Caring for a parent, Dementia

Opening Boxes

I’ve  spent the past three months hauling carloads of boxes from mini-storage to the room over the carport (a.k.a. the studio) and opening them to remove the packing material and consolidate the contents. In the weeks since the holidays I decided to up the stakes, reopening and emptying all the boxes and finding places to put my belongings in a home that’s not really mine. There are four pieces of furniture and a trunk left in storage. I have lined up help with it for Saturday. I guess I’m staying here.

I organized some of Mama’s stored stuff to create space on shelves in her basement storage room; as carefully as I could choosing shelves and stuff I don’t think she will be looking for (gifts she has never had use for, four fancy folding chairs that she couldn’t move even if she wanted to). I discarded nothing, except the boxes the telephone and the internet router came in, neatly stacking the many other empty boxes. I doubt I will get away with the rearranging, but I will beg forgiveness and suffer the consequences. I am determined to stop draining my savings on a storage unit when I live in 4000 square feet of real estate.

As it turns out, the consequences were severe. One of the crimes I committed was moving a bookcase that used to be in my quarters, and was now inaccessible behind an armchair in the guest room, to my bedroom so I could unpack book boxes. It had six books on it, one of which was mine. Yes, I should have asked. I shouldn’t have assumed it wasn’t in use, just because it, well, wasn’t. “In use” is not a criteria. “It’s mine,” is the operative force. It came up over dinner on Saturday, two weeks after I moved it.

“What did you do with the bookcase in the red room?” “I moved it downstairs. I didn’t think it was being used.” “I was going to put stuff on it from the dresser and it wasn’t there!” I stick like packing tape to my “kindness” intention for the new year and say I am sorry, I should have asked. What followed was a long discourse (which is why I didn’t ask in the first place, but there is no escaping it) on the history of its unfinished-furniture origins and the store where it was purchased more than two decades ago that went out of business but now there’s a new store there and maybe they have another like it and is the piano bench Rebecca painted in the studio and is it protected it’s her best work and Mama always wanted to use it in the living room for a coffee table but she is afraid someone—like her grandsons—will put their feet on it and if I move her things in the kitchen she can’t find them even if they are only moved six inches because she can’t see and she doesn’t like venetian blinds but she needs something to block more light and she just needs to move.

And there is was: the big red button: “I just need to move.” The box exploded open and emotion, packed up and swaddled in good intention for four weeks, came flying out. Just as irrationally as her diatribe, I went off on my sister for not making time to organize her things in the studio to make room for mine so I wouldn’t have had to unpack boxes or move Mama’s stuff. She said Rebecca needs room to store her things too and suggested I could sell my furniture and buy new when I “have my own home.” That hurt. This is my home, and my hope is that it will continue to be my home. But that’s a box I have been careful to keep taped shut for fear any talk about the house will put her in the mind that we need to clean it out (a nightmare of a thought) and put it on the market; which is where she goes when she gets unhappy with the status quo. Like now. She is living on Fantasy Island to believe I have the earning power to get a job that will pay me to live, let alone buy new furniture; and I don’t know what I will do if she snatches my dream out from under me. But I stuffed all those feelings and words back in the box and stapled it shut, cursing myself for opening it, and just said, “I sold half of my furniture before I moved here; I only kept my favorites.” And, by the way, I would be more than happy to stay out of the kitchen.

Unfortunately, what escaped the box continued to swirl about for the next 48 hours. Mama didn’t sleep, I didn’t sleep. Her stomach hurt, my heart hurt. Her back hurt (“chair yoga did it”), my back hurt (I can’t wait to get to yoga). She doesn’t like what I cook, I don’t like that I don’t have any Valium. For two days, I listened without engagement to one crazy conversation after another. “I want you to help me clean out the house,” she told me as I was standing in the open door to leave one morning, “I thought we would do it when you got here. And then there was the wedding and it hadn’t been done. It’s what I wanted most.” She wanted to clean out the house the first two weeks I was here? A house where every paperclip has been saved and each one has a story? And where, in several hours over three days, we were unsuccessful at cleaning off a single table? (Which is what she wanted most of all that week.) “Maybe we should have a yard sale,” she said. My box stayed closed. I said we would talk about it later.

On Post Trauma Day 3 she is back to herself. She let her box open, too, I guess, and spilled the contents. The trouble with opening boxes is you have to find some place to put the stuff you have let into the light, and we have little practice, because keeping the lid on emotions is what we learned in this family. So we stay closed up until contents under pressure does what they does.

3 thoughts on “Opening Boxes”

  1. How this hits home! While visiting Mom over Christmas I brazenly sorted through the mountain of junk mail on her kitchen table and just put it out in the trash without asking. Gone were RNC donation requests from 2011, piles of charitable organizations ‘free gifts’ along with return envelopes and out of season catalogs. I left Mom with a clean space with the wood of the table showing so she could eat and read her morning paper. I was lambasted for it and maybe I shouldn’t have done it. I wanted to give her a fresh outlook, unconnected to past unfulfilled intentions. But I they were hers and I was wrong to overpower her. Thank you for sharing your demonstrations of kindness and consideration for your mother.


  2. OMG…and now I imagine the task becomes what to pick up and engage with again and what to drop; what to cajole with and what to take on as worry! You have demonstrated the broad scope of relationships, and it is not necessarily connected to age. Well writ!


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