The Crossroads

I just lost my dad.  One minute, he was talking, walking, and shopping with me; the next day he was someone I didn’t know.  Overnight, his dementia had taken hold and he was lost to us.  I’ll never know if it was a new prescription that pushed him over the edge, or someone stealing his wallet at his assisted living center (which held his lucky $20 bill from his Navy days in the 1950s).  I’ll never know the answer and I’ll never gather enough facts to know.  This doesn’t exactly bring me peace.

Was it part of God’s plan to take this wonderful, kind man that everyone loved so quickly?  Had God heard my prayers for mercy as I saw him headed down the slippery slope of decline?  For days in the hospital, I sat talking to dad.  Even though he was unresponsive and incapable of our usual communication, I could see that parts of “dad” were still there.  The doctors were not forthcoming with information and it was a constant struggle to get the facts and the truth — two things my tenacity was going to attain.  I watched for days as the prognosis grew worse, until finally I lifted a prayer begging for answers … any kind of answers.

The neurologist came into dad’s room and he was, quite literally, heaven-sent.  He answered all of my questions to the best of his ability.  He told me dad was not coming back and I needed to make a decision as dad’s healthcare power of attorney.  An infection had started to brew and they wanted to know if we should treat it or not.  Fortunately, one of the greatest blessings in all of this is that mom and dad left detailed living wills/advanced directives, spelling out what they wanted and what they didn’t.

There was no way dad wanted to live like this, and his living will guided us to the final decision that allowed him to die a natural death as he requested.  As my sibling said, “It was the hardest, easiest decision to make, because dad had told us what he wanted.”  We honored his wishes, as hard as it was.  Imagine the level of guilt we would have to bear the remainder of our lives, had dad not gone to the trouble to have this for us, guiding us through a very dark and sorrowful time.

Moving him to Hospice House was the best decision.  Dad was so peaceful there.  I am convinced the nurses and CNAs had angel’s wings under their scrubs; yet another blessing during this time of crisis.  I stayed with dad in hospice for two days.  I talked non-stop (aided greatly by the constant flow of caffeine), I sang to him “Amazing Grace” and other songs he loved.  I asked for forgiveness for the times I wasn’t the best kid or short on patience, and I reminded him of all the great family memories.  I thanked him for instilling in us kids the morals and values that have carried us so far.  I asked him to watch over my family, give mom a big hug, and touch the stars for me.  It is hard to carry on a solo conversation.

A couple of hours before he passed, he gave me a great gift.  He opened his eyes and locked onto mine.  He hadn’t done that in a week.  Giving dad the biggest smile that I could through the tears, I told him that I was right there with him and that I was okay (he always worried about me).  I was sad but okay and was going to be okay.  I told him “I love you” as I had at least 100 times that day.  For a man whose brain could no longer function and who lost his powers of speech, what he did next was a very special gift.  Eyes locked on mine, his lips mouthed the words, “I love you” right back.  In human terms, that was impossible, but not to me.  That was a parting miracle and one I will never forget.

Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.  It is a sorrowful time for me and my family, but dad always said, “Life is for the living,” and mom always said, “This too shall pass.”  I think they were both right, as always.

© 2012 Julie Hall

In Search Of …

Everybody is in search of something.  We search for happiness, prosperity, vitality, etc.  We search for understanding, the meaning of life, the mysteries of the universe.  We look for people and special places and a million other things – all so that our lives will be meaningful.

In all my years of working in estates, I see clients searching for something too, but many of them haven’t quite figured out what it is they are looking for.  When it comes to clearing out the estate, many of them take way too much stuff only to clutter up their own homes.  You know they will never use those items, yet they continue taking, taking.  Why do they do this?  What void are these things feebly filling, that they didn’t get from the loved one in life?

