The gift of a long goodbye

My mother, who stayed in her home until the end, left me a trove of precious jewels by leaving her ‘mess’ behind.

The author’s mother at graduation in 1931, Gilbert High School, Gilbert, Minn.

My 86-year-old sister lost her husband last year.

We mulled over her options: Should she move out of the house to a retirement community to ease her children’s responsibility? Or should she just stay put until necessity strikes?

My sister had some very good personal reasons for such a move.

Though she hadn’t amassed an unmanageable number of belongings over the years, the issue of accumulated stuff is often the primary concern of many families: Isn’t it just easier to preemptively dismantle one’s home and furnishings early to save family members the trouble later?

On the other hand, if we start paring back and move to senior facilities before we either want or need to, some would argue that we’re hastening the process of dying.

Should we get rid of our goods, have our coffins hewed and be all ready to lie down in them?

Ah, just another everyday wrenching dilemma of aging — to which I’ll offer my mother’s eloquent answer:


The author’s mother in 1986. She died in 1997.

One last remodeling project

It was typical of my mother’s brave and stubborn stance toward life and death that, three weeks before she died at the age of 85, she insisted my sister take her to Menards so she could pick out new tile for the bathroom floor. My sister tried hard to talk her out of it, but there was no way Mom was about to start letting someone else pick out tile — or anything else — for her.

By this time she could barely walk. We were grateful for shopping carts during Mom’s later years; they served as inconspicuous but substantial walkers. Mom wouldn’t be caught dead using a walker, and she wasn’t.

This last trip to Menards was, as my sister tells it, almost tragic.

Mom couldn’t support herself on the cart any more; she staggered and clutched and leaned on Sis — and got the tiles of her choice.

In the second week before her death, she lay on the couch in the living room, supervising the operations of the bathroom remodel — which she could see from the couch when she craned her neck.

Her son and son-in-law, two supremely confident and competent builders, were at work laying tiles according to her directives. Under her vigilant eye, they were boys again, meek and docile and heartbreakingly anxious to please and indulge this woman we all adored.

She knew she was dying and was none too happy about it. But she could shrug and, in her bittersweet way, tease about it.

There was always a bit of the street-tough about Mom, and it never did her better service than in her dying.

As the messy tile laying went on, my sister and I watched with her from the sofa.

“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” she sighed. “I’ll never live to enjoy it.”

And she didn’t.

But hey, Mom was redecorating her beloved home, just days before her death!

It gave me a bubbling joy in my chest, this crazy bathroom project, because we all knew it was entirely futile and wonderful, the final act of a woman who wouldn’t dream of giving up before the race was won, a fine last metaphor for her splendid engagement in life right up to the last gasp.

The author with her parents in 1940.

A sabbatical of mourning

As I spent time with her during her last week on the sofa, I looked at my childhood home, full of the happy reminders of her well-lived life. Crochet books piled askew on the little stand beside her chair, boxes of yarn stuffed behind the sofa, every drawer and closet fully utilized. She sure didn’t look as if she was packing to go anywhere.

I shuddered to think of the task of dismantling this life, all this stuff, three floors of it, after she died. The shudder wasn’t about the work involved, but over the queasy monstrous nightmarish unreality of making the evidence of my mom’s presence among us vanish, and my childhood with it — for we all knew that the house eventually had to be sold.

Just as my sabbatical year began, Mom died. This was supposed to be a year during which I would spend a little of the quality time with Mom I had been so sparing of until then. I had envisioned being with her for garage sales, lunches at Perkins, happy cook-fests over her busy stove.

Instead, I got a gray winter, a dull heart, a year in which to grieve unhurriedly. With the glad approval of my working brother and sister, I appointed myself as the person to slowly begin to pack up her stuff.

Day after day for a monsoon of afternoons, I drove over to her house and did what was needed. I sorted and packed up her jewelry. I buried my face in her scarves, inhaling the last of her good scent, as I sorted and boxed her clothing.

I would soon be ready to supervise the distribution of her belongings to kids and grandkids, friends and charity.

I had a lump in my throat with each new discovery. The fistfuls of crumpled greeting cards stuffed into the little desk in the living room! Her wonderful tangle of bobby pins and hairnets, curlers hard and soft, and bandannas to roll it all up onto her head — cute!

The author’s mother and sister in 1990.

Mending left undone

Then there was the condition of her wardrobe — not so cute.

I thought of all the times she had gently hinted that I could come over and help her with her mending, after she stopped being able to use the sewing machine. I had helped her some, but with my killer teaching job, it hadn’t been much.

Now, as I stared at the truth, the lump in my throat expanded. Hems gaping, pinned with all manner of stopgaps, torn seams safety-pinned together.

My eyes filled with tears. The saddest discovery of all was that Mom hadn’t had the strength during her last weeks (or was it months?) to hang her clothes on hangers and lift them all the way to the closet rod. She had been draping them on the nearest shoulders of other clothes already hung in the closet. I sat on the bed and wept. We never knew.

The author and her mother in Chicago in 1941.

Forgiveness and a final goodbye

Now, if Mom had packed herself up ready to go on her final voyage, she could have spared me these days and weeks of intimacy with her as I went through her belongings.

And it would have been my terrible loss.

In those months, as I touched each thing that had touched her, I visited with her: I laughed, I squealed, I cried.

I took my time and grieved thoroughly and elaborately. I came to know her better. I came to know myself better, where I’d failed her and how, and I arrived at self-forgiveness.

Quality time with Mom after all.

Mothers everywhere, know this: Your kids want to believe you’ll live forever, and you’ll enjoy life more if you think that way, too.

Travel, be with friends and family, pack as much joy into your life as possible.

And don’t be afraid to let others clean up the mess when you’re dead.

Virginia Chase Sanderson is a longtime writer of personal essays. She has taught literature and writing at California State University in Los Angeles, at Cornell University, and at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. She received a bachelor in fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 2011, after her retirement from teaching. She lives with her husband in Minneapolis.