Several weeks after my stepmother died, I loaded up the kids and took them to spend a few days with my father in Georgia. He had been living alone since she died and I figured the house could use some grandkids to liven things up for a few days. I also wanted to cook and freeze some meals for my dad- My brother and I had stocked his freezer with frozen dinners the week of my stepmother’s funeral and, while there’s nothing wrong with the occasional prepackaged meal I guess, I hated to think of him eating them every night. My stepmother loved to cook, so I felt pretty confident that her kitchen would have everything I needed to put some things together except for the fresh ingredients.
And I was right. Six weeks after her death, the place looked pretty much just as she had left it. The books she had been reading were still dogeared on the table beside the sofa. The notes she had written to herself remained on the refrigerator. The bracelet she had worn not long ago still sat on her nightstand. It was both comforting and disconcerting. I mean, she was just here. And yet- she was gone forever. How could this have happened?!
I tried to minimize these kinds of thoughts by staying busy that weekend, playing with the kids and taking them places in the town where I’d grown up, seeing relatives, talking to my dad, and cooking, cooking, cooking– but there were more than a few times when I’d slip off and take a few minutes in a bathroom to cry for a moment.
Preparing meals ended up being oddly therapeutic. Food was where my stepmother and I connected. We shared the same love of Southern Living recipes and always spent part of our visits together trading meal ideas and stories. Searching through her cabinets for measuring spoons and potholders and rooting through her pantry for various spices, I bonded with my stepmother, one cook to another. Details emerged from the most-used ingredients on the shelves about the types of dishes she liked to prepare. Clues about her cooking style could be deduced from the kitchen utensils she kept in the drawers nearest the stove. I didn’t feel her presence as I cooked, as much as I’d like to say I did. I didn’t feel her approval, or her scorn. Instead, I felt her absence. Deeply.
Our relationship was complex, for reasons I won’t get into out of respect for her privacy, but we had been on good terms over the last decade or so and I was hopeful that there was still time for things to get even better. I had, I have realized over the last few months, a sort of fairy tale perspective of death, one that included ample time for each of my loved ones (and eventually, for me) to grow old, realize they were dying, get their affairs in order, and have long, heartfelt conversations with all of their friends and family before taking one last deep breath and moving into the light.
My stepmother, though, got up early one morning in June, spoke to my dad, went back to sleep, and died. Just like that. There would be no time for reconciliation. Or goodbyes. No hand holding or loving looks from family as she passed from one world to another. It has been ridiculously difficult for me over the last few months to come to terms with the fact that I will never get a chance to have one final conversation, one deeply personal exit interview, with my stepmother.
Because there were some things that I still needed to say.
All of this has been running through my mind since the end of June, but it has been in fits and spurts, because I have a husband and children and a job and planes to catch and places to go and a household to run. There has been little time for grieving. And so I held myself together and I kept going and I moved on. Or so I thought.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been on a purge. A major purge. I’ve torn through closets, drawers, cabinets, and boxes. I’ve filled dozens of bags with clothing, toys, books, and other odds and ends that we’ve accumulated here over the last ten years and I’ve made countless trips to Goodwill to drop everything off. I’ve moved furniture, reorganized shelves, and tried to become more mindful of what’s taking up space in my life, and whether I really need it. I have been untiring and relentless in this purge, and it took me a while to realize why I’ve felt such a deep seated need to clean up and organize and throw out and give away.
It suddenly hit me that this is how I’m attempting to come to terms with my stepmother’s death and the slap-in-the-face realization that her funeral was only the first of what will be way too many, as loved ones begin to grow old and die and I find myself powerless to do anything about it. This is how I cope with spending a weekend in the home of a woman who had no idea when she woke up on June 27th that that day, that hour, would be her last. It struck me that weekend in a profound way that no matter how much stuff we amass in our lifetimes, no matter how precious that stuff is to us or how personal, no matter how much it cost… We can’t take it with us– whether it’s a diamond ring or a last bit of shampoo at the bottom of the bottle.
I can’t control when or how the ones I love die. And I can’t control how much time I have here on earth. I can control, though, what I leave behind.
And that’s exactly what I’m doing.