Are they searching for absolution from a lost parent, or in need of validation of who they were to the parent?  Are they angry with the deceased loved one and never got a chance to make it right?  Are they guilt-ridden?  Did they not receive enough emotional love and support from the parent-child relationship, and now take things feeling “entitled” and holding a grudge?

Things are never a replacement for people.  At the end of our lives, we can’t take these things with us anyway and they will only serve to burden our children who really don’t want the stuff from the start.

When my mother died, here’s what I took from her estate and that very painful experience:

  • I took her beautiful smile and laughter, forever etched in my memory.
  • I took her solid advice and now practice it daily.
  • I took 50 years of memories … family gatherings and good times.
  • I took photographs so I would never forget how blue her eyes were.
  • I took her common sense, good manners, and lady-like disposition, and carry them with me, among many other things.

The point I’m trying to make is that memories are not found in things.  The things you take from an estate will gather dust and be forgotten eventually.  Special memories are already in your heart if you had a good relationship with the loved one.  And if you didn’t/don’t have a good relationship, now is a really good time to try to mend old, crumbling fences.

© 2012 Julie Hall

An Estate Find Tells the Tale of a Bittersweet Love

The colors of the WWI era postcard were the first to catch my attention.  Postmarked 1918, the picture depicts a soldier in uniform holding the hand of a girl he was leaving behind as he heads off to war.  When I flipped the postcard over to read it, their lives suddenly sprung to life.

Her name was Viola and she lived in Virginia.  The only writing on the addressee side is her first name, last name, and the city and state she lived in.  Your first thought, when looking at the simplicity of the card, was how complicated life is now in the 21st century, compared to a time when postmen knew you and where you lived.  But after reading the postcard, perhaps their lives weren’t that simple after all.  It leaves a lot to the imagination.

His name was Thomas and he was writing from Camp Meade.  Apparently, Thomas was quite taken with Viola.

Dearest Viola,  I guess you are somewhat surprised to hear from me.  And although I am taking it upon myself to drop you a card, I hope that one day very soon I can hold your beautiful face in my hands.  What a sweet and wonderful day it will be to see you again!  I thought today that I had to leave for France, But I am still here for a couple of weeks before we go so please answer me.  Yours, Thomas

What Thomas was really trying to do was get up the nerve to tell her how he really felt and that he wanted her in his life.

I wonder whatever happened to Thomas and Viola.  During this time in 1918, WWI was drawing to a close but the men were still actively fighting.  Did Thomas ever go to France, and if so, did he ever return safely to hold Viola’s face?  Did he die valiantly while fighting for his country?  It’s one of the myriad of mysteries we find in estates, and while it is hard to walk away without a firm answer, we simply fill in the blanks the way we would have wanted the story to end.

Thomas came back; Viola fell head over heels in love with him.  They had several children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; they lived to a ripe old age, completely devoted to one another.

In my mind, that’s the ending to this affair of the heart.

© 2012 Julie Hall

Skeletons in the Closet

We all have them.  Some of them are small and insignificant, and others are whoppers.  But whatever one is in your closet, remember one very important thing:  One day, we too will perish, and we don’t want our loved ones pained further by any skeletons they may find in our closets.  What’s the solution?  Deal with them, get rid of them if they are physical items, talk openly about them so no one is shocked or hurt.  Just get that monkey off your back and let it go.

It’s always amazing what we find in estates.  Some families try to clean them out, but soon lose steam and call us in to handle it.  Some families don’t even want to tackle the job to begin with and hire us from the start.  We find evidence of alternate lifestyles, illegitimate children from decades ago, infidelity, disorders, reasons for a suicide, pornography addiction, etc.

These are incredibly personal issues that belong to the individuals.  They have to be handled with grace and compassion, but often the shock they bring leaves families in a downward spiral.  For whatever reason, through their own choices or fate, these skeletons were left behind, and I have seen some of these skeletons bring about much pain for survivors.

Each of us has a life to live however we choose.  But take a good look at your home and your life and do a clean sweep to make sure there is nothing left behind that could be potentially harmful or hurtful.

