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The Stuff of Grief

What to do with the stuff of life?



Stuff. Boxes. Stuff in Boxes. Boxes full of stuff. Stuff, stuffed in boxes. Boxes crushed under other boxes.  Boxes stuffed full and piled on boxes touching rafters in the double-car garage. 70? 80? 100? Boxes, even more in this place that is a plane ticket away from my home and a several-hour drive from my younger brothers. We meet there for the cause, grateful to like and love each other, and that we work well in concert. Ours is the gift that can’t be contained in a box. I have learned to look for the gifts disguised by grief; this bonding with him is one. I am grateful, but no less saddened by the reason, and exhausted under the physical and emotional responsibility. So is my brother, though he doesn’t complain.

            To the deceased owner of this stuff, this was not just stuff. It was good stuff, not throw-away stuff. My sister, who was married and widowed by him before she died, told me that he never threw anything away. Having seen the walls of boxes, I should not have been surprised, and yet I still was when I found and discarded the file folder with his job performance reviews from 1974.

            Opening each box makes me question, what is value? Does the act of not discarding something indicate value? Is keeping stuff a security blanket? Was that the value? To me, and my brother as we open boxes, it is the stuff of curiosity, comedy, and some disgust. Our questions fly over the stacks, “What is this?” “Why did he keep THIS?” “Does this perhaps belong with something in a yet-unopened box?” “What is THIS doing in THIS box with THIS stuff?” We recognize that some boxes are filled with the remnants of a project, most likely to avoid proper cleanup. And the vast multiples of the same item, six battery testers, eight sets of wrenches, must be due to the sheer inability to remember or find the one that came before- in that we recognize ourselves, somewhat. Otherwise, the pile seems endless. This is our ritual. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.

            So, we find comedy in the tragedy of stuff that’s unidentifiable and just plain broken useless crap. A new game show idea surfaces from my brother’s sparky imagination. He introduces it by taunting me with the presentation of some strange, twisted metal object.  “Keep or Toss?” he challenges me. “What is it?” I ask. He shakes his head in the motion that prompts me to cease questioning. Instead, he re-presents the object. “Keep or Toss?” he insists. I stare at it for a few moments and then say, “Toss!” Having guessed it was a bent lawnmower blade, I surprised him and realized I know too much about broken stuff.

            As the hours and days go on, we challenge each other with found objects. “Keep or Toss?” one says to the other lifting some strange object from a box. Sometimes the challenger knows what the item is, most times neither of us do. Always a test of wits. We put aside these items on the designated Keep-or-Toss Game Show shelf. The collection grows, and over time we refine the rules of the game. At some point during day five, my brother comes up with the idea of a “Lightening Round” where contestants are given only a few seconds to identify the item and determine if it should be kept or tossed. And yes, we begin to gather useless items for prizes of no value. This, we agree, is a great way to get rid of stuff. In this era of downsizing, we think the game show has merit and could garner wide appeal. We muse about starting it on YouTube.   

            Even with the levity, it makes me sad. As sad as losing a sibling and dismantling anyone’s life should be. I know that there must have been something in my brother-in-law’s life that made him cling to so much strange and worthless stuff. Even more so because he was a real collector of good stuff; the auction house agreed. They remarked to my sister that he was, indeed a “Gentleman Collector.”  Of course, they hadn’t seen what was in these boxes! Regardless, he would never have guessed it would be me going through all this stuff. What makes me angry is that my sister and her husband didn’t allow themselves the expense of the care they both needed at the end of their lives.    

            I am not against stuff. Especially when it helps people, makes their lives better. As children we were raised by a depression era father, to not waste anything. In this, my brother and I do our best. The blankets I gathered from the closets went to the animal shelter. Thanks to the help of a friend, the hefty piles of my sister’s well-organized but unused scrapbooking supplies went to an underprivileged elementary school. Another of her friends needed my sister’s expensive cancer-fighting supplements, and will also make good use of her collection of Ball canning jars. My sister’s hairdresser, who the year before had been the one to shave her chemo head, came by the house concerned that she hadn’t seen my sister. She didn’t know she’d died months before. While telling me how she cherished my sister, she admired and, at my insistence, went home with a framed poster of my sister’s favorite Renoir painting. Some religious books went to the church library, canned food to a shelter, and the junk car went, as my sister wanted, to benefit veterans of which my brother-in-law was one.

            I admit that my brother-in-law was not my favorite person, mostly because he took her out of Connecticut. Also, because I feel he never seemed to know who he had in my sister. Now, I feel that way about myself, too. People are more important than stuff. I have always known that, but shit, I didn’t live it. It makes me sadder that in the past year I have traveled to her home many more times in her absence than I did when she was alive. Life is complicated and stuff seems, to me, to make it more so. I could not have imagined this. Once again, that’s how life goes. Right now, I just don’t know how to get over all the stuff that comes with it.

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