Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Planning for the Future

It was a very hot day in Memphis, and my sister Joy and I had a most unpleasant, sticky task...cleaning out our mom's attic.  In the years following Mom's wreck in 2008, it gradually became apparent that she could not live in her house independently anymore.  We had known there would come a time where we would have to sell her house.  Before that happened, we had to clean it.

It was the attic we were most concerned about.  Years of accumulation had taken its toll, and the area had become a breeding ground for mice and God knows what other kind of critters.  We were just happy if when we pulled down those metal clanking stairs a bat didn't swoop down upon us.  But it was a job we had to do, so I had flown down to Memphis to get together with Joy, don our white hazmat safety suits from Home Depot, and get to work.

We probably could have just pulled up a gigantic garbage sack and just dumped the whole lot, but we were looking for something very special in amidst the insignificant clutter. I had remembered our dad once sitting at the top of those stairs, as he was wont to do one some evenings, examining his "papers," which consisted of memorabilia, Sunday school lessons, choir anthems he was thinking about ordering, etc., when I went up to join him.  While we were up there that night, he lifted up a magazine, pointed to the picture of an old man with a beard, and I thought he said, "This is the only picture I have of my father."  As a teenager, that momentous fact was unfortunately lost on me.  My interest in family lore would never really develop until I was an adult.  So as I kind of heard what he was saying but didn't really focus on it, that was the last I thought of the episode until there Joy and I were on that hot summer day cleaning out the attic.  I related the incident to the best of my memory.  Joy, who is the family genealogist, got excited because she had never seen a photo of our paternal grandfather, so the search was on.  The problem was, I couldn't remember the details.  I thought it was some sort of magazine, and I knew the guy had a beard, but other than that, my mind was a blank.  So we searched through stacks of old Life magazines, old church magazines, old newspapers.  Our time in that hot stifling attic would have been shortened considerably had we not spent our time trying to find that darn picture.

Eureka! There it was, in a magazine of sorts - a trade magazine for printers, and the picture was not our dad's father, but his grandfather!  A priceless treasure that had been uncovered with a lot of sweat, in this case, literally a lot of sweat.

In the subsequent years, we managed to sell the house, our mom grew more frail and unable to care for herself, living for a while with Joy, then living in an apartment with Joy bringing her food and being her caretaker in every way, and finally on January 6, 2018, Mom passed on at age 94.  The last decade since her car wreck has been traumatic for us in many ways.  We watched a strong parent become like a child.  We watched how her health deteriorated.  We looked into a mirror and saw ourselves one day getting old, wondering how that will be handled.  A great deal of introspection ensued, for both Joy and me.

I have come to the realization that there are 3 priorities I must think about as I continue my own life journey, thinking ahead to the time my kids will have to deal with things.

1.  For goodness' sake, get rid of the junk!  This is something my husband and I fight every day, as somewhere deep down I know we have a minor hoarding tendency.  My thoughts are always, "When I retire I will be able to work with this/fix this/do this/sew this."  Ed's thoughts are usually, "The chair is broken.  Stick it in the basement.  Stick it in the attic.  Just get it out of here so I don't have to deal with it."  So from my perspective, when I die, the kids will have tons of clutter, sewing patterns they won't want, books,  projects that I "intended" to finish.  From Ed's perspective, there will be things they will have to trash that we just never had enough drive to trash ourselves.  Sometimes I look around and think, "How sorry I will feel for our kids when they have to deal with all this stuff."

2.  Our son Matt said to me one day, "Mom, I'm not looking for an inheritance; all I want to ask is that y'all not leave any debt."  I never thought about it until then, but yes.  If losing a parent is not enough, all one needs is to be saddled with debt.

3.  Finally, it was our Mom's deteriorating health that because the hardest thing to deal with.  Some of it was her fault, some wasn't. We often wonder what her remaining years would have been like if she hadn't had the accident, which broke a hip and ankle and set her on the road to disability.  We'll never know, but I do know that it is up to Ed and me to take the best care of our health so we remain as independent as we can for as long as we can.  This is not a selfish act; this is a gift to our children.

Life is all about learning.  Sometimes the lessons come slowly, sometimes fast.  I may not have developed an appreciation for old family photographs until I grew up, but since then, I have certainly developed an appreciation of what it means to lose a parent, the things one can control, the things one can't.  And there are things you leave your kids with - yes, that includes money or lack thereof, but it also includes leaving them with major tasks that should have been done earlier (whether the broken chair in the attic or the financial/insurance/important papers unorganized and/or missing), and the all important gift of our health, so we can relieve them of the burden of trying to take care of us when we become old.  Easy to say, hard to remember to focus on.

Rest in peace, Mama.  You taught me many life lessons and are teaching me still.  My main lesson? Live a life so that the things that will be said at my funeral are the same things that were said at Mom's - who is remembered for her kindness, her generosity, her unconditional love.  Now that's a worthwhile resolution!

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