Over the past week, I flew down to West Palm Beach, Florida, which bears the official title of “God’s Waiting Room,” to clean out my parent’s home. They’ve been unceremoniously moved north to assisted living, after it became painfully clear that their independent living ticket expired.
They weren’t happy about being ripped from their home of the past couple decades. The argument was that they wanted, no, needed, more time to decide how they should live the balance of their lives. What they failed to realize was they had that opportunity, which we refer to as the last five years, but refused to acknowledge it.
Contrary to assumptions, the downhill slide happens slowly, but happens nonetheless. No alarm bell rings when the time is up, as it comes in tiny, ever-increasing bits, until you realize that you should have dealt with it years earlier, but failed to see the now-obvious signs. Be thankful that they didn’t run down a school bus filled with children while insisting that they are still fully capable of driving.
After doing the incredibly unpleasant but necessary task of turning parents into children, the time comes to deal with the detritus of their lives. It’s one thing to go through the remnants of a home when a parent dies; they aren’t there to answer questions, to explain what things are or why they saved them. It’s another when they’re still alive, but gone.
In my case, my father can remember fifty years ago like it was yesterday. He can’t, however, remember yesterday. Asking for a list of things he wanted from his home was an exercise in futility, producing vague responses that offered no insight.
“Get my important papers.”
“What important papers?”
“Look around, you’ll see what’s important.”
Nothing was important. Tons of papers, relating to things that happened long ago and are well beyond any point of relevance. At least to me.
“Bring back the valuable things.”
“What valuable things?”
“Look around, you’ll see what’s valuable.”
There were tchotchkes of all sizes and colors, accumulated over a lifetime. Perhaps they meant something, but if so, it eluded me. There were a few from my childhood, but any sentimental significance waned in the decades since. Now, they were just stuff. Clutter.
He specifically asked for one thing, his Coast Guard uniform, to be buried in. It meant a lot to him, and I treated it with care. He told me he was the last guy in the Coast Guard to have a WWII combat infantryman’s badge. At 89, I believe him.
There were books of photos of events that once seemed important, but fifty years later, never having been opened in the interim without anyone caring, no longer mattered. Sure, it might be nice to have them because someone, some day, might want to see what it all looked like way back when, but the harsh reality struck home that no one really cared, and the off-chance that anyone would was so remote as to fail to justify carrying them around.
Within all this stuff, however, was the occasional gem. My father’s slide rule from college, in a leather case with his monogram. His medals from World War II. His father’s medals from World War I. An old Omega on a Speidel twist-o-flex replacement band that he wore when he reached Berchtesgaden, but had fallen out of fashion in the 50’s.
Going through his drawers, I got to see the things that my father thought valuable. A man tends to put his most prized but personal possessions in his sock drawer, out of sight but easily grabbed in case they’re needed.
I put together a suitcase of stuff, the pieces of my family’s history that struck me as worthy of making the trip back home, to be held for my children, so they would know where they came from. What was striking is that a houseful of things that must have seemed necessary to maintain my parents’ life could be reduced to a suitcase.
I suspect they would have disagreed with my choices, explaining why people in pictures whose names are lost forever should matter. There was no justification in my mind to hold on to pictures of peripheral people I didn’t know, I never knew. I suppose I could have sat down with my parents, gone though the thousands of pictures accumulated during their lives, including those of me during my childhood, and put names to faces of people. But it just didn’t matter enough for me to do so. I was satisfied letting them fade into obscurity.
As I wheeled the suitcase to the rental car, having sold his car (that he neglected to retitle after buying it off lease), I had the nagging feeling that there would be something I left behind that I would someday regret, some piece of history that I failed to appreciate.
It wouldn’t be some glass statue, or bowl, or the table that was trendy in the 70’s and would no doubt come back into style sometime in the next century. I felt comfortable that none of these objects had any value, at least to me.
My son called to me to get a move on. I asked him whether he thought he would ever look at the book of pictures from my bar mitzvah, and he quickly and emphatically replied, “never.” I closed the door and didn’t look back.
It was an unpleasant trip. An unpleasant experience. I didn’t want to go through another person’s life, not even my parents. No doubt I failed to fulfill my father’s expectations of salvaging the things that are important to them, but he gave me no choice when he refused to tell me what he cared about. All I could do was take the few things that I cared about.
When I got back home to New York, I realized that I too was surrounded by a great many things that held meaning to me, but would mean nothing to anyone else. Someday, they too will be left behind when my son closes the door and walks away, without looking back. I wonder if he’ll take the old Omega with him.