There are certain moments that you will never forget. They follow you around like the smell of day-old perfume on a shirt you forgot to wash. Every once in a while, if you turn your head a certain way, the aroma hits you again, and there you are: days, months, years back in time. Tonight, I got a whiff of August 2014.
It is August in Alabama. The heat and humidity feel heavy and yeasty like standing inside a loaf of baking bread. I am perched in a storage shed, covered in grime, looking at the frail frame of my 86 year old grandmother. She looks like a wet kitten in this heat. Her salt and pepper hair hangs in moist streaks down her face, and her used-to-be-white tank top clings to her shoulders and braless torso. She is peering at me though her glasses that are sliding ever closer to the end of her nose. She looks like she is about to cry or curse or both and I am trying to climb over another pile of boxes to get to where she is so I can help her lift this box of who-knows-who-cares into a different stack. The entire 20 x 15 shed is filled, floor to ceiling with boxes. And she has asked me to catalog each item in each box for an estate sale. It’s like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.
I am frustrated by the bread-heat, physical exhaustion, and general ridiculousness of this whole ordeal. It is dangerously hot in this storage shed for any person, let alone my elderly grandmother who, only a few months before, was in the ICU from ARDS for the second time. This is the third or fourth full day of working like this- moving boxes of junk from one stack to another- one storage location to another.
Finally, I can take no more. I grab the box from her hand, throw in into the stack, and half-yell at her, “Is THIS what you want?!?!”
‘THIS” meaning sweating to death in a storage unit with boxes of junk smothering the life out of you?
“THIS” meaning living life in such fear of the future that you cannot let anything current go?
“THIS” meaning putting so much value on things that you have no time for people, or hobbies, or fun?
She tilts her head upward so that her glasses slide back up her slick nose, and pauses. She doesn’t say anything for a minute and I start to worry if she is about to keel over. Then she slowly raises her bony arm, covered in bruises and band aids (she takes a blood thinner and bleeds easily) and jabs her finger at each corner of the room. Then she says quietly, “THIS is all I have”.
This memory comes to me often. Momo, as we called her, passed away just three months after that day in the storage shed. That week of hell with her and the boxes was the last large chunk of time I ever spent with her. “THIS is all I have” she would say. She needed to sell the items in an estate sale to get money because it was all she had, she would say. She worked her precious fingers to the bone day after day, because that was all she had.
But as it turns out, that wasn’t true. After her death, we found out that she had plenty of money saved. Plenty enough to throw all of those boxes into a lake and never think of them again. Plenty enough to do all of the things she said she wanted to do but never did, because she was too busy stacking boxes.
My grandmother had so much in her life. She traveled the world, had two beautiful children, five beautiful grandchildren, and scores of friends- young and old- who loved her even until the very end. After she died, I took some books on tape back to the library where she frequented. I turned them in to the desk and asked if there were any more left checked out in her account that we missed. The sweet librarian there asked how Mrs. Sims (Momo/grandmother) was. When I told her that she had passed away, she started crying. Even the librarians loved her! Her pharmacist cried when we closed her account. She fought cancer and won. She fought ARDS and won, twice. She stayed true to her faith in Jesus until the very end, when my mom sang her home and she took her last breath. I have no doubt whatsoever that her friend Jesus was the first person she embraced (if you can do such a thing) when her soul and body parted ways.
She was a vital person. Vital because she was so full of life, but also vital because she was so desperately needed by so many people. She made her world a better place in every square inch she stepped foot in. So how is it that such a vital person spent her last days, her victory lap of life on earth, withered away in a storage shed, moving boxes of tea towels and Chinese figurines for an Estate Sale that would never happen? How could she have believed that “THIS” was all she had, when the people who love her most, her faith, her God- her real treasures, were sweating it out with her in that terrible storage unit??
First, she grew up in the Depression era. Those folks can’t really help it. They keep everything. So for some of it, she is off the hook.
Second, she liked being busy. She enjoyed being vital (in both senses of the world). Sometimes it feels good to fix something that is broken. She was gifted in that way.
Third, and more importantly the majority of her problem, I think her work was a form of self-punishment. She said she needed the money, but she didn’t. She had money. She, in some ways, felt that she had to prove her worth by creating worth. She didn’t see herself as acceptable “as is” so she felt she had to be working hard to be of value. Which is exactly the opposite of what the gospel she loved so much and worked so hard to share teaches: We do nothing but screw stuff up, Jesus comes down and does it all the right way and then gave up his life to us, and we get all of His righteousness. No work necessary.
No work necessary.
Because it’s already been done. Our value has been sealed, before we were even born. Jesus already packed the boxes and had the estate sale. The money is in the bank.
“THIS” ain’t all.
How many times have I taken myself to the storage shed for long hours of unnecessary figurative sweat work? How many times (a day) do I forget that I am just fine the broken way that I am? Why is it that I keep thinking that “THIS” is all I have, when I have been given so SO much more goodness? Why do I feel like I shouldn’t enjoy it?
Ouch. These thoughts burn in my chest like a storage unit in August in Alabama. And rightfully so-and-so.
Momo always said she wanted to paint. She was an incredible artist. I have several works of hers in my home, and they are always the ones people talk about first. She taught me how to paint. There is this one painting that she started for me when I was in college. She found a picture in a magazine of these large flowers in a vase. I told her I liked it and she decided to paint it for me. For almost a decade it sat unfinished on an easel in her house. After she died, I took the unfinished canvas and now it hangs in my living room as a reminder that “THIS” is not all I have. I am a wealthy woman (figuratively) and it gives me the freedom to spend my life in light of all of the good things I have been given from God, and not have to prove myself to anyone. It’s such freedom that I so rarely enjoy. But I am going to try to work at it.
So-and-so I dedicate this post to my sweet friend and grandmother. She was a good, good woman, but unfortunately human, just like the rest of us. I love her and miss her dearly, and she has taught me so much in life and in death that all I can do is try to pay it forward.
P.S.-Just in case you are wondering, the storage unit still sits full of boxes. It hasn’t been touched since last summer. If you hear of a storage unit burning down in Montgomery, it wasn’t me. I don’t even know what you are talking about.