Unpacking, Sifting, Pitching, and Holding On To Memories, To Delights, and To Griefs
Just a week or so before he died, I came home from work to our apartment in Regensburg Germany to find my husband standing—and, rare for those days, smiling—before four piles of decreasing size.
Three distinct clumps were made up of various belongings of ours, like furniture, clothes, toys, books, pots and pans, electronics, and stuffed animals, video cameras and photographs.
Of those heaps, the first one was by far the largest, and impressively so.
The last cluster of chaos, though, moved around and made racket, a lot of both, because it was our two children playing on the floor: Karl, then almost three, and Else, just 8 months old.
“Babe,” he said, “I have had a miserable time packing to go home.”
After five years in Germany, we were to have left just a month and a half later back to the States. Poor Bill was stuck with the task of readying for our move—I was still working, and he was way more organized than I—and taking care of our two beloved twerps.
Lord have mercy and bless him still.
He took a breath, and then proudly said, “But finally, I’ve figured it out. We’re going to pack only what will delight us to unpack! So this [pointing triumphantly to the largest pile] is what we’ll leave here in Germany to give away. And this [pointing to the significantly smaller medium pile] is what we’ll ship. This [pointing to the smallest pile] is what we’ll take with us and live off of until the crates arrive in a couple of months. And this pile [pointing to Else and Karl] I’ll be happy to unpack, though [he said with his mischievous grin] they’re a horrible moving crew.”
And that was it.
That was his philosophy.
Pack only what will delight us to unpack.
Months and months later, those crates arrived.
Item by item, I unpacked, alone, everything that Bill had decided would cause us delight.
I fished each treasure out of those boxes, and shook off the shredded packing paper, and wept while smiling as I imagined Bill’s deliberation and delight that he’d decided we’d find together when we rediscovered this object, that memory, these old things with new futures at hand.
This week is a kicker for our family: in quick succession is the anniversary of the accident, Father’s Day, Bill’s and my shared ordination date (26 years…), and his birthday.
This year, Father’s Day and the accident date decided to gang up and do a two-fer, a one-stop shopping, a distilled concentration of rough stuff.
As I’ve often said, the 18th is always worse than the 19th, because on the 18th everything was fine, and we were clueless—blissfully so—of the trauma that the next day, and years, would bring.
But less a catalyst for living with perpetual fretfulness about imminent awfulness, the 18th gives me reason to believe that every moment is sacred, and every moment is reason for gratitude, because the next moment could make the last moment the last moment.
Time, things, and people can stealthily slip through one’s fingers.
I hope I’ve learned to hold and cherish them a bit longer and more intensely before they do—and, I’ve come to learn, before the time has come when they should—slip away.
Man for decades have I held and cherished stuff—physical and emotional—that I don’t need to.
We have a room upstairs that is called the Craft Room, and it also has a portion of my library in it, but really, if I’m honest with myself, it’s the “We have no idea what to do with it/can’t deal with it/we’ll get to it eventually” room.
As it turns out, this year, the anniversary has tumbled into our calendar after I’ve had the first stretch in over 25 years to make my own piles of delight and definitively not-delight.
That’s the prose way of saying I finally ran out of excuses to face The Daunting-Avoid-At-All-Costs Room.
The relaxed Covid restrictions allowed for Karl to go to school and PCAs to come back into our home, my father’s cancer was caught and treated in time, Trump was ousted, my book was finally turned in to the publisher and launched just last week, Else was launched just last year to her first victorious year at college, and I was launched into a love that makes my life simply, in every possible way, better.
So with newfound time, relative calm, support, a.k.a. no more easy available outs, I stood at the doorway of that room, the room with boxes from my parents, boxes from my childhood, boxes from my late husband’s childhood, boxes from our college and early marriage days, pre-accident boxes of memories of very young Karl and Else, and last, post-accident boxes of grief and unwellness and Doch, and I gulped, and I began to unpack.
Almost straight away I discovered a bin—a wholeass bin—of drawings from my children, the finger-painty/color crayon scribbles on the back of office paper/ripped construction paper collages sort, the kind that one puts up on the fridge for a week, say, and then in the dark of the night makes disappear to make room for the next one(s).
Except I didn’t pitch them, because I was so glad that these two babies of mine were alive, so each preschool artwork became imbued with sacrality—which ok fine, we agree that God is in everything, but we’re hardly talking here of early demonstrations of artistic genius that I could now sell through Sotheby’s and live the highlife from here on out.
So for years and years, I’d chucked the bulk of them instead into the Bin Of Important Things To Be Forever Kept.
And Forever Schlepped.
For almost twenty years, people.
But this time, though, as I lifted up each tattered scribble, I smiled…and found myself easily pitching the bulk of them instead into the increasingly large pile of Thanks-Be-To-God-For-These-Memories-And-For-This-New-Kindling.
Standing up with no small amount of self satisfaction, I shook decades of construction paper dust and debris off my hands, and reached down to next find the boxes of memories from people no longer in my world, like old boyfriends, people once dear to me who for any number of reasons are no longer in my life, people who were apparently once close to my heart but for the life of me I, super sheepishly, don’t recall.
And then the one of old college papers, awards, elementary school report cards, applications to various schools, and the large embroidered “A” from my high school.
No delight to be any longer found here.
