A friend dropped by on his way to his in-progress place on the Airline yesterday. While catching up, he commented on the previous generation’s tendency to hoard and how long it takes to go through stuff after they die. That reminded me of the following essay I wrote for Wolf Moon Journal some ten years ago. It’s longer than usual, but worth sharing.
The next time you see a car with the bumper that says “He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins,” have a tiny bit of compassion for the person who put it there. They probably haven’t lost a loved one yet. My journey through the valley of grief has taken much longer than anticipated. In fact, I’m never certain if I have cleared the other end or if the cliffs are just not as high. It’s not a place where a GPS works. Time does, but not always well.
Consider this. Seven times since Mom died in November 2005, I have sat at this computer and started an essay honoring her memory. Seven times I have written the same line-“My mother was a remarkable woman” and could get no further. That is not to say I haven’t been able to honor her in other ways and other essays, because I have. The valley is a painful, but very instructive place.
When my father died, more than ten years ago, he was living in a four room apartment. Even so, it took all three of his children with help from spouses and significant others nearly a full day to sort, divide and move the accumulation that was his life. We told Mom that when she went, we were going to back a semi up to the house, throw everything in and pay someone to haul it off. We had no clue how prophetic that jest was.
I was working for the state library and was on the road, when I got a message to call one of Mom’s swimming buddies. I realized that a long-dreaded shoe had finally dropped. The caller wanted me to know that the lady who had become friend, fellow AA traveler, parent and listener was no longer. Mom wasn’t dead, but had suffered a serious stroke that for her was worse than death. She made a far better recovery than anyone could have predicted, even coming home and living independently for the next two years, but the two things she valued more than anything-speech and writing, were never the same.
Although it took me a long time to realize it, I entered the valley that afternoon in July of 2005. Because my sister and I knew Mom well and respected her independent spirit, we let her stay at the farm when both we and our immediate family members had plenty of second thoughts and feelings of guilt. I had to remember this was the lady who once had a bumper sticker that proclaimed “A Woman Without A Man, Is Like A Fish Without A Bicycle,” and who adopted a rule for even close friends and relatives; visit for longer than three days and you stay at a motel. Mom loved her friends, but loved her solitude and independence even more.
In order to support that need, I did a giant loop at least twice a week including once almost every weekend; Hartland to Augusta to Union and then back to Hartland. If I was on the road to work with a library, that loop might also include anyplace from Calais to York or Fryeburg. Sometime shortly after I entered the valley, my ability to sit down and let some of the dozens of essays, short stories and novels filling my head come out on my computer started to disappear. Instead of unbroken stretches where I saw the story unfolding in my mind, I had ten minute bursts interspersed with too many cups of coffee and somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand games of computer mahjong. It was both painful and demoralizing to go from writing a full novel during the depth of winter to getting as far as chapter four and giving up.
Sometime in the fall of 2006, Mom probably had another stroke. The first clue we had was the deterioration of her reading ability. She had been able to keep her spirits high by devouring nearly a book a day. Suddenly, she couldn’t read a chapter without forgetting what happened in the preceding one. That, coupled with her inability to write her column for the Camden Herald, seemed to kill her spark. When I got a call late one October night that she had fallen and was on her way to the emergency room, I spent most of the treacherous drive down foggy Route 7 trying to reach inside and feel something other than numbness.
Mom made enough of a recovery to be transferred to Quarry Hill in Camden, but her long-held wish to go back to Sennebec Hill Farm had been overcome by an acceptance that everything she lived for was now out of reach.
We had our Thanksgiving at Sennebec Hill Farm; me, Beth, our daughters Sara and Lisa, Lisa’s boyfriend Sam, Kate and Ken and their sons Jake and Max. I think everyone was surprised at how warm and comforting it was, given that the lynchpin of the last fifteen Thanksgivings lay in a hospital bed 14 miles away.
The look on Mom’s face when all of her family, except her Florida grandkids came to wish her a happy Thanksgiving was something I’ll remember for a very long time. I suspect our mass visit gave her the strength to allow herself to die.
Three nights later, Kate called from her home in Concord, Mass. “Drop everything and get to Quarry Hill. I just talked to her nurse who said this is really it. I’ll meet you there.” I took off while Beth contacted our daughters. My flight through Waldo County was a surreal recreation of the foggy drive to the emergency room.
I arrived first, then Beth, then Kate, then Lisa and Sam. Sara got lost as she entered Camden and one of the first lessons from the valley came to fruition. The kindness of strangers comes when most needed. A young man overheard Sara’s tearful query in a convenience store, hopped in his car and led her to Quarry Hill.
Kate and I told the others to go home around midnight and settled in. She and I had been here twice before, once with Dad and once with our younger sister, Sara. You may get slightly comfortable with the mechanics of death, but never with the emotional gotchas that come from nowhere, no matter how long you have been anticipating them. Mom died just after 1 A.M.
We left and returned to the farm. Even though it was well past midnight, we called ‘Aunty Marilis’ Mom’s best friend. If anyone in the universe deserved to know, it was she. Kate stayed at the farm and I drove home.