When we find sensitive “skeletons,” depending on what they are, some just need to find their way to the garbage, and demand discretion.  Some need never be talked about and taken to the grave.  This issue is among the many gray areas we deal with in handling estates.  One thing is clear: all of these that we mentioned here require kindness, compassion, and potentially, discretion.  Remember, we can’t judge until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes; it’s how we handle them that makes or breaks the situation, or us.

© 2012 Julie Hall

What I Learned From An Old Cat

It seems we are all in relentless pursuit of happiness.  Maybe we have trouble finding it because we are so busy in the actual pursuit of it.  If you’ve ever watched a kitten chase its tail or a hamster on a wheel, that’s pretty much how I view society in general.  We are always racing to get somewhere, but if we are smart, we will learn to step off the track and breathe for a while before getting back on.  We need respite and renewal first.  Our old cat, Tommy, was the teacher for this one.

This past weekend, my family gathered around to watch a movie together.  Halfway through the movie, I looked over at my elderly father who was fast asleep, and most surprisingly, the cat crashed next to him.  Then the cat got up, stretched, and moved over to my daughter.

A true lap cat, Tommy is getting old, arthritic in his hips, getting thinner, and certainly not the fierce mouse hunter he once was.  He used to stalk his territory and control the mole population.  He used to leap in the air at falling leaves in autumn, and attack your leg as you were walking by.  Incredibly vocal, he will tell you exactly what he needs when he needs it.  But now, you could see youth was leaving him, yet he looked more contented than ever.

Here’s what went through my mind as I witnessed his contentment:

  1. Life is too short not to take cat naps.
  2. Happiness is found in simple things, like getting your back scratched.
  3. No worries if the work doesn’t get done this second.  It will get done eventually.
  4. Kick back and dream about catching a big mouse.
  5. He’s earned his rest.
  6. He loves and trusts unconditionally.

I know our furry friends do not have the worries that we humans have, but if we go through life aware of what’s around us, we can learn a lot from nature’s intelligence!

© 2012 Julie Hall

What We Find Left Behind

It’s always an eye-opening experience working in estates after the children have taken what they want and allow us to handle the remainder.  You just never know what you will find left behind.

Sometimes, we just find what you would expect, the items that should have been discarded 40 years ago – broken items from the attic, old appliances, clothing that needs to be donated, etc.  Other times, we find items that have value and we arrange to have them sold for the family.  And on occasion, we find items that leave us scratching our heads, or items that we can never speak of and promise to take that information to our graves.

We see it all: the love, the fights, the estrangements, the addictions, the sorrows, the secrets – all of which are carried through our lifetimes.

It is difficult to put into words when you find war medals of courage and valor left on the floor for disposal, or antique photos of people in the family that have been left in a pile for us to discard.  But we understand that every person has a story and we are not privy to their upbringing or lives, and therefore do not understand why they made the decisions they did.

Recently we found letters dating from the Civil War period, of a soldier who wrote home to his sister.  He wrote of the horrible conditions, how most of his comrades had died from dysentery, and that there wasn’t enough food to keep the soldiers strong.  He spoke of having no warmth through the winter months, but described it in such a way that he was not complaining.  It was fascinating to hear of life so long ago from a person who lived during those times, but the family took no interest.

Other things we find are scrapbooks, war letters between mom and dad, family Bibles with genealogy information inside the front cover, diaries, estate jewelry, guns, etc.

I guess it’s true what they say.  Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and one cannot predict what is in a person’s heart during such difficult times.

© 2012 Julie Hall

How A Senior Party Changed Me Forever

I’d like to share a special memory from two years ago as we prepare for the new year ahead.

It was a spur-of-the-moment invitation from my 78 yr. old mother.   While visiting my parents out-of-state, Mom announced she bought me a ticket to their senior holiday dinner and dance party at the local clubhouse.  Knowing it would make them happy, I obliged, but wasn’t exactly ready to kick up my heels just yet.  How much fun could it really be?

