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The Minimalists
The Minimalists are Emmy-nominated Netflix stars and New York Times–bestselling authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Alongside their podcast cohost, T.K. Coleman, this simple-living trio helps millions of people eliminate clutter and live meaningfully with less. Learn More.

Letting Go: Dealing with the Death of a Loved One

The atmosphere at Suncoast Hospice is so thick it’s hard to breathe. The indoor lighting glows soft and placid. My chair sits next to Mom’s bed, her small living quarters decorated with miscellanea, niceties strategically placed to make her feel at home: picture frames, artwork, and the like. A glossy wall calendar, flipped to October 2009, hangs tacked to a sun-faded corkboard. Next to us, a complex machine with a pixelated LED screen is set up to monitor Mom’s vitals.

The machine is switched off.

Tears burn my cheeks. I’m crying for the first time in my adult life. A picture of Mom and me, the two of us smiling on a beach, is perched on the nightstand. She’s wearing a smile and a blonde wig in the photo.

*   *   *

This morning I received a call to let me know that things had taken a turn. I better fly down, the nurse said. She tried to put Mom on the phone, but her speech was incoherent. She sounded unlike I’ve ever heard her, unlike I’ve ever heard anyone. Like a dying character from a bad movie, droning and gurgling, emitting vague sounds, not words. I told Mom I loved her and hung up the phone and then booked a flight from Dayton to Tampa and called Ryan to drive me to the airport.

I had spoken with Mom just yesterday. Her words then were slurred but semi-intelligible, and she was still conscious. Her short-term memory had been gone for at least a few months, ever since her cancer had metastasized beyond her lungs to her other vital organs and, eventually, to her brain, but her long-term memory seemed intact, everything still there, the good times and the bad, everything from our past frozen in time.

I sat in the passenger seat in Ryan’s truck as he shuttled me wordlessly to Dayton International, my thoughts swirling under traveling Midwest skies. We were driving north on Terminal Drive, less than a mile from the airport, when I received the call. Mom was pronounced dead at 2:47 this afternoon, October 8, 2009. Ryan hugged me and I boarded my plane.

The cab ride from Tampa to St. Petersburg was navigated by a friendly black man in his mid-forties, close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, a good friend’s smile. His radio spat out back-to-back Michael Jackson tunes.

“You OK, man?” he asked, sensing my mood.

“My mother’s dying.” I couldn’t speak about her in the past tense; I hadn’t even seen her body. Yet.

“I’m sorry, brother,” he said with condolence, turning up the radio to help me cope. “You Are Not Alone,” played through the speakers, and MJ reassured me throughout the rest of the drive.

*   *   *

It is almost 7 p.m. now, last light draining from the Florida sky outside Mom’s Suncoast window, sunset coming through the blinds in long repetitive slats. I’ve been here less than five minutes. Peace radiates from Mom’s benevolent face, though it feels too cold to touch, not cold cold—not icy—but it lacks life, the temperature of an object, not a person. My sobs are uncontrollable. I don’t even notice their arrival until they’re already there, a natural reaction, like chemicals mixing to form an explosion, or tectonic plates shifting, an earth tremor of emotion.

She’s tiny, lying there, fragile and small, as if her gigantic personality never extended to the size of her body. I want to hug her, to lift her frail, wilted body and hold her, to somehow bring her back to life, back to this world, and tell her I love her, tell her I’m sorry and that I didn’t know what to do and that I wasn’t the grown-up man I pretended to be, wasn’t as strong as she assumed I was. I want to tell her that I would have done things differently. I want to yell this at her, at everyone.

It seems we don’t know how to love the ones we love until they disappear from our lives.

“I’m sorry,” I say through the sobs. My shirt is wet. The room is inhabited by just me and what’s left of my mother, her flesh but not her. She’s not missing, she’s just not here anymore. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I repeat, rocking back and forth in my chair, a mental patient’s sway. I can feel the wreckage on my features. The tears are a strange catharsis, a release of every spasm of guilt and rage and regret. But they are also a departure for me, these tears, a turning of a page I didn’t know needed to be turned.

Eventually I have to leave; there’s nothing left for me to say or do. I’m all out of tears, and so I hop a cab to Mom’s building.

Her second-floor apartment is filled with at least three apartments’ worth of stuff. So much stuff. It’s not a hoarder’s home, but there are a lot of material possessions, sixty-four years of accumulation. Everything, especially her hulking antique furniture wedged beneath dwarfish ceilings, seems too large for the space it occupies, like something out of a Tolkien novel. The livingroom is festooned with sentiment: dozens of framed photographs, overstuffed photo albums, artwork she has owned since I was a child. Ornamental embellishments have colonized every corner, nook, and alcove. Handmade white doilies cover most flat surfaces—more doilies than I can count.

Adjacent to the livingroom is Mom’s kitchen, where cabinets are stuffed with several eras of mismatched plates and bowls and coffee cups. Every drawer is under the dominion of ill-assorted utensils. Inside the bathroom, a decade of makeup lives in a wicker basket next to the toilet, above which the shelves are neatly organized with enough hygiene products to start a small beauty-supply business. When I open the linen closet to assess its contents, I’m faced with stacks of mismatched bath towels and dish towels and beach towels, bed sheets and blankets and quilts. It looks like someone is running a hotel out of this tiny closet. I haven’t even glanced at the bedroom yet.

Suddenly, it occurs to me for the first time: I have to figure out what to do with all this stuff. I sit on the couch and look around. Stand up again. Look around. Take it all in again and then close my eyes, breathe in through my nostrils. It smells like potpourri—fennel and rosemary. I walk over to her stereo, a hand-me-down from my teenage days. I have only one CD here, Stray Age by Kentucky-born singer-songwriter Daniel Martin Moore. I place it in the stereo and play the fifth track, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” I’ve listened to this album every time I’ve visited Mom—seven trips, seven different weeks this year. Moore croons optimistically over a soft piano-and-acoustic-guitar instrumental, “Ah but you know, it’s time for her to go.”

