empty room at home that I could bring a thousand things to to save, share here on the blog, or possibly eBay away at my leisure. The memorabilia alone is fascinating — pamphlets and cookbooks from the war years; ads from a fancy radio or hi-fi my dad had coveted; the sales receipt from their 1949 stove (still in use in the kitchen), heck, the sales receipt from her flowers for their wedding…so much interesting point-in-time, slice-of-life stuff. Her beautiful hats and suits from another era. Knickknacks and doodads galore. The WWII letters between her and my dad before they were married. The hundreds of cards she received over the years, from all of us as well as from long-ago passed relatives and friends. My grandma’s recipes. My great-aunt Sister Augusta’s wonderful notes to each of us on our birthdays. Stuff from her childhood. Stuff from our childhood. Stuff from 30, 20, 10 years ago. Stuff from last year.

So much stuff.

We;re just not not able to save everything, even some things we’d like to save. I struggle with how much time and attachment to have to all these “things” and with how much of my own life to spend attending to the remnants of someone else’s life. If I didn’t know something even existed, do I really need it now? And what about when I’m gone? — I have no children to pass it on to.

And so we persist. Slowly winnowing the mountain into smaller hills of ever-more-agonizing decisions. Always wanting to do the right thing, but not always knowing what the right thing is, and fighting our growing fatigue and waning ability to be as thoughtful and discerning as we started out to be 10 months ago.

And still, with each item picked up, considered, and too often put right back down, with each thing recognized and recalled, and even with things never seen before, there’s a “mumory” attached. And a realization that she’s gone. And there’s so much you wish she could tell you about and laugh with you about. And so much you know she’d never let you throw away. And you miss her. A lot.


To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.
~ Thomas Campbell

Proof I didn’t need

We recently lost a friend to cancer (or as I like to call it, f***ing cancer) — my fourth such loss in less than a year. She had battled strongly for 7 years, accomplishing so much in that time and never letting repeated surgeries and treatments get the better of her. I admired her tremendously. I liked her even more.

At her lovely and moving memorial service, her son spoke first, telling of his mother’s giving him a book that gave her great comfort and explaining her wish that he read it and share it with everyone at the service so they would understand that she was ready to go and at peace. He explained that butterflies played a role in the book, which was why we were each given a white silk butterfly at the service, but that his mother, a voracious and passionate reader, would want us to read the book for ourselves, so he wouldn’t say more. He went on to read a touching poem from the book, as his mother had requested.

Of course, I bought the book: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.

I have never doubted heaven; never needed proof. Yet still, the book was comforting. The author’s premise was that he — as a man of science, a brain expert no less, a man who had heard (and largely dismissed) his patients’ accounts of near death experiences, attributing them to some random brain activity or another (as you’ve undoubtedly heard, too), a man who had experienced the most unlikely deadly illness and even more unlikely recovery — was in the perfect position to serve as irrefutable proof that heaven exists.

It’s pretty darn convincing.

Even so, and even though I don’t doubt heaven, I was struck by how much of what he recounted parallels what religions teach us. There were loved ones, there seemed to be beings at different levels, there were angels, there was incredible overwhelming peace and love, there was God.

The skeptic in me couldn’t help but wonder if maybe those preconceptions influenced what he experienced?

The believer in me answered that maybe that’s simply exactly how it is.

Whatever heaven turns out to be, my favorite part of the book…the part that made me cry when I read it…was the message he received loud and clear on his journey, though no words were spoken:

You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.

You have nothing to fear.

There is nothing you can do wrong. 

What more could we ask of heaven? What could represent heaven better than that?

That that was the message relayed to him — out of every possible message he could have received — is really all the proof I would need, if in fact I needed any proof at all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Totally unrelated, yet perfectly related, I heard today about another friend who has battled cancer for many years and faces it with amazing resiliency and courage. I wasn’t aware that her cancer had returned at some point, and that it was quite serious, and that she had had complex surgery in December. But I learned, via her post on Facebook, that her latest scans had shown amazing success, and in turn found a link she’d posted  to the blog she’s been keeping for a few months, since right before the surgery. It’s full of her hopes, her fears, and her unwavering faith and sheer belief that God is with her on this journey.

In one of her posts, she talks about a book that others had recommended to her for years, but that she had only just gotten around to reading.

No, not Proof of Heaven, but another book so very, very close: Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.

Of course I bought it. It’s more proof I don’t need, but I’m sure will be so so comforting just the same.

Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile
on boughs too slight, 
feels them give way beneath her,
and yet sings, knowing that she has wings.
~ Victor Hugo

Remembering another November 13

It was one of those days I’ll always remember. And it makes me wonder why so many of “those days” people say are memorable are for something bad that happened…like the day Kennedy was shot, or the day Reagan was shot, or the day the Challenger shuttle exploded, or of course, 9/11. Can’t say I remember many really happy days in that way — my wedding day stands out, but little else. Maybe because I never had a child — do moms & dads remember their kids’ birth days that way? Or is the brain pre-wired to remember trauma more than delight? To feel pain more deeply than joy?

November 13, 2001, is memorable for me because it’s the day my dad died. Unexpectedly, though, thankfully, peacefully in his sleep. I remember everything about that day and the next few. As hard as they were, they answered a question that had troubled me for a long time — what would it be like to lose someone so close to me?

Until you live through it, you can’t know. But once you do, I think there’s a certain peace in that knowing. A “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” kind of peace amid the pain and sorrow. It allows you to understand and feel a kinship with others who have experienced similar losses — you’re all part of the club now. You know what it’s like. You can empathize, rather than simply sympathize.

Of course, I was very lucky to delay that experience until adulthood — how horrible, and how different, for a child to go through the same thing. I can’t imagine any peace in that circumstance.

I’ll spend today focusing on the good things I remember about my dad, and the positive lessons I took away from that sad day 8 years ago. It’s a luxury not everyone has — to remember a life and a death in a reflective, peaceful way — and I’m thankful.

We understand death for the first time
when he puts his hand upon one whom we love.
~ Madame de Stael