Flowers on the table

Posted by on Jan 30, 2011 in Death and renewal, Mother in Laws | 5 comments

Such is the marvel of modern marketing and shipping I was able to carry a bundle of beautiful blooms to my mother in law Friday, even though I drove through the snow to visit. She is in her end days now, in hospice care and happy to see even me when I come to visit. After a hug and several minutes of friendly conversation she looks at me and says, “Now you are of the family, right?” She then introduces me to the nurses and aides around her, all of whom know me already. We smile indulgently, like one would do for a child with an altered view of reality. Secretly all of us breath a silent prayer that we will die with our mental functioning intact.

She rolls her wheelchair into her room expecting us to sit and talk, but this is not the plan for the day. She tried to hold on to us, because even through a fog of dementia she still has some comprehension that her world is getting ready to shrink again. Armed with a few extra sets of hands and a 12 foot rental truck we are following the blunt instructions of the extended care facility where she has made her home for the last 20 years. “Mrs. Haley can now be best served by the health care unit. You need to remove the contents of her room and two storage lockers within the next two weeks.” Perhaps those are not the exact words. I’m not sure, because unlike my in laws my relationship to material objects is tentative. I have already discarded the letter.

A few weeks ago we cleaned out the first storage locker and in doing so disposed of what seemed to be a lifetime’s accumulation of magazines, cards, rubber bands, plastic bags, free calenders, used envelopes, and rusted paper clips. Now as I open drawers and boxes I discover that I have underestimated how many useless objects one can actually acquire and save during a lifetime. It is a grim and tiring day, as we first attempt to sort and discard as we work, but as afternoon approaches we begin to spend more time loading and less time discriminating. Our cousin Keith comes back from one trip to the truck with the news that Margaret (the MIL) has escaped the medical unit and is determinedly wheeling her way down the long corridor to what she calls her “home”, the room we are ransacking like viking raiders. He bravely throws his body into the lurch, gently intercepting and diverting her. He returns later with her demand that she knows we are somewhere in the building and we better not leave without seeing her. My husband distracts her by carrying her TV to her, a plausible reason for his absence. We go back to stuffing teddy bears, home recorded music tapes, silver coins, and old shoes into boxes and bags.

This morning I started unloading my car and the truck my husband “white-knuckled” over Afton Mountain long after dark last night. I cannot move the monstrous box that staggered him as he loaded it into the truck. I’m afraid to tell him this last indignity, but it is filled to the brim with color slides. I flash back through all the years we spent trapped in the living room of various parsonages with Pop running the slide projector and my step mother in law narrating. “Wait Carl!” she jumps from her seat and touches a wavering image on the screen. “See that flower box in the window? That was filled with the most beautiful petunias I have ever seen. I tried to find out the variety so I could get some seed and plant them here. It’s a little blurry in this picture Carl. Don’t we have a few more that are better?” …and he did. So it went, ad infinitum. I laugh in spite of myself at the memory and start carrying them into the already cluttered basement.

Over the next weeks and months I will be sorting through these along with thousands of pictures, letters, ledgers, and household object, the vain attempt we humans make to leave some monument, some legacy. After I am finished I will reconnoiter my own life’s accumulation of object as to not burden my children with this vanity of material goods. As the children of the depression leave this earth, it is my generation, the boom time children, who are sorting and clearing in amazement. We indeed cannot know the fears they lived by as they could not understand our cavalier outlook on the world. Cousin Keith takes this all in stride, but he keeps saying to me, “This was not in the marriage contract, now was it?” He tells me of his wife’s father who never forgave or forgot the $2.00 he lost when his bank shut down during the great depression. He went through the rest of his life hiding money in books and drawers without regaining his trust in financial institutions. The laughter we share is not without a certain forbearance and endearment for one who took life lesson too literally.

Sitting at home tonight nursing sore muscles and a lingering cold I sort through all the tiny boxes tied up with string and the omnipresent rubber bands. There are treasures and trash in abundance. Here is a note from Lord Bottomly, an uncle, with a commemorative coin from King George’s coronation enclosed. This tiny leather box is stuffed with presidential campaign buttons that vary from the plain pewter “Hoover” tie clip to the patriotic colored and hysterically innocent “I like Ike and Dick” buttonhole pin. Here is a cardboard necklace box chocked full of arrowheads, side by side with a collection of keys from long ago forgotten doors. As I handle each object, look at each picture, glance over each birth, death, divorce and adoption decree, some part of who they were seeps into me. While a portion of the knowledge I gain is burdensome, some is liberating. The balance between the two shifts constantly.

Burdened with this new knowledge I find some strange yearning in me to know how the young girl in the pictures became the wrinkled bedridden stranger I see. Not having been blessed with the patience of Job I found it impossible to talk to her when her mind still retained some clarity. The new revelations about her I am unearthing tell a story of a very different person than the one I thought I knew all these years. The fault of her not revealing herself to me rests ultimately on my carelessness. We were natural antagonist from the minute we met. I used to pride myself on being deceptive enough to let her think that was not true. Now I wonder if she believed she was behaving in the same way. This much I know however. She and I were both born innocent. She has come full circle to the point where she will likely die with a mind just as innocence. She gave me her best crinkled smile as I put the blooms on the table beside her. Then she looked at me earnestly and asked, “Who sent those beautiful flowers?” I smile back but don’t try to tell her. It is enough that she delights in them.

5 Comments

  1. much more humor than the reality could have ever been, thanks for the thoughts and smile

    • Larry my interaction with Margaret is always the same, frustrating, troublesome and yet somehow there is somehow a chuckle lying just beneath the surface of the misery. Isn’t that the way with humor after all?

  2. The reality of going through all of the accumulations of a lifetime is staggering. You wonder why people would save such things—and in some cases you wonder why they didn’t save the really important things.

    Note the slightly new email address.

  3. Beth I never cease to be amazed by our inability to sort through not just the material but the mental and emotional accumulation of our lives. We discard diamonds because we think ourselves undeserving of them and keep the broken glass because we think we can somehow put the pieces back together.

  4. Oh, Elaine. This made me eyes tear up for some reason. So beautifully written and so honest. And very convicting as I look around my cluttered office. This is another beauty of your writing: “It makes us want to change for the better.”

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