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