Last month, I visited my mom in North Carolina to help her go through boxes and boxes of stuff. And in those boxes was a bit of my dad, things that helped me remember him or even explain him. There is a lot more to “stuff” sometimes than we give it credit for.
Sorting “stuff” is a task my siblings and I have helped with ever since my father died a little over seven years ago. First it was going through medical papers and condolence letters. Then Mom moved so we sorted through half a century of books, clothes, furniture, toys, untold heaps of letters. My parents had kept and moved many of these boxed belongings multiple times from the attic of one house to the garage of the next and then the spare room of the next.
I am proud to say we were able to get rid of a lot. Three huge bags to trash/recycling – and a car trunk full of donations. There were things in those bags older than I am that had lived with my parents longer than I did.
At this point, I need to give some background about my dad. He was a genius. Seriously, he was very, very smart. One of the brightest chemistry students at his college – at his 50th reunion they told my mom no one had topped him. He was a physician and medical researcher in a pretty esoteric sub-speciality. Analytical, articulate, focused, patient, collaborative. He was a high-level thinker who was also amazing with children and had a keen sense of humor. I loved his handwriting and after he died I kept samples of it.
Back to the boxes, Mom and I opened one that was filled with not-so-old medical files. And between lists of prescription meds and recovery plans, I found these:
This is my Dad learning to write again after he had a stroke in 2002. It isn’t the handwriting I grew up admiring. He lost the use of his dominant right hand and also had some judgement problems, though he still had most of his complex intellectual abilities. (He could talk all day long about the Theory of Relativity but wasn’t allowed to cross the street by himself.) All of the focus he used for years in the lab was now turned to recovery with a goal of returning to work. He never made that ultimate goal, but he worked hard and made a lot of progress. He was not a quitter.
Tucked away in boxes, was all this evidence of my dad’s long recovery from a scattershot stroke that took away his most basic life skills in a unpredictable pattern. (It didn’t affect just one side of his body, for instance.) Learning to write and use utensils, not being allowed to use knives, having favorite foods put on the banned items list. All these changes happened in a twinkling and while he was at the hospital he didn’t know how he’d handle it. But, sure enough, once he started rehab he became laser focused on regaining lost skills and renewing old habits. (I began to have a secret desire to go back in time to share some of his lost, beloved activities, like eating steak or blue cheese.)
All of this flooded back to me from looking at a few pieces of paper. Pharmacy receipts, physical therapy and occupational therapy plans, worksheets filled with chicken-scratch handwriting. My mom kept all these for years thinking they contained important information we’d need for his care. But going through them, they became important as a way to remember our lives with him. There is a lot of your life that can be unveiled in papers. Artifacts don’t duplicate life in the moment, but they do contain truth.
I might be a secret hoarder – but I actually kept some of the papers I found in my dad’s box of stuff – not many, but a few. Mom was ready to toss them, but I’m still analyzing and reminiscing over the contents. He isn’t here to tell me what they meant to him, so I am interpreting his life based on my memories, some stories, and boxed keepsakes. It makes me wonder how different that is from when I could talk to him directly, because I am sure he interpreted his own life differently than I or anyone else has. Maybe what we humans are is a collection of our own and other people’s impressions of us. You don’t get the whole picture until you put all the impressions together…maybe not even then.
Dad’s papers also got me wondering what my papers will say about me. After I die, what will people remember about me? Will it be what I think it is, or entirely different? And will my “stuff” tell them things about me that even I don’t fully understand about myself?
There is a side of relationships that is archeological. One of the sweetest things I found in my dad’s dresser shortly after he died is a small container of teeny tiny teeth from all four of his children – I guess he was the tooth fairy! And the archeology of relationships is not just with the departed. I learn things about my daughter when see what she keeps in her backpack for school. My son never tosses old video games, even if he won’t play them again, perhaps because each one contains his high score and hours of his time.
Whatever the case, I hope I don’t curate my life too carefully, keeping my most erudite essays and tossing embarrassing photos. I’d like to leave a few surprises in my boxes of stuff so that people can still get to know me. It worked for Dad, whether he knows it or not. I’m still getting to know him and I hope I always will.