At roughly the same time I received that unexpected visit from Jim, my family was experiencing a crisis. My mother, who had been exhibiting some forgetfulness and difficulty with some high level cognitive functioning, was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's dementia. At that time, my sister and I also came to the realization that our parents' home of 40 years had become too much house for them to maintain.
Like most difficult things we experiencing while adulting, no one tells you just how hard it is to make the decision to move your parents out of the home they made so many years ago, where you and your siblings grew up in, and countless memories were made. Not surprisingly, our discussion with our parents about this move was not met with delight. Initially, we told them it would be temporary, because that truly was what we had intended. A period of time to hire and send in contractors to repair the disrepair and years of wear and tear. The most heartbreaking moment we experienced happened on Mother's Day of 2019. In a difficult conversation about this temporary move, my sweet mama, in a moment of lucidity but also fear, begged us not to remove her from the one thing she knows...her home. I had to walk out of the room, because the emotions that flooded me were too much to bear. Too ugly to wear in front of others, especially my already weeping mother. I cannot begin to describe the guilt that weighed on me that day. My dad didn't want to discuss it any longer. He was angry with us for upsetting Mama. And yet as difficult as that moment was, we still had such conviction that it was not safe or appropriate for them to stay. We could have given in and let them stay in the house for the sake of peace. But the reality was, these repairs should have been addressed long before we finally noticed them. We feared the presence of mold in the walls and carpet. It really could not wait. In the end, we were correct in what we feared.
Fast-forward a few months later and our parents' move to assisted living became permanent. While they longed for their home, they were healthier in assisted living with regards to nutrition and taking medications on time, daily. We worried less about them. When we decided to remodel their house in preparation to rent out, we began sorting and packing their belongings. I was only somewhat prepared how what this process would affect me. We started off sort of bulldozing, as I liked to call it. Lots of clutter that wasn't important was easy to move out. But every now and then I came across some photos or some items that made me stop dead in my tracks. I pored over things like farewell cards from my mom's nursing colleagues who worked alongside her in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) she worked in as a registered nurse (RN) for 35 years. Photos of her fastidiously caring for a small baby or laughing at a unit potluck. She was a friend and a mentor and a model employee and everyone admired her work ethic. I also pored over photos of her with her old high school and college friends. I have yet to meet anyone who in their adult years managed to remain close, let alone stay in touch with their high school and undergrad friends. My mom did so with ease and with pride. They traveled together, karaoked together. Watched each other marry (or not marry), raise kids, and become empty nesters, and celebrated with each other as they transitioned into retirement and grandparenthood.
The stuff in my childhood bedroom was met with some curiosity and some dread. I would imagine most people look at their childhood items with nostalgia and joy. My childhood items bring up to me a swirl of nostalgia, tinged with sadness and a little regret, but definitely some joy. I will first say that my childhood was not "bad," by most standards. I grew up in a family where both my biological parents remained married and cohabitating and my maternal grandmother raised me and my older sister. Every physical need of ours was always met. Always. I felt loved by each person in my family. The love didn't seem to go in all directions, though, and unfortunately, what I remember from my childhood often was my loneliness. I was lonely even with people in the house. I escaped the loneliness through imaginary play and reading and sometimes television. When I could, I would play outside with kids in my neighborhood until the street lights turned on. As I grew older, I journaled and wrote short stories. I came across some journals and resisted reading them. I remember the stages of life I was in when I reached for those journals. I skimmed through them and eventually tossed them in the rented trash dumpster because I didn't want to relive those times. You might think that was a foolish decision and that reading them may have served some cathartic purpose that would lead to some healing. And maybe you're right. I think I was leaning towards the Marie Kondo way of thinking that if it didn't "spark joy," to say thank you and goodbye. I have worked through much of my childhood through therapy and sharing with friends and I do not have regrets there.
After months of clearing and packing and donating items, the house was finally cleared out. I slowly walked through each room and relived in my mind's eye images of birthday parties, mahjong games, my mother and grandmother cooking or teaching me how to make dumplings and my sister racing live crabs across the kitchen counter before the poor guys were steamed for our dinner. I smiled when I remembered the time I dropped a whole watermelon on the kitchen floor and it went SPLAT, as our guests gasped in horror and my mortified mom barely flinched and signaled me to clean it up while she served food. I remembered watching fireworks every Fourth of July from our deck, overlooking our amazing view of the San Gabriel Valley. We could see fireworks from the nearby parks and high schools and community colleges. I also saw a spot on the floor where I sat and contemplated suicide as a teenager and where I wept, exhausted after a painful asthma attack when my family couldn't find my inhaler for a few minutes that felt like a small eternity. I also remembered where my sister's bed was, where I crawled in when I was scared from shouting matches. It was the same place we were awakened as young kids by the sound of our parents filling our stockings on Christmas Eve which led to our discovery that Santa Claus wasn't real, after all. But we still loved those stockings and no one knows how to fill a stocking better than them.
My childhood home is now beautifully transformed and currently houses a young married couple and their individual small businesses, selling jewelry and collectible basketball shoes, respectively. My mom still tells me every now and then that she looks forward to when she can go home. It hurts my heart each time. I think the image of that home is fading in her mind, but that longing remains. While this longing of hers pains us, we could not have imagined or planned better their move before the pandemic hit. There is such a thing as divine providence and I don't doubt it for a minute. We often equate home with comfort and I think sometimes home is a place that isn't necessarily comfortable, but the best place for you to be, even if you don't see or feel it in the moment.