Mom’s memorial service was as good as it could get. I learned in my early AA years that I do best speaking from the heart and not from a sheet of paper. When Kate and I got up to start things off, I saw old friend Paul and realized miracles were still happening. He had been mom’s weeder by proxy when her legs would no longer allow her to get down and tame her garden paths. Paul said it perfectly, “I collect interesting people and Arley was one at the top of my list.” The crowd at the service was smaller than I expected, but that soon became another of the lessons from the valley. When you live a good long life, you outlive most of your friends.
Between December and late summer, Kate and I, with help from family, worked on sorting through the accumulated life of A. Carman Clark as manifested by a houseful of stuff. Boxes and bags and truckloads went north to Hartland and south to Concord. Grandkids were asked what they wanted and things set aside. We very conveniently sidestepped the issue of what to do with Sennebec Hill Farm until I arrived one day and found the front door had been kicked in. Oddly enough, nothing seemed to have been stolen, even though we had numerous piles of rather valuable stuff scattered all over the living room.
That forced Kate and I to make a painful decision. I had spent hundreds of hours bush hogging, woodcutting, killing poison ivy and keeping the fields open, all the time planning on living there some day. The long period of caring for Mom had begun to erode that dream; whoever kicked in the door finished it off. Another lesson and a valuable one from the valley came to me. Places aren’t about buildings or land, they are about who lives there. My long affection for Sennebec Hill Farm was fueled by my growing up there; hunting, exploring the 189 acres, swimming in Sennebec Lake and then always knowing that when I walked in the door, one of my best friends, my mother, would be ready to have a chat that might go anywhere. When Mom died, Sennebec Hill Farm sort of grayed out and became just one more thing I had to worry about.
The cleanup continued and our jest became real. We rented a dumpster and filled it twice. In the process I learned several valuable lessons courtesy of my travel through the valley. First, never try to clean alone, the ghosts and memories that live in objects will overwhelm you after a couple hours. Second, after a while, you reach a saturation point that affects you spiritually. I’ve been entering and winning sweepstakes since I was nine. The process of dealing with all the stuff at the farm darn near killed my hobby. After all, when you bring a truckload of ‘stuff’ home every weekend, how excited can you get by having more ‘stuff’ arrive in the mail? Third, there is a very nice feeling that comes from giving ‘stuff’ to people who have a greater need or interest in it than you do.
Kate and I gave the Vose Library in Union first dibs on any books we didn’t want, both for the collection and to help their book sale. We extended that same courtesy to the Union Historical Society. In addition, several hundred books on gardening, writing and nature were added to the Hartland Public Library. Kate and I learned another valuable lesson as we went through Mom’s books. Your place in the world is framed by your connections with other people. Time after time, we opened a book and discovered a personal note of thanks from the author or a piece of correspondence from them commenting on a shared thought.
We are now halfway through winter and Sennebec Hill Farm will soon become home to people who will build on what they found in my mother’s writing, something that did as much to spark their desire to own it as did the view of Appleton Ridge. I am not losing anything, although you might find that hard to believe. I have 58 years of memories. No property sale can touch those. In fact, I have preserved the hill across from the house as well as Katy Cove, for both play important parts in my novels, starting with Berek discovering his way to an alternate world in The Wizard of Simonton Pond.
The magic has finally returned and I am both writing passionately and entering sweepstakes with enthusiasm again. My journey, though painful has taught me many useful lessons. Be kind to yourself when you enter the valley. Your energy level and interest in things may evade you at the most inopportune times. It’s no big deal. In return, you are going to gain compassion for people who probably annoyed you greatly in the past as you become acutely aware of their pain. More importantly, you’re likely to do a few really dumb things during the journey. Forgive yourself because everyone who cares about you is going to do so.
Look honestly at your ‘stuff.’ How much of your accumulated material possessions do you really care about? A lady I never met personally, but consider a friend said it best; wanting what you have is always better than having what you want. When I die, I want to die naked of stuff. No matter how carefully you live life, you leave things that will be disconcerting and painful for your survivors. Do them a favor and get rid of it. I’ll be leaving the heavy burden of grief. I hope by getting rid of everything else ahead of time, I make my survivors’ journey bearable.
Thank you for this powerful, thoughtful piece, John. Whenever I hear you or Kate speak of your mother, I so wish I’d had the chance to meet her.
Thank you, John,. An apt time for me to read this.
I agree with Brenda. This is a very powerful piece. But it isn’t necessary to die naked. A few under clothes will always provide a bit of comfort till the end.
My mother was fully aware of the “stuff” she was leaving behind, and yet, she still left mementoes and such without any notes as to whom they had belonged to. Much of it I recalled, but some I never knew she had, such as the pitch pipe. She was musical, but it may have come from her birth mother, as did the harmonica. Jewelry, glassware which were gifts from her wedding, pictures that were boxed and escaped my hands and if not marked no one will know who they are, and a basket full of hand lotions, bath products and scents. She was aware that her daughter in law would be the one to deal with it all, along with grand daughters. Every nook and crany of her small apartment held something that was precious to her, but lost value with her passing. I’m glad you’ve regained your footing. In the words of a widow I’ve known for years, it takes what it takes for each of us.
I still revisit her so often in my mind! We’ve had some heated conversations while I’ve been revising the book she was writing when she died, The Corpse in the Compost. So absolutely mom, and so full of questions only she could answer. She was an amazing person and so much of that “stuff” had a purpose, even if we did have to look through every single book and stack of papers just in case some treasure, like a letter from another author, lurked there.
Profound. Thank you.