Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Cleaning (as if someone else might have to)

These Shoes were made for Walking by Nancy Lundebjerg on 500px.com

It started with the shoes in the corner of the bedroom, continued through three closets, two dressers, and the desk in my office at work, a huge chest in my living room, a small filing cabinet, and the front hall closet. Next stop is the storage room that I haven’t visited in at least 5 years. Some might call this spring cleaning but for me it’s more episodic and usually sparked by something like being annoyed enough by the pile of shoes in the corner to find them a home.

As always happens during one of these all too rare bouts of purging, I think about the family cleaning events as parents, aunts, and grandparents moved on and it’s not like I’m alone in that regard. I was having dinner with a few friends last week and we were swapping our caregiver cleaning stories. I found that my late father’s desire to hold on to his power tools was matched by my friend’s father’s desire to bring them all with him to his new assisted living facility. She showed us pictures of his work room and I must admit that my brother’s task was a wee bit easier given the smaller workroom that he was dealing with. Even though the space was not large, I somehow ended up with a drill in my apartment (never used) and two to donate with my father getting to keep one. I also have his hammer and a ruler. The hammer is spattered with paint and the head may be a little loose but I think of my Dad every time I use it and could not imagine purchasing a shiny new one. The ruler is an artifact in my curio cabinet – along with the rotary phone from my parent’s bedroom. Items with no current purpose that make me smile.

Manhattan Bridge by Nancy Lundebjerg on 500px.com

Moving my aunt out of her apartment was easier if no less daunting. I (her legal guardian because of geography) had reached the point where I couldn’t maintain her at home given her advanced dementia and so I undertook the hunt for a quality nursing home that she could afford and that would take her (yes, I just said “would take her”, it’s a thing). Having found one, there was the task of cleaning out her apartment. My sister, niece, and I found that she had a closet filled with lightbulbs ordered from some charity that obviously had figured out that the person on the other end of the phone was good for a dozen lightbulbs every month or so (beware the telemarketer and your older loved one). There were bricks in that closet – from where and for what we still do not know. She also had a cedar chest (made by my grandfather) filled with old ConEd bills. That chest was the mother lode for all the bills that had populated the box and suitcase that followed her around the apartment in my early days as her caregiver that were filled with new AND old bills.

My earliest days as a temporary solution dispatched by my mother started with the checkbook – specifically, helping to get the bills paid. I would sit down and sort through her papers looking for the ones needing to be paid. We would talk about why she had old bills and every time she would tell the story of an epic battle with ConEd that she won because she saved her bills. I would quietly slip some of the old bills into my bag in the hopes of reducing the paper mountain. I never made a dent because of that cedar chest and its bottomless capacity when it came to replenishing a suitcase and box with old ConEd bills.

Mostly, there was stuff that my Aunt no longer needed. These were the signposts of a life well lived. The deed to her house on Fire Island – lovingly built and long since sold, formal wear and purses from her life as a casualty insurance broker (family lore has it that she was the first woman VP at her firm), artwork and mementos, and photos. To put the meaning of this day a bit more bluntly, we pulled apart the threads of her life. We made decisions that she was not able to make – donate, throw away, some family member will want this. No arguments because it was not our stuff nor was it our childhood memories or the fabric of our parents lives and she was already moved to her next abode. On that day, it was just an apartment to be cleaned and readied for the next tenant.

Sam Jones BBQ - Smoking up the Big Apple by Nancy Lundebjerg on 500px.com

Back to my own story, the last place I hit (so far!) – the front hall closet – brought me full circle to the over a decade that I spent as my aunt’s caregiver. There was her life – stowed neatly in a box and in a bag. At least it was her life as lived through my caregiving experience. Multiple copies of the guardianship paperwork, a binder filled with the application for Medicaid, a set of files on the nursing home application, another set of files on the nursing home search, and her advanced directive. There were taxes and bank records and small boxes dating back to 1993 filled with canceled checks.

After a long Sunday afternoon with a small shredder, my life as her caregiver was reduced to four tall kitchen garbage bags stuffed with confetti, a carefully saved original death certificate, and the memories of me being her caregiver as opposed to her being my Aunt. And a heightened awareness of the question I had been mentally asking myself as I considered whether to keep, donate, or toss my own flotsam and jetsam while tearing through the nooks and crannies of my own life.

That question? If I were dead, demented, or physically incapacitated, would I want someone else to have to deal with this? It’s a tough but powerful question.

Frankly, I’m a bit worried that it’s caused me to be so ruthless about tossing that, at some later date, I will find out that I need something. Of course, I am still living in my apartment and so it’s still filled with art, mementos, kitchenware, furniture, and assorted household supplies. There are the cameras and a series of old laptops because I always seem to miss safe disposal day in Manhattan. There’s the stuff of my childhood including a ticket book from my first ever trip to Disney World ($6 in 1973!). The way I look at it, this letting go of stuff is an iterative process and so I’ll keep looking at things through the lens of would you want someone else to have to deal with it?

As for that pile of shoes that started it all? All the pairs now have a home and there was even room to add new red sneakers to the mix which are already becoming my go summer go to weekend shoes.

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