I awoke Jan. 4, 2015, to the news that Mom had died since I left her side at almost 2 a.m. That was 224 days — 32 weeks — after Dad died. I instantly learned that when I was young and had worried about my parents’ being gone someday, it would actually happen and be awful. It was.
Emptying out an old house full of memories is a family project, another lesson from 2015. We found that after we went through what we thought was a lot, there was always more. One thing found tucked away in the attic was a decrepit cardboard portfolio, stuffed with Mom and Dad’s artwork, some of which was dated in the 1940s, the latest in the 1960s. I learned that sometimes parents put their dreams aside in order to raise children.
The piano I wrote about in a July 29, 913 column, “A family's history lives on, locked behind 88 keys,” an overweight, 100-year-old player stripped of her auto-play guts and settled in 1967 by the front door because she was too large to go any farther, ended up in an underserved Tulsa, Okla., school. I learned that “no one wants a free piano,” is just a challenge to find its perfect home.
The marketing of the house prompted a sale, which never earned the descriptive “estate,” because to a sister, all of it was now “junk.” The place filled with dealers looking for easy old furniture, moms looking for toys, neighbors hoping to see past the front rooms. All the sisters were there, making deals, giving up stories, protecting personal ground. I learned that nothing is forever, and maybe that’s OK.
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When someone bought the house, it began to fade from memory as other firsts filled our lives — youngest grandkids going to college and never getting mail from our parents; having no place to crash when we all go “home;” and the world’s problems now seem unsolvable. I learned that once we are the adults in the family, without parents to interpret history and tough times, we have to pay a different kind of attention.
I think almost every day how I would love to pick up the phone and call Dad to see what he would call Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. His favorite word for anyone he disliked was “bastard.” You could be a poor one, a crazy one, a stupid one.
I have a feeling that this would be his own, extra luxurious, gold-plated category: a stupid, crazy and rich bastard standing alone on top of an isolated Trump skyscraper, the last one left in the world, clutching gold bricks to his chest and wildly grinning, oblivious to the fact that just over there, in the corner of the cartoon, is the inside wall of the loony bin. I learned that I have the same ability to think of these silly concepts that Dad would have handily illustrated.
Because this is the first year of our lives being the top generation in our family, we seven sisters collectively take over the role, and the worries, of our parents. As Mom suffered with Alzheimer’s disease, and Dad took care of her patiently and lovingly, we become more mindful of our health. We look at our spouses, our children, our extended families and realize this is it. This is what matters.
From here, we are a family tree that’s topped out, and all new growth comes from the roots. I learned this year how much joy our parents got from our kids. They kept every school picture, scribbled thank yous and every refrigerator drawing.
They stashed postcards from the beach, from Europe, from New York City. They kept notes and photos of and from all of us; letters from college, or birthday cards we remembered to send them. I found a box full in Mom’s desk, from all seven of us and eight grandkids. She must have opened the drawers and looked at these sometimes, and felt happy, before she forgot what that was.
A year like 2015, with its politics and terror, surprises and the expected, punctuates the paragraphs that make up our family’s life story. We swim on without our parents into whatever stream comes next.
We learned from Mom and Dad that love endures, no matter what the news.
Freelance columnist Ellen Murphy writes in this space once a month. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.