Deciding What to Do With Things

AUDIO VERSION

Having an extra four weeks before I had to move made things much easier for me physically. I only did half days of packing and sorting; I’d spend the remainder of the day resting. Some self-talk was required. Whenever I thought of “one more thing I could do,” I laid into myself: “What, are you crazy? Do you want the movers to have to pick you up and load you onto the truck, too?” And I’d settle down again. By the time moving day arrived, I’d gained back much of the strength and energy I’d used up in the initial burst of activity following the signing of the sales agreement.

The challenge I was facing was emotional as well as physical. Every object I picked up brought back memories. Every corner of the house and yard held reminders of experiences I’d had with Priscilla. Grief is typically accompanied by physiological symptoms for the first couple of months: disorientation, headaches, dizziness, difficulties sleeping, shortness of breath, etc. Eventually these wear off and the work of grief becomes mostly emotional. But as soon as it sank in that I’d be moving, all of the physiological symptoms came roaring back. No doubt this aggravated the fatigue. It was also a little confusing. (“Am I lying down because I’m tired, or because I’m dizzy?”)

But there were a couple of things that helped me a lot, and Priscilla was responsible for both of them. For one thing, as I was getting ready to pack up the house, I dug out the supplies she’d tucked into closets, stored in the garage, etc. I discovered that I had more than enough of anything I might need: boxes of all sizes, bubble wrap, foam peanuts, blank newsprint, rolls of tape, etc. Once I was all packed, a significant quantity of supplies remained and I was able to pass them along to a family that was also moving.

I discovered that Priscilla had kept the original boxes for a great number of our things. She always said that the safest way to move something was in the box it came in. I found the boxes in which our dining room set had been shipped to us 28 years before. I found the box for the ironing board that she bought before we were married—that had to be nearly 40 years old.

She wasn’t just being obsessive by keeping these boxes. She explained to me once, “You always have to be ready to move to a new assignment.” I shared in an earlier post that while she had a ministry that was based in her home, her calling involved not settling down in one place for most of her life, but instead moving to wherever she was needed. This meant that she had to create inviting homes over and over again in new places. Saving boxes and stockpiling moving supplies was the way to ensure that the makings of a home would get safely to any new assignment. It certainly helped me now that I was being sent on one myself.

They tell you that when you’re packing up to move, it helps to sort everything into one of six categories: keep, give away, sell, donate, recycle, or throw away. There were certainly many things I wanted to keep. As I explained in a recent post, continuity is created when you take meaningful objects with you to a new place to make a new expression of your life there.

I’d also given many things over the past year to friends and family whom I hoped would appreciate having them as keepsakes of Priscilla. But I couldn’t bring myself to sell anything. That just didn’t feel meaningful. The way you part with the possessions of a loved one or of a shared life has to be meaningful in some way, or it’s just too hard emotionally.

But Priscilla helped me with this as well. She’d told me, “Once I’m gone, if you’re wondering what to do with something of mine and you can’t think of anyone who might want it, donate it to a thrift store. I always had fun finding nifty things in thrift stores, and this way someone else will have that same joy.”

The entrance to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Lansing

So, with this advice and permission, I donated many things to two groups she’d worked with. I gave two full truckloads and multiple carloads of furniture and household goods to St. Vincent de Paul. In addition to enjoying shopping in their thrift store, Priscilla had worked with them in some instances to help refugees get settled. I also gave a whole truckload and a full carload of things to Habitat for Humanity. Priscilla had volunteered with them in construction and she’d also found many things for our own home in their “Re-Store.” Now most of her tools and supplies would be used in the organization’s work or made available affordably to others through the store.

I also filled the recycling and trash carts to the brim for each collection. But beyond all of this, there were two specific items I hoped might be helpful to someone who was battling the same disease that Priscilla had fought so bravely. I contacted the ALS Society about them.

Priscilla had a treadmill that she got originally to help with physical therapy after a car accident in 2000. It had an “orthopedic tread” belt that made for safe and comfortable walking. It also had a grab bar in the front. I realized it could help someone with ALS continue walking for fitness even after balance problems and muscle weakness made it difficult and dangerous for them to walk on the irregular pavement of sidewalks and streets.

The ALS Society notified their local email list and I soon heard back from a man with the disease who felt the treadmill would be very helpful to him. Two of his friends came to get it. It had to be disassembled into its two parts so it could be carried up the basement steps. I had the friends do this so they’d know how to reassemble it. Even so, each part was so heavy that they strained and grunted as they heaved it up the stairs. Afterwards, sweaty and short of breath, they talked with me about how the disease had affected their friend. Even though they were “tough guys,” their eyes misted up as they said, “We just wish we could do more for him.” I told them I hoped they realized how much they were doing right now.

I also wanted to find someone who could use the portable 12-foot ramp we’d used to get Priscilla in and out of the house in her wheelchair. The ALS Society publicized this as well and I heard within hours from someone who needed it. His home was a two-hour drive away, but it turned out that he was already coming to East Lansing that day. His daughter’s high school girls’ basketball team was playing in the state Final Four at the Breslin Center on the Michigan State campus. So he arranged to come over in the early evening after the game and pick up the ramp.

He got out of his pickup truck cab supporting himself with a cane. It was rugged and wooden; more of a walking stick. He explained that he’d just admitted to himself that it was no longer safe for him to go up and down stairs. I recognized this moment from the many similar ones Priscilla had experienced. I explained to him how we’d learned not to consider them “milestones of decline,” but instead see the new assistive devices they required as friends who were helping us continue to do what we wanted to do.

He turned out to be a man of strong and confident faith. “I know where I’m going,” he shared, once he learned that I was a former pastor. “When my time comes, I don’t want them keeping me around artificially. But in the meantime, I’m still going to do everything I can.” I told him how Priscilla, too, had chosen against invasive ventilation and a feeding tube. But I also explained how she would say she was going to do “as much as possible for as long as possible” and that “I’m not going to stop living before I’m dead.” He nodded in eager agreement at these expressions that captured his own resolve.

Realizing that there was no other way to get the ramp onto his truck bed, he put down his cane and walked over to it somewhat unsteadily. He lifted one end of the 75-pound ramp off the ground. I picked up the other end. We carried it gingerly over to the pickup and loaded it on. He grabbed his cane and drove off.

By the end of the extra four weeks, not only had much of my strength returned, the physiological symptoms of grief were also gone as well.

 

Author: endlessmercies

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister and served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School. Dr. Smith answers questions about the Bible, particularly those that arise from the use of his study guides, at goodquestionblog.com.

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