There are two reasons for my concern with my own accumulation of things, although they do merge at a future point. First is the rational goal of simplifying my life. Owning fewer possessions, wanting less, living a smaller life, being happy with less, eschewing acquisitiveness, spending less, preparing for a less “thing-filled” aging. Learning to live with less income is an imperative that is no longer lurking around the corner, but has come in the door to greet me. After all, I don’t have the job security that I once took for granted. Preparing for a simpler life leads quite naturally to the impending task of preparing for my death.
For many of us at death, possessions float into a world of limbo. Even the most meticulous of planners are likely to leave behind many possessions without a plan for their disposition. The piles of bills and bank statements. The duplicate herbs and spices. The broken TV set. In my case, a large file drawer containing a lifetime of handwritten journals and writings. I would like to spare my son, and others who may have to help him with the task of closing down my home after my death, the emotionally draining burden of going through my stuff and deciding what to do with it.
I have closed shop–so to speak–twice in my life. I’ve helped with this task many times, but on two occasions it fell entirely to me to close down a home and decide how to deal with another person’s possessions. One, my best friend, the other, my mother. Both experiences were harrowing, each in its own way.
Jon lived in the East Village, NYC and died of complications of AIDS in the summer of 1993. Although he had given explicit instructions outlining his political will following his death (please see Jon Greenberg’s funeral procession at ACTUP NY’s site on Political Funerals), he left no legal will, no advance directive, nothing to guide me in the protean after-death tasks other than an unspoken but clear understanding that I would take care of the details. In his last days in the hospital, he wrote checks to pay his bills, put them in stamped envelops, and asked me to mail them. I did so reluctantly, aware that I would need any funds he still had to help with cremation expenses and to hold on to his apartment for at least another month so that I could close it properly.
On the day after his memorial event in Thompkins Square Park, I invited his parents into his apartment to talk and share our grief. In the short version, his mother accused me of ‘stealing’ her rightful experience of caring for Jon during his illness while his father appraised his stereo speakers. Only years later have I begun to soften my feelings towards them and their private grief. Meanwhile, I held open house for two weeks, letting friends come and take what they would.
I never relinquished Jon’s journals, which I was unable to read until several years later–the grief was too close. Jon came to NYC as a young gay man in 1978 and journaled about his emotional and spiritual life from 1978 to a few months before his death in 1993. I continue to struggle with these journals, and my efforts to publish a series of poems that I wrote as a result of having to handle and hold this burning treasure.
My mother’s apartment was a mess at the time of her death at age 82. Thankfully, she was able to stay in her own home until the end, and we had months of really good time together as her illness progressed, but the usual well organized person she had always been dwindled over months or years so that after she was gone it was impossible to figure out what papers were important and which were decades-old bills and bank statements. It was a jumble. It was an emotional train wreck to go through, finding surprises, evidence of my own existence that startled or embarrassed me, evidence of her life that I knew nothing about. My brother was only minimally and peripherally involved in the task and at the end, I had to pay someone a handsome sum to cart the detritus away, feeling guilty, spent, and confused.
Even the recent death of my sweet companion Jezebel-the-cat has left me alone with her possessions, a cupboard full of kitty treats and canned Fancy Feasts, two carry-ons (one in pink-and-green stripes), and other cat paraphernalia. I should take it to a shelter, and will some day, but don’t have the heart to yet.
As for me, I am preparing to pare down, wade through, and as consciously as possible, trim the sails. Before I die.