The clubhouse was nothing fancy — it was reminiscent of a church basement or school gym, devoid of color though there were a few decorations on the wall.   In front of the small bingo stage was the collapsible black sound system from the hired DJ, complete with a disco ball spinning crystal-like dots on the walls and a lighted 3 ft. Santa next to his unit.   The floor was exceptionally shiny, as if someone had spent hours buffing and polishing it to perfection, meant just for dancing.

With roughly 40 seniors present, dinner was served.  We all waited in line, cafeteria style, to be served our food – a very simple meal of roast beef, green beans and a roll with coffee or water.   Dessert would be homemade cakes from some of the neighborhood ladies.   Styrofoam plates in hand, we waited patiently as everyone got the same amount of food.

During our meal, the DJ came alive and it was obvious he loved his job.  The beat from Glen Miller’s  “In the Mood” was evident in my tapping feet, shoulder motions and bobbing head – was that me actually having fun?  Dare I say the fun was just beginning…

Mesmerized by the fantastic selection of 40’s and 50’s music and jazz beats that made you want to get up and bounce all over the dance floor, the seniors suddenly came alive, as if their simple meal had fueled their fire.  Some with canes, others with oxygen, still others like my mother afflicted with heart disease – it didn’t matter to them – they got up and started dancing like they were young again!!

Before my very eyes, the music became their magic. Transported back to the 1940’s, the hands of time literally spun backwards to return them to their prime in life.  No longer weak or frail, they would have easily danced their boomer children into a state of exhaustion.   This was their night and they proudly took ownership of it.

Over the course of the evening, I found myself looking closely at the old men’s weathered faces.  They didn’t look old to me anymore.   It was like watching an episode of Star Trek when they were brought back in time wearing their U.S. military uniforms and the ladies’ vibrant and shiny hair had curls and they had small waists, just like in the old movies.

But the most moving part of the evening was how they looked at each other.  Couples who had been married for 50-60 years still gazed upon each other with love and affection – I even caught a glimpse of an elderly man stroking his wife’s face while they danced. I had to fight the tears back because mom told me that lady was fighting an illness.  This, I thought, was true commitment.

They had survived the Great Depression and one of the world’s most devastating wars, and raising us!  These were people who simply did what needed to be done.  They are fiercely loyal, still loved America, and always had a strong work ethic.

For one night, for a few hours, they didn’t care about their diseases, ailments, aches and pains.  They only wanted to let their hair down and have a memorable time.  There I sat, a 48-year-old daughter, who found herself in love with each of them – for the way they laughed, for the way they did the “Twist,” for the way they treated each other with smiles galore and twirling about as if today were their last day on earth.

The thought crossed my mind, as it probably did theirs, that our time is indeed limited, for some more than others.  How is it they could dance and enjoy fellowship with such carefree smiles and attitude?  Because they love life and offered each other the best gift anyone could possible receive.  They gave the gift of simple joy.  The gave the gift of each other.

I found myself deeply moved by what I saw that evening.   Ours has become a world of convenience, and often inconvenience.  A place where people are always saying “What’s in it for me?” and a place where we don’t see as much care and concern for each other, as there was in our parents’ generation.

I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge visiting a strange place and time, who saw the light and got the meaning in just the few hours they allowed me to share with them. I feel so very honored to have witnessed such a gift.  Our seniors truly are our greatest asset, and we have much to learn from them.  All we need to do is open our eyes, ears and hearts.

© 2011 Julie Hall

Permission to Let Go

The last two weeks were spent cleaning out Mom and Dad’s home.  Mom passed in October and Dad is moving closer to me here in Charlotte this week.  For 20 years, I have served others in doing this very task.  What a bittersweet experience and very cleansing for me.  Plenty of tears but even more smiles, which is the way Mom would have wanted it.  So many memories came flooding in!

