I agreed to do something on Saturday. I set off at around 9:00 a.m. and slogged my way across town in the cold mist, which later turned into a cold April rain. I went to help a friend clear the basement in her parent’s home.
This is not what I wanted to be doing Saturday. It was not where I wanted to be.
For decades, my friend’s parents have spent part of their year in Baltimore, and part of their year in Cairo. Her father’s Egyptian, her mother American. A little over a month ago, after a long illness, her father passed away in his home city. Her mother is still there, tying up loose ends until she is able to return to the States.
My friend has two sisters, but they don’t live here anymore, and that left my friend as the one left to try and make sense of decades of paper, old electronics, window shades, and other nic-nacs on shelves. And shelves. There was a lot of stuff in that basement. A lot to deal with.
There was a 30 foot long dumpster in the driveway, and in a little over 2 1/2 hours, we filled it. But it wasn’t easy. There was a lot of stuff do deal with. A lot of decisions had to be made.
The easy part was deciding what to throw out. But… it was decided that some of what we found should be donated. Some of the items we found actually had some value, and were kept. There were things that needed to be decided on by her mother later. They would stay in the basement.
I had my own issues during all this. In addition to helping with a difficult task, I had to take care of my own diabetes, making sure to fuel up at times to avoid being useless due to a low blood glucose level.
As we worked through the mass of material before us, from time to time, I could see that the process of it all was affecting my friend in a profound way. It wasn’t just stuff to her… it was decades of memories. Occasionally, she would retreat and her boyfriend needed to take over the duties of deciding what stayed and what went.
This process frustrated some of her friends who were there to help. They had trouble understanding why it took so much time to decide on a strategy, on what to do with something they found. Why couldn’t we just clear the basement? Why weren’t we doing this faster?
But it needed to happen this way. If it didn’t, we risked frustrating my friend, causing her to pull back entirely, sending us away and forcing us to try on another day. This what not what she wanted to be doing Saturday either. It was not where she wanted to be.
So carefully, deliberately, we started to chip away at the pile of things before us. Children’s toys. Scrap books. Old televisions. Boxes and boxes of books. A lifetime of memories. There’s no guide book or training manual on how to deal with this.
When it was over, my friend and her boyfriend were extremely grateful. I heard things like “I owe you big time”, and “You guys are rock stars”. Those sentiments were as sincere as any I have experienced.
Sifting through decades of memories, finding what you can work with and what you can’t, and emerging on the other side of it all with a feeling that you’re making real progress, is a lot more complex than just throwing a bunch of shit in a dumpster.
In the end, I know I was where I needed to be on Saturday. The real breakthrough was not in how I helped, but in what I learned.
As I stood on the edge of a nearly overflowing dumpster, I tried to encourage my friend, telling her that this was a sign of real progress. She said, “Have you looked in the garage yet?”.
There’s likely another Saturday there in my future. Progress has been made, and much more needs to be accomplished. But my friend understood that your friends mean so much more when they’re there for you to help with the difficult tasks. As her friend, it’s so worth it to hear “I don’t know what I would have done without you guys”.