“Anybody know what this is?”
I hold up a cardboard box, hermetically sealed with silver duct tape. My parents look up from their own tasks, shake their heads simultaneously. It’s Wednesday morning and we are thirty minutes into our now-weekly ritual of cleaning out the garage.
I use box cutters to slice through several rounds of the sticky tape. It’s bundled as tightly as if it contained gold bullion or some prized food stuff vulnerable to bugs. Inside, I find wadded newspaper, stuffed in between more newspaper, wrapped round oddly-shaped, bulky objects. I tear off this newspaper carefully, noting the date on the upper right corner of each page: October 17, 1995. My father is hovering over my shoulder as the crumpled print pages reveal tributes to bygone high school and junior college athletic feats. “My trophies!” he cries. Immediately, I recognize the battle line being drawn.
I am the choreographer of this effort to clear out 40+ years of accumulated memorabilia, garden gadgets, record albums, baby books, pool toys, painting paraphernalia, abandoned construction projects, cleaning products, and auto maintenance gear. My mom enlisted my backing after she reached a stalemate years ago with my dad in her effort to cut a clear line through the detritus. The items each deem essential for preservation are widely divergent; my mom favors holiday decorations she’s displayed since my childhood and craft projects she never got around to starting while my dad clings to dusty golf clubs, bowling balls, and mementos from his years as a police officer. The overall tension in the garage had ratcheted up significantly just a few minutes previously, when my mom tried to convince my dad to dispose of the gun belt he was issued as a recruit in 1966.
“Someone might want it,” my dad insists. The only person I can identify as having some (very remote) use for it is my nephew who is a member of a police tactical command force over 400 miles away. Remembering Facebook postings of him astride a tank wearing military-style camouflage and holding an automatic weapon raise doubts about his receptiveness, however.
“I watch reality cop shows all the time, Bob, and they don’t use equipment like this anymore. They all wear vests that hold their gear.”
“That’s not true, Sherry. Some cops still wear belts.”
“Well then, let’s donate it to a police station so someone can get some use from it.”
“No, I want to keep it.”
“I thought you just said that someone might want it.”
“I’m keeping it, Sherry.”
And that’s the end of that. This preface does not bode well for the disposition of trophies.
This is exactly why we’re taking this project a shelf at a time; none of our nerves can withstand more than a couple hours of the skirmishes involved in sifting through the accumulated strata of two people’s lives. I don’t find it coincidental that so many books on decluttering, tidying up, and organizing your shit have become bestsellers in the past decade. Baby boomers are aging, and their kids are having to contend with the amassed material collections of parental hopes, dreams, aspirations, hobbies, professional, domestic and recreational endeavors as they downsize and die.
“My trophies!” His plaintive cry echoes in my heart and resonates with the desperation it embodies. I ended up living here with them as a result of my dad’s near-fatal bout of viral meningitis back in 2016-17. During his illness, he lost the ability to walk without assistance or articulate his needs. He hallucinated, ate his meals with his hands, and failed to recognize family member and friends he’d known for years. When he regained the ability to perambulate, my mother and I took turns sleeping on the upstairs landing, afraid he would stumble down the stairs in a fog in the middle of the night. His recovery took more than a year and left him with nerve damage in his legs and hips, resulting in a pronounced limp and inability to walk more than 50 feet or so without resting. His days of running, intercepting, hurling, pummeling glory are long over the horizon.
Back in 2011 when Mike and I sold our condo, we were forced into the same situation. Though we didn’t have a garage and our domestic space amounted to less than a third of what my parent’s have, fifteen years in the same location had lead to a similar accumulation of stuff one doesn’t know what to do with besides stick it in a drawer, closet, or under the bed until the perfect solution miraculously appears. Which it never does. (Which is why people should be forced to move every decade just to have to confront those decisions. Just saying.)
