A question of Identity : part 1: the remains of a life

ScrimshawMy sister died last September. Oh, don’t feel sorry. She’d had a good life and towards the end, she was more than ready to go. Always an intensely private person, the inevitably intrusive care became harder and harder to take, increasingly an affront to her dignity.

Even so, death has its impacts, mostly on the only one really close to her, her husband, Frank. They’d been together for forty years and more, no children, few friends. My husband and I travelled to New Zealand from our home in Australia to attend the funeral and do what we could to console Frank. We held the funeral service at the nursing home where Frank and my sister had lived for the past several years, a brief and simple service shared with a group of inmates at the home. Their turn would be coming up, soon enough. We were the only relatives there. The only person outside the hospital to attend was the gentleman who looked after my sister and her husband’s financial affairs.

One thing about death is, life goes on. Since we were now responsible for Frank, who has dementia, we did what we could to sort out his affairs in the few days we had in New Zealand. We were told he and his wife were admitted to an aged care hospital in the space of a day. They went to see a doctor, who took one look, and sent them into care. They never went home again. The house, of course, had to be sold and to do that, it had to be cleared. The contents were packed into a storage locker. You know the type. A space like a huge garage, for which you had the keys.

Despite the threat of rain, we obtained the keys to see what was there, thinking to perhaps take some important papers and family photos with us. Getting the lock-up open was a chore in itself. The lock hadn’t been opened for several years, and needed WD40 and some elbow grease. The door lifted, and there it was. The remains of a life.

Everything from a house was in there. Whoever had transported it, hadn’t packed the goods properly. Items had been shoved into old grocery boxes, glasses weren’t wrapped, nothing was sorted. We were confronted with a higgledy-piggledy pile of… stuff. A lathe stood next to a glass-fronted dresser. Frank’s tools (he used to be a master carpenter) in their home-made wooden boxes, were to the front. Figurines stood next to anonymous boxes. The frame for the water bed, built by Frank and inscribed F L, stood against the wall. The bladder was somewhere at the top and back, beyond the sofa. In a few hours we examined what we could, feeling a bit like mountaineers without safety gear as we clambered up precarious piles. We took a few family photos, a magnificent piece of scrimshaw, and a few of Frank’s antique and beautiful tools with us. It was all we could manage.

Fortunately for us, a lovely lady who is now a friend, offered to sort through the lock-up, looking for photos and documents. Everything that could not be sold, would be disposed of. Over the next several weeks, she would tell me what she found, some funny, some odd, some poignant. The people who had emptied the house, had not even thought to throw away food. She found packets of biscuits and other perishables all thrown in with the pots and pans, and out-of-date medication.

When it was all over, the auctions held, the lock-up emptied, Cathy told me of the profound effect the process had had on her and her husband. Fragments of a life, a thing of the past, all too soon forgotten in the march of time. Yet Cathy saw a life well-lived, not the old and frail couple she’d known at the nursing home. Time was when they were young and fit and strong. Frank and my sister had travelled extensively around New Zealand, had lived on both North and South islands. They would go out in their station wagon and see the world. At night, travelling on the cheap, they slept on a mattress in the back of the car. They had also been overseas to America, a couple of times back to Australia. And a few family members had visited them. Sure, gravity had its way over the years, as it does with us all, but in their fifties they still had a photo taken with Santa. I guess for me, it was enough to know that life had been good for them.

Meanwhile, stage two was unfolding. Frank was born in Australia, and he and my sister married in Australia. In the early nineteen-seventies, they decided to leave family ties behind and travel to New Zealand, where they’d lived ever since. But Frank had mentioned to me when I went to visit them briefly a couple of years ago, that he wanted to come home. To Australia. And at my sister’s funeral, he said that again. “I want to come home.”

Of course, I agreed to make it so. It would be easy. Of course it would.

15 thoughts on “A question of Identity : part 1: the remains of a life

  1. Pingback: A question of identity: part 2: the fight with Authority « Greta van der Rol

  2. fremont110293

    Thank you for sharing that poignant experience.
    Eleven years ago I had to clear out my parents’ home. My mother had died the year before and my father, failing from Parkinson’s Disease had to move to a nursing home. I’d been overseeing his care for a year but it was becoming too much
    Luckily I found a buyer for the house immediately. The clearing process was lessened because he said we could leave the furniture behind and he’d give it to poor people his church served. But that didn’t make it any easier sorting through the remnants of my childhood. I had not grown up there. They bought the house when I was 17, but of course all the photos, letters, certificates, report cards were there. And of course the memories of birthdays, barbecues, funerals, young romances, first job, you name it, they all flashed through my mind. It was so hard to close the door on the last day.
    Oh my, look what your writing unearthed! That’s a tribute to your talent.

  3. Cathy

    I remember packing for my elderly aunt, when my cousin died unexpectedly, and I “inherited” her mum. The objects were mostly familiar to me and photos were of long deceased relatives. It was fun and a long process as I reminisced but packing Frank and Leah’s life reminded me that once, these people were young and full of dreams. It was hard, seeing their lives literally stuffed into any old box, with no respect for who they had been.
    It has been a pleasure to do this one last thing for Frank and his Leah, it has had it’s humerous moments and I wish you all well for the rest of his life’s journey!
    (Oh, and if you have any DVDs that you want to leave for family, get them onto CDs or memory cards before its to late)

  4. Toby Neal (@tobywneal)

    What a touching story. I’ve sorted my grandmother’s things upon her death and had many of the same thoughts. I hope to leave things tidy, designated, and shipshape myself when I go, unless it takes me unexpected. Then it will simply be tidy.
    Hugs. and courage to you in helping Frank.

  5. MonaKarel

    I can understand objects as a remembrance. Just not a proliferation of objects, often left boxed instead of out where they could be enjoyed. It sounds like your sister and her husband enjoyed their objects and their lives.

  6. MonaKarel

    they led a rich and wonderful life. It’s sad but someone has to be left behind, often with a lifetime of objects collected and no one to share them with. Have we all become so obsessed with things?

  7. juliabarrett

    Although you said we shouldn’t be sorry, I am. As a hospice nurse I know life goes on. But as a daughter I know what it will be like when the day comes and I have to empty my parents’ house. I think poignant is the best word. We live, we die, and within a generation or two we’re forgotten.
    I think it will be a little different for my generation as technology has changed. Our children will have dvds of us as a young couple with small children to show their own children and grandchildren.
    I look forward to the next part of the story.

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