Death Takes a Lifetime, and then a Year

& how the last
time I saw you

“Maps,” Yesenia Montilla

wareshoals

My nephew Steven found this yearbook picture of my mother, Rose (circled), from Ware Shoals High (South Carolina).

Mid-afternoon on 7 January 2019, my oldest nephew Steven (on my side of the family, we call him Tommy) texted that he needed to meet with my middle nephew, Kendall, and me. He had checks and forms for each of us to sign.

This was the final probate meeting for my mother’s and father’s estate—although having grown up working-class, I find that term more than misleading.

None of us anticipated what eventually transpired that afternoon: The probate court transferred all of my father’s matters (he died several months before my mother) to my mother, and then her probate was settled with their will dispersed as they planned.

Pressed for time, I met Steven (Tommy) in the parking lot of Best Buy just 10 minutes or so from my house. We hugged, and he handed me a check and the form I had to sign as well as find someone to witness the transaction.

Steven had medical power-of-attorney and was the executor of the will so he wasn’t allowed to sign the form, which in legalese confirmed that I was receiving my share of the will, all of my mom’s accounts and such having been fairly and fully disclosed.

My nephew offered to let me see anything if I was concerned, although he had meticulously shared every possible detail and artifact throughout the long, arduous process over the year-plus since my mother died of stage 4 lung cancer discovered a few months after she suffered a debilitating stroke.

I waved him off and said simply, “I trust you.”

And I do. He is a good and careful person, especially when it comes to my parents, his grandparents, and like my other two nephews, he loved my parents genuinely, more like parents than grandparents.

Since my parents raised those three grandchildren, my nephews split equally with me the remnants of my parents’ lives. There are some messy and uncomfortable details underneath that, but in the end, my parents made the consequences of their deaths about as simple and direct as possible. And anyone who could quibble chose not to do so.

On a Monday afternoon in January—the birth month of my father and me as well as the month my parents were married—those remnants were quartered after about 13 months of the state (in this case, South Carolina) prolonging the end of their lives by keeping their estate open to the public for anyone wishing to make a claim against it.

So I deposited the check and I signed the form, asking a staff person in my department to sign as a witness to the obvious fact that I am well aware of what now constitutes my parents’ lives.

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Over the Xmas holiday break, I sat with a few friends at a favorite taproom watching Hoarders. I am not a fan of reality TV, and this show in particular makes me very uncomfortable.

I am beyond skeptical about capitalism and consumerism; I also have an unhealthy (but functioning) dose of OCD, enough to understand hoarding (I am a collector, the socially acceptable form of hoarding), to empathize with being victim of ones own compulsions.

Several episodes ran as we talked, watched, and drank beer throughout the afternoon. Yes, I found myself mesmerized, equal parts fascinated and horrified at these lives swallowed in mountains of acquired stuff that both defined and paralyzed these people.

Episode after episode documented the inevitable: What hoarders had deemed essential—that which they could not part with—was ultimately tossed by volunteers wearing gloves, protective suits, and face masks into large waste dumpsters.

This past summer, it took some coaxing, but my nephews and I eventually rented a waste dumpster, dragging and tossing a huge portion of my parents’ lives into it sitting ominously in their driveway. Their precious house had to be emptied so that we could sell it.

My parents’ lives reduced to trash for the landfill and then 4 checks as detailed by their will—the final material, financial, and legal remnants of two lives lived until they died followed by the state mandating another year before their deaths could be officially over.

Death takes a lifetime, and then a year.

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The final check I received was a bit more than I had expected. I now contemplate what to do with the money, in some ways wondering what last ways I could make gestures that would please my parents if they could witness the scattering of their lives like my mom’s ashes we spread at Myrtle Beach.

Those dollars and her ashes, in fact, haunt me as I weigh them against two people’s lives and their living bodies. The balance is disturbingly out of kilter.

My mom just an oddly dense box of ashes. My parents’ entire lives just 4 checks spread among checking accounts as so much electronic data.

It all feels very heavy. It all numbs me with the unbearable lightness of being.

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Several years ago, when I came to my university, first-year students were assigned a common book to read over the summer before entering college. Once the selection was Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson.

While several colleagues gushed over the memoir, I found myself mostly irritated, at the gushing itself but also the book. My problem was grounded in not finding anything remarkable about Tyson’s experiences because it was a South I knew first-hand and lives I found familiar.

But it was also a collection of experiences I was still trying to move beyond—if not understand and reconcile with my current self in some way.

I have little patience with poor and working-class white-folk narratives. I am particularly critical of the Othering of rednecks from the South—like exotic zoo animals or museum displays.

It is not as though, I want to yell, that I used to be that redneck. I am that redneck.

I just have a doctorate. I am allowed to live my life in the mostly rarified air of academia. Unlike my father who could barely raise his arms because of his arthritic shoulders.

In fact, you could see my father’s life of manual labor in his giant gnarled hands and fingers, in the stooped, shuffling man sitting in a wheel chair the day he died beside my mother, him simply needing to go to the bathroom.

Writing about the most recent poor-white-folk memoir, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Stanley Greenberg argues:

The book’s cascading errors begin with its failure to appreciate how exceptional Appalachian white history and culture actually are, and how dangerous it is to equate Vance’s hillbillies with today’s white working class. Yet that is the equation Vance makes at the very beginning of his memoir.

I think I have loathed Vance’s thinly masked conservative screed far more than Tyson’s romanticizing because I am a few years older and I have weathered the actual demise of the embodiments of my struggling—my parents who I have loved deeply while also having to recognize them for all their very troubling flaws.

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Things pass, like all humans.

Some times we feel things deeply, too much, and we let ourselves cry, or laugh, or even shout.

But the human machine cannot maintain that level of response to this world. It’s just too much to care all the time.

Some of my friends, after watching Hoarders, wanted to rush home and purge. At least one did. But all of us, given a few days, simply went back to consuming, the sort of socially acceptable collecting that makes us fully human in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Mom and Dad—because my nephews and I decided to reduce their home, our home, to money—left behind that which allows me to consume, buy more stuff. The allure is goddam powerful.

Turn a small portion of my parents’ house into a new bicycle or an iPhone upgrade.

I am lost in this and the realization we are merely human, doing the best we can even though that often falls quite short:

Death takes a lifetime, and then a year.

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