The tasks of divesting ourselves of the past were significantly greased by our giddy anticipation of the immediate future: we were headed out on a months-long, nation-spanning camping expedition that would culminate in my departure for Peace Corps service. Neither one of us held fond memories of the preceding decade. We had both been working at stultifying jobs for too many years and suffered the career-path disillusionment and general sense of ennui that typifies the average mid-life crisis. Shedding the material evidence of our unremarkable, cookie-cutter existence secured our belief that things would be different, better for us in the coming years. We were still in our forties; there were unbounded years ahead to turn things around, reinvent ourselves, create new routines, begin anew. The horizon shimmered with realizable potential.
This is not the case for my parents, who are both closer to eighty than seventy. Realistically, they have ten, maybe fifteen years left. (My maternal grandmother, 98 and going like the Energizer bunny, is definitely an outlier; only one of my three other grandparents lived to their mid-80’s.) Given the limitations of their various health issues and physical ailments, the coming decade is most likely the last chapter in their lives. Throughout a lifetime love affair with literary biographies, I’ve discovered few folks reinvent themselves in the final pages. It takes too much effort to embark on life-altering courses of action. By the time one reaches their age, the tendency is towards reflecting, crafting and other light hobbies, enjoying family gatherings, maybe some occasional traveling. They are who they are; they may deepen, but not transform, much less recapture the physicality and dynamism of youth. In other words, those trophies are the reliquary of the talented athlete my dad once was.
The act of discarding stuff is, in part, no longer believing in its magical assurances. By holding onto to journals and diaries, we believe the life lessons therein contained are captured and incorporated, need never be repeated. Moldy scrapbooks attest to our ability to romance, conquer, pinnacle, succeed, and serve as prequels to further achievements. Trophies give concrete testimony to our talents, inherent aspects of our character that will continue to generate recognition in the years to come. Golf clubs bespeak future afternoons strolling the greens, holes in one still left to hit. Now, my mother is struggling to acknowledge that, more likely than not, she will never regain the strength and stamina to employ the textured paint materials she purchased for $90 back in the ’90’s (“That was like several hundred dollars now,” she laments.) My father is loath to admit that swinging a golf club generates too much pain to be enjoyable. But for as long as these items have a home in the garage, they are an unspoken promise that better times hover ahead, dark clouds backlit by fierce sunlight.
Amid these Wednesdays fraught with existential crisis, I have begun to trace parallels in my own life, despite being twenty years younger. Specifically, with my dream of being “a writer.” Because that’s what I’ve told myself and others, for years and years and years: someday, given enough time and space, I will become a published writer. I don’t actually contemplate the specific work it takes to accomplish such – like sitting down at the keyboard for hours at a time, day after day, month after month, for years at a time; the classes, retreats, and writing groups; the false starts, painful critiques, and rejection slips. I just always believed that someday, magically, without forethought or discipline or effort, my outpouring of nouns and verbs and adjectives would find their way into print. Somewhere, beyond the horizon, lay my career as a writer. It is just now, as I watch my parents fight the realization that all the various intentions they’ve stored for someday, sometime, somewhere, somehow, have expired, that I begin to entertain the notion that might be my destiny, too. Unless I begin now to alter the course of its trajectory, my dream is destined for the garage.
I realize a different approach is needed: this is not a battleground, but a funeral, a grieving space. Those trophies were wrapped so carefully and thoroughly because they were the only remaining tokens of the strong, agile, and fleet young man that my dad used to be. Still is, within his own mind, even though the evidence has been stored away for a quarter century. I once read that all the cells within our bodies are replaced every seven years. So, nothing at all remains, physically, of that graceful, award-winning football player my dad can still recall inhabiting, being. I place the box down at his feet and wrap my arms round my dad.
“I know this is hard,” I say, my face muffled in his chest. He is still inches taller than me, and its always been a profound comfort to lay my head against his beating heart. Suddenly, I feel the heavy iron of tears weighing down my eyelids. “It’s not just throwing away stuff. It’s throwing away pieces of yourself, your life.” We stand silently and he squeezes me forcefully, for just a moment. I surreptitiously wipe my eyes on his tee shirt and go off to wrestle with another box, leaving the trophies at his feet. Minutes later, from the corner of my eye, I see him unwrap each one, turn it over in his hands, then drop it into the waste bin’s maw.