In cleaning out Mom’s closets, I was reminded of a conversation she and I had a few months ago.  Wearing her robe, she escorted me to her closet one morning and pointed out 4 large Xerox boxes full of family photos from long ago.  There, stacked neatly on the top shelf, these boxes took up quite a bit of space she couldn’t even reach.

Mom sighed and said, “Julie, when I die, I want you to take these boxes and throw them out or do whatever you want with them.  They are photos of people you do not know; I don’t even know them all.  So I am relieving you of the guilt my mother put on me. Get rid of them.”  It was an Ah-Ha moment.

Standing before the closet without Mom by my side and feeling the pain of that solitude, that memory came shining through.  I suddenly felt much lighter emotionally and physically, knowing I had her permission to do what I felt necessary. 

Letting go.  What a beautiful gift to give our children.  We can’t hold onto everything, and releasing our loved ones from the guilt that binds us, offers peace we wouldn’t have otherwise.  Thank you, Mom!

© 2011 Julie Hall

Sometimes There is No Second Chance

We are mortal beings.  On a subconscious level, we all know our days are finite.  Why then don’t we appreciate more the people close to our hearts, and tell them each and every day that we love them?  Why do so many put it off and procrastinate?

I’ve had hundreds of clients dealing with past hurts, power struggles, estrangements, and unresolved issues.  Then someone dies suddenly; you can no longer converse with them in person once they leave this earthly plane.  It is then impossible to make things right and you carry that heaviness with you the rest of your life.

I didn’t know my mom was going to die so suddenly four weeks ago.  My parting words to my mother in this life were as we parted every day.  “Take care, mom.  I’ll see you soon.  I love you.”  But her response was what has given me peace, even though she passed 8 hours after this conversation.  She simply said, “I love you too.” and said it with conviction.

Though I am in a fog of grief right now, and dealing with a dear father who is struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, I’ve seared into my mind those joyous last words between mother and daughter.  These words made me understand she always felt that way and clearly demonstrated the love between us.  What a beautiful gift I shall cherish the rest of my days.

Pick up your cell phone, and call a loved one you have been meaning to call for a while.  Call your mom or dad if you are fortunate enough to still have them, and say “I love you.”  Sometimes tomorrow never comes.

© 2011 Julie Hall

What I’ve Learned as an Expert in “Things” (part 2)

I probably don’t have to tell you this, since Wal-Mart and almost every other store are playing holiday music already:  The holidays are coming soon!!

As I write this blog on what I’ve learned as an expert on “things,” I realize that these last two thoughts, promised to you last week, will revolutionize how you view this year’s holidays.  They’ll probably also save you money and frustration when holiday shopping time comes.  Please consider the following observations from this expert in “things:”

3.  It’s what you do with what you have that really counts, not what you possess.  In these tough economic times, it’s important to remember there are others dealing with greater difficulties than you.  Even while we tighten our purse strings, we can still give in many ways that others would be so grateful for.

  • Give of yourself.
  • Go visit someone you have been meaning to see for a long time.
  • Write that letter.
  • Bake those cookies.
  • Volunteer for those needing help.
  • Visit those confined to home by infirmity or sickness.
  • Surprise a loved one.
  • Make that phone call to make amends with one you haven’t spoken to for years.
  • Bring your children to an assisted living or nursing home; watch the residents light up.
  • Say what you need to say, and do so right now.
  • Ask for forgiveness and offer it, no matter what.
  • Offer hugs to those who really need it.
  • Listen to your elders because you will learn so much.

4.  If you have a senior in your life … Spend a full day with them and ask them to share stories of your family history — fun stories, challenges, family secrets, marriages.  Look through old photos.  Record this day and make a book for them (and copies for each sibling) so it may be passed down for years to come.  Many children regret not having more family history, but they realize this only after a loved one has left us.

© 2011 Julie Hall