Monday, June 2, 2008

Clearing Out

The Herculean task of getting my parents' Florida condo ready for sale fell to my husband and me. Fair enough. My brother had just spent a month tending to my 91-year-old parents and had returned to France. My sister was running the show in Ohio, where my folks had decided to live out whatever time they have left.

I had a To Do List and a game plan in mind. But when I started opening up drawers and cabinets and closets, I almost turned right around. It was as if my parents had packed a few suitcases, grabbed some photos and family heirlooms to be mailed, locked the door, and walked away. I was overcome by the enormity of the task that was mine and the single-mindedness of purpose that was clearly theirs.

For the next five days, my husband and I amassed three piles - roomfuls is more like it. The pile to be discarded, the pile to be given away, and the pile to be sent to my parents. Office supplies, clothes, linens, grubby pots and pans, records from years ago, old cameras, obsolete tape recorders, gift wrapping, cards and postcards saved but never sent, toiletries, purses, shoes, dresses, canned food, frozen meat - the vestiges of a life filled with too much stuff. And a life filled with hopes, dreams, accomplishments and disappointments; a life coming down the homestretch.

I stared at the rows of shoes in my mother's closet. She has very small feet and, over the years, took advantage of sample sales to amass some pretty hot numbers. Now, the high heels were gone, replaced by special shoes for diabetics and her favorite Mephisto sandals from France. I tried not to get tangled in the emotional strings of all those shoes, but it didn't work. Hot, salty tears streamed down my cheeks. I let out deep moans that came from a place buried inside my soul, a place reserved for immense sorrow and hurt.

I was hurting both physically and emotionally. My back, already sore from a past injury, tightened like a vice grip. My "bad" knee buckled while lugging heavy loads of garbage back and forth down the long hallway from my parents' condo to the garbage shoot. When my husband suggested that I slow down or take a break, I just looked at him in disbelief. "Don't you see how much more needs to be done?" I said. "I can't possibly stop now."

Friends of my parents stopped by. They looked stunned, unwilling to believe that my mother and father were really not coming back. Several stayed and helped us pack dishes, decide how to rearrange the furniture, and to choose a few mementos that would remind them always of the good times they shared with my mom and dad.

On the last day - after hauling the last of the garbage bags down the hallway and into the garbage shoot - I walked from room to room, surveying what looked like a staged condo ready for sale. Cabinet shelves, closets, and drawers were empty. Much of the art work had been stored and mailed up north. Furniture in the living room and studio had been rearranged. Despite the clearing out, reminders of my parents were everywhere from the Japanese silk hanging on the master bedroom wall to the stained glass windows my mother had so lovingly crafted. I shut my eyes and could hear my mother calling us to dinner or asking for a word while doing the daily crossword puzzle; the whoosh of my father taking a golf swing in the living room or cheering for one of his hometown sports teams.

As far as senior facilities go, this was top of the line; my parents had enjoyed their independence, even when yet another neighbor suffered a stroke or passed away. In the end, though, it was the constant reminder of their own mortality and the chance to live closer to their children that drove my parents away. The anticipated "last stop" in their journey was not the last stop after all but a bridge to a cozy home in a tiny Midwestern town surrounded by loving caregivers, friends, and devoted children.

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