So the lot of it was released from the bins, and released from burdening me any longer with attachments to file folders that have no more relevance, or conversely to people or things attached to unwelcome memories, unnecessary guilt, a permanent lack of resolution, or simply attached to nothing, because for the life of me I didn’t know why I’d kept Item X, Y, or Z in the first place.
I stood up, took another deep breath, and reached for the next heap: rediscovered items from both parents, like photos and letters and newspaper clippings I’d never seen from their births on through the years.
I sifted through these new treasures, keeping more than a few tokens and treasures and A-ha moments of the past that I simply didn’t know I had.
Getting the hang of it now, it took but a nanosecond to realize that I don’t need their elementary report cards, their yearbooks, their old college papers, or the cards that their parents received from strangers-to-me at their birth, or at their first birthday, or at their second birthday, or at their first Easter, or at their Confirmations, or at their graduations, not to mention their accumulated and maternally curated artwork through the years.
So this remnant pile will go first to my father, and if there’s a good story attached to any of the accumulated goods the item will be kept.
If not, Bill’s metric moves me—and Dad—to find delight pitching it.
With a deep exhale, I also discovered memorabilia from my late husband and his family: photos of Disney vacations, Marching Band mementos, Bible Camp and Ohio State University swag.
These items were a lot harder to know what to do with, because the sentimental stakes were high.
But while I knew that most everything that touched my hand would have delighted Bill, the somewhat guilt-inducing truth is that they delighted me…not so much.
I had no immediate emotional connection to them, and daughter Else even less so.
So with the heavy, carved, and significantly 3-D oak OSU Marching Band shield in hand, I rang my girl up at college.
Together we decided that, 30 years hence, she didn’t want have her own box-and-memorabilia-filled room, and didn’t want to be tasked with sifting and pitching meaningless memories any more than I wanted to be at that very moment.
So we opted to keep anything that would give my girl a better and broader understanding of her papa, and take pictures of the stuff that would have been important to him but not to us, and present the rest of it to his sister, or, after her pass at it, we’d offer it up to the Sacred Garbage Bins.
Now nearing the back end of the room, I came upon one large, hefty bin devoted to the countless cards that rained down on us after the accident, the deep expressions of sympathy and grief.
In some ways, this collection was the hardest to sort through.
Everything in it had meaning, everything in it had significance, and yet delight was not what I felt when opening it.
Gratitude, though…my God did I feel gratitude.
I’ve told those close to me that now, exactly 18 years after the accident, and reading through these cards again, I could perhaps finally take in their words of compassion, of lament, of solidarity.
At the time, I was like a sponge with no room to absorb anything more. I felt the water of their compassion running over me but I could not take any of it in.
But this time, I read again each and every card, and finally appreciated the shared despair.
To be honest, many of these people have died, have moved on from or left my world, or were never in mine, though they were in Bill’s.
But their messages were marks of the presence of the Communion of the Saints, this sweet swath of people who represent the tangible reminders of the promise that God’s agenda is not despair, not suffering, not death, but rather hope, and persistence, and life.
I may not have kept all their cards, but I did keep their compassion, their kindness, and their cries of shared lament.
Bill’s pre-move rubric was also pre-Marie Kondo.
Last week I joked with my dearest friend from forever ago that if I’d only known the gold I was sitting on…
But I’ve learned that the discernment process is not as simple as holding on to something and deciding whether it gives you delight.
Sometimes it takes years to come to the time when a person is ready to face that question, let alone know the answer to it.
And that is supremely ok.
Turns out that while delight is one lens through which something can be decided—and let me say here that our bonfires, our recyclers, and our garbage company have been very pleased with all the work I’ve done in the last several months—there is another one too: holy truths.
Take today’s date, for example: the dreaded June 19th.
It does not delight our family to open the box of this week.
We do not look forward to the cascade of events tumbling out from the bin of June 18-June 23, dates that remind us of what we had, and who we had, and what and who is no longer here.
But each year that the week of the 19th rounds the corner, it is both holy and not a little bit painfully true.
Opening a box of grief and pain is both: holy and true.
But just like I have lived for decades without (re)discovering some of these memorabilia, so too I can go—have to go—for days, weeks even sometimes at a stretch, without taking a deep dive into the losses that we have felt since that awful day.
In fact, on a day-to-day basis, I must go about my life without consciously acknowledging those painful, holy and true memories and still-present realities.
To open up that box and sift through it all on the regular, just like to open up these boxes in our “I’ll deal with it another day” room every day; entirely unsustainable.
A person can’t function while persisting to sit on the floor to sift through boxes, real or metaphorical, not one little bit.
But those griefs and those those memories—good and bad—make up who we are.
They’ve defined our lives.
They are holy and true.
We can’t, and shouldn’t, discard the holy and true grief, and what has emanated from it, and who we are because of it.
These mid-month-of-June dates are simply markers that cyclically invite us into the room where, just to function, we stuff our grief, our holy truth.
And each year, every June 19th, I find that I fish each treasured—and traumatic—memory out of those boxes, and shake off the intervening years, and I weep.
But as the years go by, I find myself smiling a bit more from the years before, grinning as I imagine Bill’s rediscovery, and even delight on behalf of those of us who remain yet here, of this object, that memory, these old things with new futures, and even new previously unfathomable delights, at hand.