What you keep becomes your story

It is no small irony that a few weeks ago, days after writing the post Careful What You Throw Away, I was notified of a sudden death in the peripheral family and summoned into service as the estate’s executor. I’d agreed to this assignment about six years ago, when a cousin dear to me had begun the unmistakeable, heartbreaking downhill slide into dementia. Her husband’s family was far away, her only sibling was older and out-of-state, and they had no children together or other close relatives in a position to step up. Our families had been very close, and her mother and father had been like grandparents to me. So, I agreed.

At the time, fulfilling the commitment seemed hazy and distant—anything but real. And quite frankly, there were many times after my cousin’s death when I was determined to back out, most recently just a few months ago. But I could never bring myself to let her husband down. He would join us for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as they both had before her death, but without her, he always seemed so lost. He kept up a good face and his typical good humor through three surgical procedures, two of them major. But if you really looked and listened, you could see how rudderless he was. So I never said a word.

He died suddenly a few weeks ago (“of a broken heart” said his neighbors, the church secretary, almost anyone else I spoke with). And just as suddenly, I was thrust into the role about which I’d been so ambivalent. Communicating with his family, notifying the funeral home, planning the service, seeking out paperwork for the attorney. Staring at a house full of stuff and trying hard not to be overwhelmed. While all of the important papers were in order—he had carefully, responsibly, shown me where to find them—very little had been touched since his wife passed. I had offered many times to help him prepare her clothes to donate, or go through anything else in the house, but each time he declined. And I would say, “Whenever you’re ready.” Turns out, he never was.

The biggest job, the most heart-rending one, has been the photographs. I’ve been through hundreds of them, pitched duplicates, made a pile for the funeral service, and started filling a box for his sons and sister, set aside the photos and documents from my aunt and uncle’s life. Amid the crazy everyday things that clutter our lives—from plastic containers and tea towels to golf trophies and souvenirs—only these photos are priceless. Only the photos tell their stories—of family, friendships, challenges and sorrows, fresh starts—and often they’re not the stories we thought we knew.

My father sold the house five years after my mother passed and moved in with us, so I was spared this task for my own parents. To say that I’ve been subject to a wild range of perceptions and emotions throughout the process so far would be the understatement of not one century, but probably the last three. I’m keenly conscious that I am in the process of disassembling the lives of these two people. That I am taking apart their history, revealing in the little corners of their life together the quiet kindnesses, the everyday struggles and disappointments, the treasured memories. They chose to trust me with this staggering responsibility. My obligation is to execute it with patience and respect. In the final analysis, it’s a gift.

Photo: Sunset, St. John, New Brunswick ©2018 hashtagretired.com

26 thoughts on “What you keep becomes your story

  1. Becky Ross Michael

    Wonderful attitude…seeing this role is a gift. Most of us would probably want others to feel that way about the pictures of our lives, as well. I’m not sure that digital photos will carry the same weight. I treasure the varied types of photos I’ve “inherited” from my grandparents and parents, many black-and-white, the early colored ones that fade, the occasional Polaroid, the black photo albums written in with white ink…that all adds so much character and sense of time that digital photos will lack.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Mary Hart

    You have undertaken a humungous task and I know you will do it with great care and respect. There are so many decisions that must be made, sometimes on the spot, ( I know – I had to do just this when our son, John, suddenly died at age 52 – and although I knew his death was near, when my husband died on Sept. 17, I found myself having to confront the same decisions. Fortunately, I have six remaining kids who helped me and each other through these deaths – my poor husband, was so shocked by John’s death that he was a zombie throughout the entire funeral and for many months thereafter). I am still dealing with all the financial details after Marc’s death – even though we owned everything together and had all information in order, the paper work is interminable . I’d submit one form and I’d be sent 13 more to fill out. It took 3 hours on the phone one morning to change the name on our electric, gas, and water accounts.I don’t know who else might pay my bill! A friend told me that her husband had died in 2011 and a few months ago the gas in her house was turned off. The bill was paid each month, so she was both confused and furious. The gas company’s response made both of us laugh-” well, your husband is dead so he no longer has an account. And then we weren’t sure of your address.” My friend responded, “Well ,my husband died 8 years ago and you did find my house!” Anyway, Angela, this is just a long round-about way( I’m not Irish , am I??) to tell you that you are a wonderful friend and someone who knows how important it is to honor those who have been significant in your life.

    Try to pace yourself as you do all the work that’s entailed; it’s easy to become overwhelmed. ( I still haven’t been able to write thank you notes as by the time I finish with the paper work, I’m just too tired and bleary eyed to even contemplate writing. And this bothers me – before Marc and I left on our honeymoon, I had all thank you notes written as I’ve always been a stickler for sending a thank you promptly. I just have to accept the fact that right now I can’t live up to my usual “standards.” A bit of humble pie, eh?).

    Thanks so much for sharing this piece. It’s so great to know that I have friends who are kind, loving, and honor their word ( I fear the current political scene has made me respect kindness and support for others even more than I alway have).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ron

    Angela, your indeed a saint. Having been through this with my parents and can only admire your dedication to this family and this man. Oh, and yes going through such an event is a gift.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Angela

      I am very humbled by this kind and loving comment, Diane. But it’s just that Golden Rule thing, really. Any one of us would want to be treated with respect through this process. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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