A few weeks ago, I went to hear The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, talk about their new book, Everything That Remains. I listened as Joshua read an emotional chapter dealing with boxing up his mom’s apartment after her death.
Earlier that day, I’d been helping clean out a friend’s condo, going through 1000s of pieces of paper and pictures, getting it ready for closing. I’d spent almost a week doing that, and would spend another two weeks sifting and sorting before it was all done.
She suffers from early onset dementia, and recently had to move to a memory care facility. (Consider this a cautionary tale. Imagine your family or friends going through all your things, what will they find? If that isn’t enough to scare you into cleaning out your closets, nothing is.)
I also thought about the emotional turmoil we’d all felt years ago when Mom and her husband moved out of their two-story house, first to a retirement community apartment, then to assisted living, then to memory care. Anyone who’s had a loved one or close friend make such a transition has no doubt been involved in this obligatory cleaning process.
It’s a daunting task on so many levels. I mean, it’s a physical and mental pain in the butt: the endless decisions! Do we keep this piece of paper? What about this cracked piece of pottery? Do we throw it away? Shred it? Save it for family? Give it away to charity? Recycle it? Keep it?
I want to go mad just thinking about it. But it’s so much more than that. It’s an emotional and spiritual quagmire, and it’s an enormous responsibility.
During the entire process, I was struck by the decades of stuff in her place, and how it does and doesn’t define her. I kept thinking about a sentence from Everything That Remains: “we are not the sum of our material possessions…[but] we are what we focus on” (157).
Do all those pieces of paper, mementos, clothes, pictures, artwork, and jewelry say anything about her?
Let’s play a game and find out. I’ll list 10 of the 1000s of things we found, and you try and form an accurate picture of her life:
- Red velvet program, Caesars Palace, from an Ann-Margret performance in the 80’s;
- Woman’s fitness article titled “Classic Butt;”
- 40 pair of socks;
- Business card from Jon Peters Salon, Beverly Hills;
- Framed USA sweater from 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics;
- Books on Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Kabbalah;
- Five family photo albums spanning 40 years;
- Every movie and CD Barbra Streisand ever made;
- Gucci pants, shirts and jackets;
- Hundreds of cards from friends and family.
Sure, this gives you a piece of the puzzle, but it really tells you nothing about her personality, her struggles, her family, her gifts. It’s only the outer her, and only a tiny slice at that.
She wasn’t a rich socialite, despite the way this list makes her look. She did have a stint in the fast lane, but also spent some time drunk and homeless. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Even if you found her books on addiction and her accolades for homeless advocacy, you still wouldn’t have the whole picture. You still wouldn’t know her.
But from this list, and from what I’ve told you, you do know some of what she valued: friendship, art, fashion, family, helping others. Now she’s starting to come more into focus.
I’ve spent a great deal of time lately thinking about how this friend’s life, how my Mom’s life, how any dementia patient’s life, can get reduced to a box full of momentos. Just think about the shadow boxes used in memory care facilities. They’re outside each resident’s door, and are full of pictures, awards, and phrases that offer a glimpse into that person’s life.
They’re great tools to help staff and others become familiar with a resident’s family structure, hobbies, passions, and careers. But we all know they can’t actually personalize a resident’s life experiences. No one picture, no one thing, can do that.
My sister and I went nuts when we had to make Mom’s first shadow box. We bought all sorts of words and pictures from a hobby store, and pasted them all on. There must’ve been 50 things crammed in that 10×12 space.
We wanted every significant trip, every hobby, every descriptive adjective for Mom’s nature and personality, to be represented. We thought that by doing that, everyone would know Mom.
Sure, it helped. But they really got to know her by talking with her and our family, and by just loving her. Just being with her.
The pictures and words may have given an entry point, but to get to know the spirit, the inner person who was still there despite dementia, that was going to take more than looking at a few pictures and phrases. It was going to take time, effort, and patience.
That shadow box concoction didn’t make the move to Mom’s new memory care place. We started over and kept it simple: pictures of her and her husband playing golf, the two of them all dressed up for a fancy military ball, their church directory picture.
After all, this time they were both there. That’s right: both parents have dementia. As my sister-in-law likes to say: “We win all the prizes.”
As for our friend, we tried to fill her room with what she loved: a framed ticket, brochure and VIP pass from a Streisand concert we took her to years ago; a Chagall and a Picasso print; family pictures; and several Streisand picture books. But the fact is, she doesn’t remember any of those things. She doesn’t identify them as hers. That stuff just doesn’t matter.
So we help her remember the fun: we talk about how incredible it was to hear Barbra sing live and in person. When we tell our friend what wonderful taste she has, what a great decorator she is, her face beams with pride.
We talk about how loving her parents were, and how much fun we all had together. When she wonders where her folks are now, we just say they’re resting and change the subject. We flip through the Streisand book and admire her gorgeous clothes.
Then we go outside, eat cake, and watch the wind blow the trees. Our friend spends several childlike moments giggling while she puts her foot on and off a fluttering leaf. Her laughter is contagious, and soon we’re all hysterical over nothing.
That’s what matters: love, friendship, laughter. It’s not our possessions, nor our memories, that define us. It’s our indomitable spirit, our connection to each other, that give us meaning, that keep us going no matter what.