“Just open one,” Amy softly said.
Sitting in the attic, I was overwhelmed with shelf after shelf lined with boxes. I chose one that was labelled; John. We quietly settled ourselves on the floor and opened it. On the top was a handwritten birthday card from me with words expressing my tremendous love for him. I broke down in tears while Amy spoke of how sweet it was that he had saved it.
We picked up the next card, “Thank you for staying at the Renaissance”. We rolled with laughter. Alright….so he saved EVERYTHING!
It was an incomprehensible tasks that lay ahead. I couldn’t afford the rent in my 3000 square foot home and hiring movers and paying for storage would be outrageous if I didn’t dramatically downsize.
Three years earlier we had moved from Wisconsin and I was very busy with parenting duties as well as business planning, so John essentially packed and lightly labelled the whole house. We moved into our rental in the Santa Cruz, California mountains and as I organized the kitchen and worked on marketing, he organized the boxes into a unique filing system which was never shared. In addition, more was accumulated over the past three years adding to a packed attic and garage full of mystery.
As a researcher and writer, John had every recent medical paper he read and every note he wrote stacked in his office. His bedroom dresser and nightstand, also stacked with papers.
The boxes were time bombs of memories that exploded with each uncovering, but living in the frustration of not knowing where anything was and desperately wanting to find felt pads for the bottom of my noisy chairs, I decided I couldn’t delay any longer. I craved organization. Not to mention, the stacks of his papers were painful to see in each room I entered.
The task I was attempting to accomplish simply needed to present itself in a less overwhelming display. I thought of a method that 10-year old A.D.D. Betsy used to play with her assigned chores. I made it a game!
1) I took blue painter’s tape and walked around the house labeling each drawer, each shelf, and each box. The goal was to not make any job last longer than 15-20 minutes, so jobs like his closet were divided into 6 (top shelf, hanger area, and floor for both sides).
2) I assigned each piece of tape a number totalling 206.
3) I found a random number generator app on my phone, and entered the numbers 1-206. I would press a button and it would randomly choose. Part of the game was finding the location of the number although it was easy to locate as I labelled them sequentially.
4) I backed up the process by writing 1-206 on a piece of paper, so I could see my progress and crossed off each number as it was accomplished.
5) I moved the car out of the garage, and created three piles: Storage, Donate, Toss.
6) Although I already had many boxes, I ordered containers online to help with the process. This is a great idea if you know you are moving, because the containers come in large boxes that you can also use.
It immediately became fun as I felt John was picking the numbers for me. One of the first drawers I hit surprised me with the felt pads I was looking for. I uncovered documents I needed at the perfect time, and in the process of dumping, donating, and managing papers, the task gave me a great distraction and the feeling of accomplishment. Some days I did one number, other days 20.
For the most part I followed the random numbers obediently, but I was open to variation. One day I had pulled a bunch of sweaters out of the laundry and didn’t want to shove them in my very limited drawer space. I entered the room and saw his dresser. I eyed the drawers coveting the space that would allow my sweaters to remain fluffy. I opened the drawer and emptied the contents of his t-shirts into a box, quickly labeled it for donation, and selfishly claimed the drawer.
This may seem cold to some, but I didn’t feel connected to John through his t-shirts. His memory lived on in photos and stories, but not in his socks.
The process wasn’t without pain, as I did some of my most intense sobbing with a myriad of memories not only of my life with John, but also with my children who were now all adults. Every item became a metaphor of hold on to it, give it away, or trash it!
I did all of the trash purging myself, including my first trip to the county dump. It made me stronger both physically and mentally.
The process of tidying up, was indeed life changing and eventually became the greatest task I could have assigned myself as I uncovered hidden treasures and faced boldly the intense pain. The whole project took me about 5 months and it was invaluable when I moved to San Francisco shortly after. I am convinced that it sped up the healing, boosted my self-esteem, and created greater independence.