My post about my mother’s books made some of you worry that she had died. But no, she’s going strong at 95. Aside from advanced dementia, she is very healthy. Maybe she’ll live to be 100.
So why dispose of her books and other items? This happens under various circumstances in most families, but in many cases, it happens in a big rush. A friend had only a week to dispose of the entire contents of her mother’s house–and put the house on the market, too. Another friend had just two days to gather up family possessions after closing on selling the house–and found herself locked out and having to beg the new owner for what belonged to her father. And many times, an elderly parent has to be put in assisted living or a nursing home or hospice, and the caretaker child is so busy arranging the situation and visiting the parent and talking to doctors that the home and its contents just sit. Until a frenzy of cleaning out occurs. During which, the actual items are not given much thought.
We all have heard about the hard feelings generated when a parent dies and the siblings have to divide up the possessions. Sometimes these quarrels last a lifetime. The soup bowl, or a certain book, or a chair. Whatever. How to avoid these scenes of passionate emotion? Divide things up when siblings are not actively grieving and feeling guilty and angry. Think about the items and discuss them among the siblings and descendants. Find them good homes. That’s what we have been doing.
The truth is that when a relative has dementia, the family endures what is called “the long goodbye.” The person suffering this brain disease doesn’t turn overnight into an unresponsive vegetable. There is a descent of intellect that can be slow or fast. And there remain flashes of intelligence and humor despite a permanently clouded mind. Those who have constant contact with the blighted parent often adopt a brisk, practical attitude about it; we have tasks to perform because there is still the husk of a beloved person to take care of. But there are moments when we stop and remember how Mom used to be. And then it hurts. There is no way around it.
As we dismantle the collection of books and other objects she cared about, there are sad moments. Acknowledging them is grieving in advance, if you will. We are paying it forward in our own curious way. We hope, perhaps not in vain, that when she finally does go to the heavenly reward in which she believes, that we will feel we have done right by her in all things. Call it a futile hope, if you will, but at least we are not outright sobbing (or in cold denial but crying on the inside) as we sort through the things that no longer have meaning to her.
And as a humorous note, after a lifetime of acquiring, and despite her constant efforts to reduce clutter, Mom has many, many possessions. She was the one who had the bookcases custom made to use every available inch. She was the one who built the bookcase in the kitchen in our previous home. Removing a third of the books in this house still leaves every bookshelf stuffed. No wonder we’re starting this monumental sorting task early.