It’s dark through Mom’s window. The lights of downtown St. Pete lead to the Bay, a sliver of which I can see from the livingroom. The water reflects the night sky, leaving everything bathed in a thousand hues of dark blue that stretch beyond the horizon. I sink into the ash-color couch, exhausted and unsure of what to do next. I close my eyes.

When I finally peel open my eyelids hours later, I’m blinded by every bright surface. The morning sun angles through the windows, obnoxiously spotlighting my face and the objects in the room, casting shadows indiscriminately on everything that is beautiful and everything that is not. The white walls are screaming in the Florida sun. Everything appears bleached. I need a coffee and several ibuprofen.

According to the woman on the phone, they don’t have a big enough U-Haul in stock. She says I’ll have to wait until tomorrow, which is fine; I have plenty of packing to do today, starting with the brimming bedroom closet. Why does she have so many winter coats? Doesn’t she live in Florida! I mean didn’t—didn’t she live in Florida? I feel a pang of sadness. Surely she didn’t wear any of these high heels. And pant suits? Really, Mom? Pant suits! When was the last time you wore a pant suit? And it’s mind-boggling to see all these blouses with price tags still attached. Here are two bathrobes, unworn, “SALE!” tags still dangling like a friendly reminder of wasted money. Although I guess I can’t point the finger, can I? I too own a lot of clothes I don’t wear, a lot of shit I don’t use.

What am I going to do with all this stuff? I mean, I don’t want to co-mingle Mom’s stuff with my stuff, so that’s out of the question. My wife and I already have our house thronged with our own personal effects: our livingroom furniture in the livingroom, our bedroom furniture in the bedroom(s), our entertainment-room furniture in our … well, you get the picture. I don’t even have room in our vast basement, not with all the bins and boxes and assorted plastic storage containers from the Container Store.

Another phone conversation reveals that a storage locker in Ohio, one big enough to store (most of) Mom’s possessions, is “only” a hundred twenty bucks a month. I’m not great at math, but my back-of-the-napkin arithmetic unveils an annual fee that approaches fifteen hundred dollars. Not exactly a bargain, but I guess you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, right?

The contents under Mom’s high-rise Queen Anne bed look like they were pulled from a bad mystery novel. There are several wicker baskets (picnic baskets?) filled with stained, off-white table linens (she didn’t even own a diningroom table). Nearby, a boxed wedding dress takes up several cubic feet. Is it her dress? I hope not—my parents divorced in 1984, a thousand miles from here. And what are these? Three boxes oddly labeled 3, 4, and 1. They look like cases of old printer paper, kind of heavy. The cardboard is sealed with layers of brown tape. Here’s a fourth box, numbered with a large numeral 2. Ah-hah! Rearranging the boxes uncloaks the climax of this Dan Brown–esque mystery: 1, 2, 3, 4.

But what is inside these boxes? The first box reveals the same contents as the second, which contains the same as the last two boxes: old elementary-school paperwork. My elementary-school paperwork, four years of it, grades (you guessed it) one through four, each box littered with English, math, science, and more English writings (as it turns out, I wasn’t that great at English, although my prepubescent handwriting is somehow better than my present-day hieroglyphics). Case closed.

But here’s the real mystery: Why? Why was Mom hanging on to decades-old schoolwork? She obviously wasn’t getting any value from it. After all, the boxes were sealed, unaccessed for twenty years, just sitting there, tree bark in a box. If she were here, she’d probably tell me she was holding on to a piece of me in the boxes. But how? I was never in these boxes. I didn’t even know they existed until this moment. And yet she thought she could keep a piece of me—memories of me—by keeping these things. This thought infuriates me. Our memories are not in our things. Our memories are in us.

But wait a minute: Aren’t I doing the same thing with her stuff? Except instead of little boxes under my bed, I’m going to squirrel away all her bits and pieces in a gigantic box with a padlock. And just like her, I will, in all likelihood, leave it there, sealed for a score in an edge-of-town storage locker, the final resting place for her belongings.

Faced with this realization, I pick up my phone and dial.

“Thank you for calling U-Haul, your moving and storage resource. My name is Randi. How may I help you?”

“I need to cancel a truck. ”

*   *   *

I was wearing a jacket when I left Ohio two weeks ago, but there’s no need for one in Florida. It’s still middle-of-summer hot here, scorching for mid-October: ninety-eight degrees, ninety-five percent relative humidity, air so thick that my hair parts in strange ways and frizzes like it’s mad at me. I’m sweating just thinking about going outside.

I’ve spent the last twelve days divesting myself of Mom’s property: her furniture, her clothes, even her supply of doilies, all of it sold and donated to help the charities that assisted her through nine months of chemo and radiation.

Into the heat of this morning comes peace, an ineffable weight lifted. I call a shuttle to drive me to the airport where Ryan will be waiting for me on the other side of my flight. I’m headed home with a few boxes of photographs and many years of memories inside me. Before I exit the apartment, I turn around and take one last look at the empty space, staring into the vastness of everything that’s gone.

The stereo is no longer there, but Daniel Martin Moore still plays in my head, “Ah but you know, it’s time for him to go.” Perhaps this is my Stray Age. Someone once told me that our bodies’ cells regenerate every seven years, making us completely new people at seven-year intervals. I’m twenty-eight now. Maybe this is my fourth regeneration, my chance at a new start, an opportunity to be kinder to what I’ve been given, for that’s all there is, and the meter is running.

“Letting Go” is an excerpt from Everything That Remains.