What It All Comes Down To...

My attic is full of crap...

Clothes we all know I'll never wear again. Baby pajamas that in some delusional state I saved thinking one day my boys might want to dress their own children in them...But truthfully, I I saved them because I didn't want to let go of my babies, or the scent that reminded me of those fleeting, fragile moments.

Of course, now the tiny bits of fabric smell like stale, soured milk but still I save them.

I have furniture, life jackets Dad asked me to keep for a "little while," old lamps, all the receipts from every single purchase I've ever made just in case the IRS wants to audit me and asks to see them...Although now they are in such a chaotic jumble of years, months and items that I feel certain even an IRS auditor would feel swamped and overcome.

I have all the pictures I have ever taken, all my old patient charts, and all my favorite toys from the boys' childhood. Saved for the grandchildren yet to come, or because I thought one day they'd be collectible...Or because really they were my favorites. They remind me of days spent lying on the kitchen floor making "Varooom" sounds as our Batman figures careened across the tiles and my babies screamed their delight.

My attic is full of treasures and trash.

The closets downstairs are just as full. Boxes of winter sweaters are crammed beneath the bed. The kitchen cabinets are overflowing. The yard is crowded with flowers and shrubs. The trunk of my car is even loaded...

I carry only the essentials of my commuter lifestyle...Two small suitcases of clothing, a backpack of nursing home paperwork, paperbacks I've read but intend to trade in for other, unread paperbacks...My filebox of greeting cards, kept on hand in case I remember someone's birthday, or want to send a written thank you to the legion of people who have made it possible for me to be here with Dad because they help out at home.

Lately I cannot bring anything new into my home without realizing it, thinking about it, and wondering "Do I really need this Thing?"

This train of thought began when my parents moved to the independent living facility and had to downsize.

I felt it again whenever I walked into a patient's room in the nursing home and saw how few "things" remained from their former lives. There are always photographs, at least one or two, and perhaps a trinket or favorite sweater. But half a room is not much. Two single drawers and an armoire will not hold every single thing we want to carry along with us...Much is winnowed away.

Dad is down to one room.

It is cluttered with the things he wanted to bring...Important pictures, meaningful books, CDs, papers...But as his world slows down and closes in on him, as the lack of oxygen affects his short term memory, I have noticed something.

Dad's world is now contained in a single overstuffed shoebox.

It sits beside him on the bed-always within reach.

It holds his current favorite book, "Leaving Church," crossword puzzles in varying levels of difficulty, stationary, pens, pencils, the pad where he tracks which medication he's taken at which time, the "black bag" he carried long before "man bags" were in, his daytimer, the TV schedule and of course, the remote controls to every electronic device in the room.

Yesterday, in an attempt to help him organize and find his things easily, I brought him a tote. It was the kind used for carrying cleaning tools from one room to the next. I went to the dollar store to find it, and while I was there, my best friend, Marti, called.

When I told her what I was doing, she was completely silent for a long minute.

"Nance," she said finally, in a small, choked voice. "That's what my Daddy did before he died. He kept his treasures in a shoe box."

I felt my heart squeeze as I took in the reality of what she was saying. I remembered her father's battle with Alzheimers and realized once again, with an awful clarity- my father is dying. His life is ending.

I realized all of this in a nanosecond before rejecting her words. But it was too late. The arrow of reality shot home piercing my armor of denial.

"Well," I said, my tone light and cavalier. "That just goes to show you. We were twins separated at birth!"

I wouldn't let myself go where her words led me. I couldn't.

Not then. Not in that brightly lit store where everything is only a dollar and where are so many things and possibilities to consider. I had to stay in the moment.

Right then I needed to help my father organize his "things." I did not need to accept the meaning of this further distillation of his essential life.

Because she is my best friend, Marti let me get away with it... But she knew.

Today as I sit across from him, I feel the reality of her words. I feel the truth cut down to the bone and shatter my heart.

My father is dying and nothing will stop this tide from running out.

I brought the organizer back to his room and sat down on the bed beside him to explain my great idea...I showed him the small bathtub stopper I intended to use to keep an ocean of life from running out on my wonderful, wonderful friend.

He listened, paying rapt attention as he always does...But I knew, even as the words dropped from my lips and rained down around us on the bed, he would never use the plastic tote.

Sure enough, he kept it on the bed, but more as a token of his appreciation and love for me. He even stuck a few pens in the holes along the carrier's side.

But next to it on the flowered quilt, sits the navy blue, cardboard box.

It is still nestled close by his side and my father is still dying.

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