Keep the Gems

Kara Swanson, Brain Injury Blog
Keep the Gems

When my Mom died in 1998, I quickly tossed out all the clothes that she had worn after her stroke. Her medicines and all the other reminders of the part of her life she did not choose. Did not want. Did not like.

It took me a lot longer to get around to sorting through her belongings from the part of her life she DID choose. Every evening bag reminded me of my parents getting all dolled up and going out dancing. Every earring, every pin, every necklace…brought back a memory from elementary school or a flash of a picture of her at a family wedding or a holiday. Her aprons. Her sky blue eye shadow from the 70s. Her wedding ring.

The sound of her. The feel of her. The smell of her.

Sorry, Mom. The rubber swim cap with the big rubber flower on it didn’t make the cut.

So when my Dad died 2 1/2 years ago, same thing. The next day I threw out his “stroke clothes.” The easy-close sneakers. The medicine bottles. The sheets from the hospital bed. The medical equipment.

But, like I did with my Mom, I left most of his things alone for a long time. While I grieved. While it hurt.

When I finally could walk into his bedroom without crying, I went through his room. I kept some of the things he had chosen. The things he had filled his life with. A drawer full of him.

We all have been or will be faced at some point with choosing what is left after someone dies. We are charged with clearing out closets and drawers and even refrigerators. Emptying out and selling cars and houses. Sorting through their choices, deciding what is important, what is valuable, what is worth keeping. To us now. Moving forward.

There’s no confusion when someone dies because they are no longer here. We go to the visitation, we attend the funeral. Sometimes we even watch them being lowered into the ground or we see the urn which holds their remains. They are gone and, while there might be great anguish and grief, there is rarely confusion about the actual fact that they are no longer physically living and alive with us.

We move on without them because it is painfully clear we are without them. They are no longer walking, talking, breathing. And life continues even when our pain is so deep and screams so great that we believe the whole world should stop for it. Tomorrow comes. And the one after that comes too.

 Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to move on after brain injury. For as much as those lives of ours have died, we remain alive. When we are confronted with the belongings of lives that no longer live as we lived them, we aren’t just throwing out someone’s old shoes.

We’re throwing out our dreams --  the items which proved we were able and successful and accomplished in a life that got taken away.

It’s hard to convince someone that their life is in the past when, in fact, they are standing right there living it.


So, what do we do? I chose not to keep all of my parents’ stuff because so much of it reflected the worst times of their lives. I didn’t need to keep the reminders. I have those in my heart. In my memories.

I kept the gems. Those items which brought them pleasure and proved they were able and capable and accomplished. Those reminders that they loved and danced and hosted and laughed and were talented. Those items which connected me to dinners with them and holidays with them and moments with them that I will, forever, cherish.

Last week I came across my old softball glove and, when I held it, my heart winced. It tugged like it tugged when I was going through boxes and found all the stuff from my desk that my employers had cleared out for me after my injury. My nametag and the marble name plate that sat on the desk of able. Of capable. Of accomplished.

Too often, after injury, we don’t just keep the reminders, we keep reminding. Because we haven’t died, we are physically and emotionally attached to the items which, in reality, belong to a life that is gone. Like my parents things, those boxes of work stuff and athletic equipment are from a life that doesn’t exist as it did. It has died.

And I had to let it.

We donated my Dad’s hospital bed to a woman who was suffering with MS and who had slept in a broken bed for years because she couldn’t afford a new one. But, in order to give her that bed, I had to strip it of my Dad’s linens. Throw them out. Wash it down. Bleach it. Shine it up. My brother’s using my ball glove as he helps coach my five-year old nephew in his first season of tee ball.

We can’t make things better and move on if we can’t let what’s already gone, go.

Keep the gems. The lives we chose before our injuries surely held many. And, like my Mom’s silver owl necklace from the 70s or my Dad’s favorite camera, we can feel comfort in the memories they trigger. We can celebrate and continue to adore how they enriched our lives.

But we have to make room for this new life. Just as I had to clear out that hospital bed so that we could move in a couch, so do all of us need to make room in our new lives…

For new life.

It’s Springtime in Michigan. Ahhhh….The grass has greened. The robins are hopping along. The apple blossoms, cherry blossoms and lilacs are racing to explode. The Tigers are playing. The Stanley Cup Playoffs have arrived.

It’s time for Spring Cleaning. Well, after I finish fall cleaning from last year.

But…you get what I’m saying.

It’s time to make room. Time to gently box up yesterday and make room for today. Set a place for tomorrow at the table of possibility.

We all have to face, not only the deaths of our loved ones, but the deaths of things we loved. Of situations. Of relationships. Of comfort zones. Of family structures. Of job securities. Of financial freedoms. Of physical abilities.

We all have to sift through the rubber swim caps and the silver owl pendants and the softball gloves and the marble nameplates of our lives.

And while it’s not easy, the absolutely delicious kick is that we get to do it. We get to choose what is worth keeping, what is worth storing, what is worth passing on and what is worth throwing out.

We get to open up the windows of possibility. Let in the fresh air of maybe now. We get to dust off the long-neglected potential that once burst through our hearts with anticipation. That feeling of Spring. When everyone wants to run around without a coat on. Drive with the windows down and the radio up high, singing our favorite songs.

It’s time to bag up the disappointments, the heartaches and the what might have beens….Drag ‘em out to curb and get excited about how we’re going to fill the space we’ve created.

Keep the gems.

See other blogs by Kara Swanson.

Posted on BrainLine April 13, 2010.

From Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog. Used with permission.