Sparking Anything But Joy


I am a champion procrastinator, but even I couldn’t put it off any longer.

It’s been two months since my mom died, and I finally had to reckon with cleaning out her place.

Walking in was the hardest part … her room frozen in time, a teacup with the tea bag still in it on the shelf behind her bed, the calendar still on April (she died just four days into May and was never the type to immediately flip the calendar page, so that detail made me smile fondly), a book folded open next to the bathtub where she (like me) loved to soak and read.

Although lingering death is its own kind of hell, sudden death is also heartbreaking. It truly looked like she’d be back any minute, like she’d just run out to the grocery store or something.

But obviously, I knew the harsh reality, and so I just took a deep breath and half a Valium and got to it.

A lot of the decisions were easy. The half-empty shampoo bottles, the various medications, the crusty nail polishes and toothpaste tube, the burned-down candles and slivers of soap … those got thrown away. The clothes and shoes and most of the books got donated to Goodwill. The family photo album and the heirloom stuffed animals and all the Christmas stuff and the books from my childhood were clearly in the “keep” pile.

Several items were a bit harder. The plants, for instance. I kill all plants, almost immediately, but my mom had the world’s greenest thumb and my husband also seems to have that gift. In some kind of eerie testament to her skill with plants, every single plant in her room was still alive, even after two months of massive and complete neglect. I ultimately decided to bring her plants back to my husband in hopes he could nurse them back to full health. Then there was the wooden cat statue, which is meaningless to me but which my mom inexplicably moved from house to house to house in every move she’s made since the late ’90s. I finally guessed I might as well keep in because it obviously meant something to her. Her yarn and knitting needles, which are as useless to me as texts written in a foreign language but which she used to make scarves and blankets for everyone in the family.

Then there were the practical items that I decided to keep: her computer, a stockpile of batteries, several unopened bottles of Tums, a few iPhone chargers.

When all was said and done, the last bag hauled to the curb, the last box dropped off at Goodwill, I had the strangest impulse: I wanted to call my mom and let her know I’d done an important and hard thing. I wanted her to be proud of me.

Instead, I called my teenage daughter in St. Louis, crossing my fingers that she might be in a rare good mood.

“I cleaned out Gigi’s room,” I told her, trying to keep my voice light and level. “It sucked but it had to be done.”

“Awww,” she said. “I know that wasn’t easy, Mom. I’m proud of you.”

And for just that moment, that was enough. That was exactly what I needed.




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