I am the sentimental one in my family. What that means is that I get all the old family photos, because I cannot bear to think of my great-great grandparent’s picture being sold at a garage sale. If you have been to my house, you have seen the menagerie of family photos that threaten to take over my dining room walls. It is not just photos either. I have bibles from several generations, a sugar bucket, numerous skeleton keys that open nothing, an amo box from WWII, and an old trunk. I have an old family pocket watch, a bread bowl, a saltine cracker tin, a grits box, and my grandmother’s oil can. When I asked for it, she looked at me, raised her eyebrows and said, “Sure you can have it, and I have an Elmer’s glue bottle too if you want it.” To her, it was crazy nonsense for me to want that oil can. She thought I had lost my mind, because to her it was just an everyday item. To me, it was part of her story…part of our shared story. When I see that can, I remember her oiling the sewing machine she used to make many of my clothes. I remember being fascinated with it and the sound it made when she pushed the bottom. I had never seen one before, and so now, it sits on an antique chest in my living room, and in my mind at least, her story goes on.
Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I see stories in everyday items from the past. Because I am so visual, I can picture items being used, and my inner historian is captivated by what I see. An antique shop is a like a time machine to me. Wandering around and perusing its contents is like a treasure hunt. I don’t have to buy anything when I could spend hours just imagining. It is hard for me not to become a hoarder of the past, because I feel that it is important to remember people and the lives they lived.
Because of this sentimental side of me, when I went to pack up Louise’s clothes on Monday, I took moral support with me in my mom, and Hannah. I didn’t know how my emotions would hold up as I put Louise’s life into a bag to haul away. It was only clothes, but my eyes saw her wearing them. I found that it was hard, but not the cry-fest I was expecting. I’m pretty sure I had some friends praying for me during that time, because there was a resolve and I held up much better than I thought I would. Ray said that Louise would not want her things just hanging in the closet; she would want someone to use them. He is right about that. She would give them away herself if she could, and I guess that made it easier too.
If I were her size, I would have saved a few items for myself. However, I haven’t been an 8 or a 10 since I was born…so we bagged it all up, except for one jacket, and a couple of hats. (I also saved her dulcimer vest, which I couldn’t bear to let go. I turned it over her best dulcimer-playing friend.) The tears snuck up on me when I took a jeepload of clothes into the thrift store on Tuesday. I guess as long as they were in the car, she wasn’t really gone yet.
I came home from that outing, and dug into my bag for the hats I had saved…the part of her still in my home. They are her cancer hats…one of them I gave her when she had breast cancer, years ago. Then she gave it to me when I had cancer, along with a bag full of others. Once I was better, I started the “Pass the Hats” club, and sent them on their way to a friend who was just starting her treatment, asking that she pass them along when she was finished. However, I saved a couple of my favorites. (That sentimental side again) I gave this hat back to Louise when she found out she had brain cancer. Now, it is back with me, because it is part of our shared story.
You cannot know, unless you have had cancer or some other life threatening disease, how it bonds you to walk through something like that together. When I found out I had cancer, Louise had just finished her chemo. She wept for me. The first words she said through her tears were, “I am buying you a good wig” and she did. But neither of us liked our wigs. They were scratchy and hot, ill fitting, even though they were good ones. We wore them out and about, but at her house or mine, we went bald, or sported a hat. One of these that I now own.
I have to admit, I picked them out because of the story, but also because it crossed my mind that someday I may need them again. There. I said it. You see, cancer never really leaves your mind…it just sits in the back, hiding out. Watching Louise die, over the past two years, has been an ongoing reminder that this disease is ruthless. That it can come back, and that it could be me in the bed waiting to die. To see her, is to see me to some degree. It is painful beyond what you would think, because of our shared story. Our shared treatment. Our shared healing. I know it sounds morbid, but for me it is a reality. You cannot know what I mean unless you are a survivor. We push it back. We take the thoughts captive. We believe that we are healed. But in the way back, we know how close we were. We can remember the fear, the fear of a disease eating us alive, and then stealing our last breath. It is not a fear of death, but a fear of what kind of death that stops me cold. Louise handled the fear bravely. She had a good death. Her hats remind me of that part of the story. I don’t put them on, but if I should ever need to, Louise would share that part of the story with me too.