I’m humming “The Streets of Laredo” these days as I pile old clothes into plastic bags to give away. I hum to drown out the chaos in my head. An old cowboy song about a young cowhand shot in the saddle and waiting to die? Just the ticket: maudlin yet catchy, and grim enough to match my mood.
I’m morbid and it’s no wonder. Since January, I’ve lost my grandmother, my Other Mother, and this month, my only paternal Aunt, my beautiful, fierce Aunt Lee. Earlier this year, a friend my own age was found dead in her apartment after lying there at least a week. My father-in-law is “on deck,” my world feels temporary and tenuous, my daughter half-grown, my parents aging. My own middle-age settles on me like thick flesh stockings.
We still have four months left in the year.
My coping technique, as always, is to get stuff done. But this summer all the death around me has motivated me to make changes! Figure out who I really am! What I want to do with my life! All with italics and exclamation points. “It’s Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” a friend tells me. “It’s mid-life crisis,” another friend says.
“It’s taking care of business!” I say, aware of my mania. “It’s fixing up that downstairs room so we can sit and watch TV in it without tripping over all the junk that’s been just piling up, and Annie can relax there with her friends, and I can teach private classes there!”
We’ve needed to fix that room up for years. We’ve needed to do our estate planning, too, and we’ve never gotten to that, either. Now’s the time. I need a new equilibrium without three of the women I looked to for self-identity.
I clean closets and sort through drawers. Accessories, hair ties, hats, scarves, gloves, single socks, old make-up, half bottles of potions. I make piles: Keep, Toss, Give Away. Papers and papers and papers to file and recycle. Bills, magazines, clippings, notes, outdated tourist maps of Pompeii and the Kathmandu valley. Ticket stubs from European trains and metros, ferries and funiculars.
“Keep those!” Annie says.
“We might need them. Or to remember.” She watches her childhood disappear into drawers (stories and A papers) and into the garbage (crumpled middle-school math homework).
“If it’s important to you, by all means, keep it,” I say. “But not just piled on your desk. You’re going to need that desk clear in high school!” We’ve given her my grandmother’s desk. I hope it brings her inspiration.
“Can we get rid of this chair?” I say. “The seat is slashed!”
“My chair? It’s ergonomic.” Bill says.
Bill and I pile the back of the Subaru with twenty years of e-waste. Goodbye to my old Mac SE, my college graduation gift. Five computers, three printers, two old cell phones, a scanner, cords and wires and keyboards and mice. Off to the recycling center.
Meanwhile, I’m teaching full-time this summer. I arrive home so tired I can barely drag myself to the phone to order pizza delivery. But.
We meet with an attorney and sign our Living Trust, Durable Last Will and Testament, Guardianship Directive for Annie, Advanced Medical Directives. I write my wishes for end-of-life care, for distribution of my possessions. I write an anti-death penalty statement for my Will. I write my burial wishes for a “green” funeral: no embalming, no coffin, only a shroud.
“Wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay…”
Okay, I can die now. At least legally. Check that off the list!
Desks, bookcase, table, board games, lefty golf clubs. The older generation sloughs away, and I shake off the shreds of old skin, and pile up old clothes I’ll never fit into again. Eleven contractor-sized bags of clothing and shoes — men’s, women’s, girls. I list it all on Freecycle, and make dates with strangers who come over and haul it away. Everything we clear gives me room to breathe. So many things I thought I needed are no longer required. I feel myself lighten.
I feel myself darken. My grandmother appears in my dreams as a vampire. The night my Aunt Lee dies, she visits me — an enraged, enormous iridescent midnight-blue hummingbird with sharp beak and claws. I sit bolt upright, shaking.
The earth shakes, too, a sharp quake three miles away. The wall plaster cracks. I’ve stopped reading. I’ve stopped writing. I grade piles of student papers. Piles and piles of papers.
Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin,
Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.
All summer we denude, until the downstairs room is almost empty. We still need to unscrew fixtures, fill holes, wash walls. You have to paint before you can carpet. You have to clean and spackle before you can paint. For painting, you need paint, brushes, rollers, roller sticks, masking tape, drop cloths, paint pans. For paint, you need colors. What colors?
At the paint store, I wander around indecisive, collecting chips of bright colors. I visit the paint store six times, sometimes with Annie, sometimes alone, and each time I get heart palpitations. I buy little pots of sample colors, $3.99 each. It’s crazy, spending money like this, but better than buying big cans, isn’t it? I clutter the walls with paint swaths. It’s terrible: on one wall, Clown Alley Diner, on the other, Calcutta Brothel.
I clean out my email inbox and unsubscribe from a dozen Yahoo lists. I hammer at the pile of student papers, due at the end of the summer.
I stare at the clashing crazy quilt of colors on the downstairs wall in despair, and it’s still all too much, so I quit writing, forever. And I mean it this time!
I take a walk in the woods with my friend and our dogs.
“What about these colors?” my friend asks, plucking late summer leaves.
And it’s suddenly simple.
“Yes,” I say. The dogs romp, I breathe the early morning northern California forest air.
I go to the paint store for a seventh time. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” says the obese salesman, staring at my cleavage. He tapes my leaves to the order sheet to color match and gives me the contractor’s discount; I’ve dropped in age, clearly I’m no longer 84 and decrepit, the kind of woman who plans her burial.
Next week we’ll paint the downstairs room the colors of the August woods: bay laurel gold, pale lichen green, manzanita bark tan, and for the trim, late-summer poison-oak red.
Oh beat the drum slowly, and play the fife lowly. . .
Fall’s almost here — always the real beginning of the year for me. Freed of clutter, with a room of nature colors, I can assess my projects-in-progress: my novel, memoir, solo show, short story collection.
I’ll take my time.