A dear friend of our family passed away a couple of years ago. He lived next door to my parents, and a friendship developed between him and our family. We came to "adopt" him as we called it, as he had no immediate family and his closest relatives lived in Oregon. He came to Christmases, Easters, birthday parties, and weddings. While we always thought to invite him to things, he was regarded fondly by my sister and me as an older uncle, one who repeats his stories a lot, and whom you listened to rather indulgently. But, a nice and thoughtful man all the way around.
About 3 years ago he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as his condition deteriorated, my mother and father took it upon themselves to care for him in his last months. It was a rough time, especially for my father, who has yet to go through the deaths of his own parents. My father was at his bedside when he passed, telling him that it was ok for him to go, that everything was being taken care of, and that his parents were waiting for him.
Much to their surprise, our neighbor had willed them his entire estate, including his car, house, and bank accounts. The house was in a state of neglect, with nothing really changed since his parents' deaths in the 1970's.
My parents have been reluctant to deal with the house and the rest of the estate. My sister has been the one who has gone through the house, throwing away items like old gas bills and disintegrating bars of soap. She had spent many hours in the house, with its windows painted shut, cleaning it and feeling somewhat like an intruder. She felt horrible throwing some of the things out, but apparently he was a man that never threw anything away. In that house was at least fifty years of possessions that belonged to our neighbor and his parents.
When she told me of her distress in sorting through what was the remainder of three people's lives, I understood, but only on a certain level. Last week, she asked me to help her with labeling and sorting items for a garage sale. Suddenly, I understood on a very uncomfortable and intimate level what she was feeling. In some ways, you feel as if you are being dismissive of the importance of their lives if you throw something out. You say to yourself, what was the significance of this vase in their lives, and why do I feel horrible when I label it as worth $10.00 for the garage sale?
I was somehow nominated to be in charge of dealing with a large amount of mid-century costume jewelry, some antique linens, and some vintage clothing. At first when going through the jewelry, I was only looking for pieces that were in good condition and the like. But then it hit me that this was someone else's life I was going through. Probably some of the jewelry had some very important associations for her, and here I was just thinking of their monetary worth. And what would our neighbor think of us for selling it, as he had kept the jewelry intact for over thirty years?
Now I know why my parents have done little or nothing with the estate, it is just too hard, especially since they were closer to our neighbor than my sister and me. But, it is impossible to keep all of the things that were in the house, there is just too much stuff. Even between our three different families, there is too much. It doesn't stop me from feeling like an interloper, like someone who shouldn't be entrusted with the care of these things. How do you value someone's life after they are gone? I am finding it difficlut to reconcile what must be done with how I feel about actually doing it.