A Caregiver's Roles: The value of simply being present

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By a Cambridge Caregiver

Back when I was a bride, and when my in-laws were the age I am now, the matriarch of my new family asked me to help her out with a “little project.” After more than two decades of diapers and scouts and sleep-overs and graduation parties and one grand wedding reception, she and my father-in-law were done raising their family and were moving on, leaving behind the big Victorian house that had been the center of their lives.  There were books to give away and furniture to divvy up and loads to take to Goodwill, but what she wanted me for was to tackle the attic, and help her decide what to keep, what to toss, and what to give away.

I had all the enthusiasm of a twenty-something efficiency expert, and no experience with the minefields that are represented by a lifetime of attic-banished clutter.  What fun!  I thought.  And really, how easy!  There’s a big dumpster in the driveway.  Most of what’s up there is mildewed and falling apart.  I’ll encourage a lot of tossing, right out the window.  She’ll be glad to have me there to keep her from saving stuff she doesn’t need, can’t use, won’t miss. 

Needless to say, it wasn’t so simple.  Everything had value, everything meant something.  Boxes of old Kodak slides, carefully organized into metal boxes for projectors that no longer exist.  Old curtains and fussy hand-me-down furniture that had been used as theatrical stage props until they’d given out, torn and frayed.  Workbooks and check stubs and notebooks and three-ring binders, some filled with memorabilia from trips taken, routes followed, menus ordered from.  Tattered photos of football teams, camp counselors, college outings, Christmas cards.  Names forgotten, faces fading.  What would it mean to just toss it all?

Needless to say, it couldn’t be done.  Not, at least, without remembering some long ago stories.  As it turned out, that’s where I became truly useful.

We’d open a box.  My mother-in-law would thumb through it.  Something would jog her memory, and off she’d set, Scheherazade-like, with a tale about that person, that day, that voyage, that vacation. Far beyond my youthful ability to lug and toss and forget, my role as the listener—and rememberer—proved to be my highest value. 

Remarkably, the telling of the stories didn’t necessarily make the physical item more valuable to my mother-in-law.  If anything, the telling of the story released her from having to own the thing itself.  And with me there, as the willing vessel to fill to the brim with memories, the tossing away part became possible.  Once the tale had been shared, and once we had the satisfaction of both knowing that the other owned that history, then, voila! The news clipping, the yearbook, the scrapbook—the whole box could be deep sixed.   

Oh, we held onto some precious items.  I had some ancient football team photos framed, and we saved some of  her wedding day photo albums and honeymoon slides, the colors so Kodachrome bold, the skies so blue over Francestown NH, Yosemite, Diamond Head.  Letters we kept, for the stamps and the penmanship and the snapshots of A Day in the Life. Most of what we took, down from the attic, we took in our hearts.  And the gift I got, and the gift I gave, was to be present.

Now, two more decades later, my in-laws are down-sizing once again, this time to assisted living.  With the passing of time has come more photos, more mementos, more accumulated stuff.  This time around, though, the stories won’t be new ones to me, and the faces will mostly be familiar.   This time, as before, I will be the vessel into which the stories flow.  And I will be grateful to have figured out that being present to share the stories matters more than all the accumulated wealth of things.  I will be richer for what I learn, as together, my mother-in-law and I edit her life down to what matters most, what will fit in their new cozy home, what goes in the dumpster, and what I will take with me in my heart, as memories.