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The Way I See It: The Afterlife of Things

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Before we brought our friend, whom I’ll call Henry, home from the rehab facility where he’d been treated for end-stage Parkinson’s disease, we toured his house with the head of the home health agency that would care for him. Henry and his mother, into whose house he’d moved after she went to a nursing home, had been lifelong hoarders, we were warned.

“No worries,” said the agency head. “I’ve seen pretty much everything in this job.”

We opened the chest freezer in Henry’s basement to reveal a turkey with a six-years-gone sell-by date, and the corpse of a large ginger cat.

“Okay,” the agency man said. “That’s a first.”

Like many of our Montpelier neighbors, my husband and I are in the demographic that finds itself charged with disposing of the possessions of dead, dying, or incapacitated family members and friends. 

It’s a territory strewn with logistical and emotional hazards; Freud and others have taught us about object cathexis, the way we invest emotional energy in things external. It’s what we mean by “sentimental value.” So when we’re charged with making decisions about someone else’s things, we have to navigate all that.

Henry’s home was cleaned out in two Herculean phases. A team of friends got the impenetrable clutter removed or stashed away (so aides could maneuver his wheelchair), and built a small deck for enjoying the fresh outdoor air that the COVID-sealed nursing facility had been forced to deny him. 

After five weeks back home, Henry died, his beloved Maine coon cat in his arms. He was an only child and left no valid will. Ongoing, though in the hands of others now, is disposal of his welter of possessions — many of them beautiful and valuable, collected and treasured over the years — so the house can be transferred to distant heirs.

Some months after Henry’s passing, my 91-year-old mother’s slide into dementia accelerated with a breakthrough case of COVID-19 followed by an all-too-predictable journey from hospital to rehab to assisted living. Although she’s partly recovered physically, she’s long past the point of making rational decisions, such as emptying and selling her house to pay for the facility’s steep costs.

I have power of attorney and am her trustee, so that was up to me.

“It must be stressful,” friends say. To be more specific, the feelings that arise in the course of cleaning out a loved person’s long-time home can run the gamut through anxiety, melancholy, guilt, remorse, pity, greed, opportunism, weariness, resentment, and anger — and, if you’re lucky, relief when it’s over.

Take the stair carpet, for instance.

Sometime back in my Glasgow childhood, my parents — he a poorly paid teacher, she a homemaker — scraped together enough money to buy a carpet for the stairs, gray and blue, with a pattern of Greek lyres and laurel wreaths. It was the pride of their household. 

When we emigrated to Virginia, the carpet crossed the Atlantic in a steamer trunk, and was duly installed in their series of homes, eventually in the Cape Cod house where my father died and my mother lived for 26 more years.

Barely secured to the stairs by flimsy brass rods, the carpet had long since become a tripping hazard, worn bald here, shredding there, disconnected from its moorings. And my mother was increasingly subject to falls. But she wouldn’t hear of getting rid of it.

It would break her heart to know we tore it out. It nearly broke mine.

We brought in 1-800-GOT-JUNK. They were friendly, fast, and thorough, as were the Grunts who Move Junk who cleared out Henry’s house. They filled two trucks with dead or ancient appliances, scrap metal, broken furniture, and other stuff no one in the family would ever use. That left the tougher, smaller stuff.

I tried to be rational about it all, setting forth a series of goals:

  • Create revenue to support the vulnerable person you’re doing it all for.
  • Trash or recycle things no longer of use to anyone.
  • Triage clothes and housewares for highest and best use: keep for the person or her family; give to thrift shops; leave with the house for its next owners.
  • Preserve family memories, and heritage, and things meaningful to the person and her eventual heirs, such as jewelry, photos, and travel souvenirs.
  • Compensate oneself and other helpers for effort and aggravation, with a nice dinner or two out, mostly.
I thought I’d been ruthless, with the help of a husband who had less emotional investment in our memorabilia than I. But two weeks later, my sister and her husband came up, and filled another truck and a half with stuff to haul away.

The house is empty now, save for its major furnishings and one set of dishes and glassware. It’s ready for a real estate agent, or, if all goes well, for sale to a set of beloved Scottish cousins who want an American “holiday house” near the beach. That’s about as happy an ending as we could hope for. But I wonder if my mother would agree.

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