Pecan Pie

A friend ordered an appetizer before dinner a few nights ago, Brussels sprouts. I asked what was on them, and she said, “Chopped pecans. Here,” pushing the plate toward me to confirm.

I hadn’t expected chopped pecans on Brussels sprouts, but since we are approaching Thanksgiving and the Christmas season, my mind took another unexpected turn: Suddenly I was struck by the realization that I would never again have a pecan pie made by my mother who died about eleven months ago from stage 4 lung cancer discovered a few months after suffering a stroke and witnessing my father’s death just a couple weeks after the stroke.

Maple Pecan Pie

My mother was from North Carolina, mostly the central hills of the state from Lexington to Salisbury, Spencer, and Concord. My father grew up and always lived in my home town of Woodruff, South Carolina, in the upstate, the foothills.

I learned to distinguish between my parents’ Southern drawls once I lived away from home for a while. As my father did, I grew up pronouncing “pecan” with two hard syllables—PEE-CAN—the last rhyming with “man,” not “con.”

And once I was permanently on my own, my mother began focusing even more heavily on pleasing me with food if she could coax me to visit. My father, however, had come to recognize my favored status when I was a teen. Supper began to feature both what I preferred and when I would be home (after basketball practice, and such).

When I talked to my parents by phone, my father would usually joke that I needed to visit so he could have a good meal.

Children of the 1950s, my mother and father always spent way too much money showing everyone in the family their love. Holidays were manically overdone, especially Christmas, with gifts and food.

Fall and winter were a flurry for my parents who were overgrown children at Halloween; they carried that glee through the new year as well.

Thanksgiving in my home kicked off Christmas season with decorating the house and putting up the tree, all of which stayed up until New Year’s Day. I grew up thinking these traditions were universal because we had made it all so regimented and the holidays simply pervaded everything in our lives for well over a month, late November into January each year.

I also developed an affection for pies—sweet potato, pumpkin, and pecan—as holiday food. My mom often made them from scratch.

Her pecan pie was wonderful even though it was always a challenge to make well. Some were a disaster, according to her, but I never noticed.

Crunchy on the outside then deliciously sweet at the center, her pecan pie was about the only thing that could compete fresh out of the oven with her just-made sweet tea that bordered on being syrup.

As my parents aged, and both struggled with heart issues for many years, they clung to the holidays, but Halloween soon became too much for them. For many years, they dressed up and dozens of children came by for my mom dressed as Mother Goose requiring a rhyme for candy.

Thanksgiving and Christmas also gradually dwindled—the meals no longer made by my mother, even the pies, and the gifts becoming fewer, the cash cards holding less and less.

My parents died with almost no money and mostly their house to represent their legacy, their shot at the American Dream.

Even during those last years, years I really didn’t see as last, when I visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother always steered me to the vegetable tray—she made sure there were red, yellow, and green peppers, and carrots—and she always bought pies, pecan as well as potato or pumpkin, or some times all three.

I struggled for many years with the reality of my infirm parents against my stunted conception of them, the idealized mother and father who existed for much of my life.

But I also struggled against my parents clinging to a certain fixed image of me—especially my mom always trying to feed me those pies even as I nearly never ate pies in my adult life, except to please her at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When I did my obligatory visits on those holidays, I had to try all the pies, and grazed throughout the visit from the vegetable tray. And then my mother would wrap up pie to take home—and I almost never ate them despite her frail gestures of “I love you.”

In those moments, I couldn’t rise out of the trap of my own life to see everything clearly, to appreciate that every single thing in life is fragile.

Even a pecan pie. Especially the last pecan pie.

There will always be a last time, and we almost never know that until afterward, until it is too late to appreciate the last time as we should.

I used to teach Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and watching it in front of students presented the same problem I had with other plays, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These works always make me cry.

Emily dies young in Our Town, in childbirth, but realizes she can return to rewatch some of her life. The Stage Manager warns her against it, and she does find the experience painful, lamenting: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

Then she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

I love this scene in the play, and I hate it.

It breaks my heart.

I sat in the restaurant, the faint taste of pecan in my mouth, fighting the urge to cry because I had suddenly realized my mother would never again make a pecan pie for the holidays.

I talked about it briefly, withholding tears.

But I am not really sure what else to do with it. I am aware we all will likely be too busy with our lives to really look at our living, to fully see what matters in the moment.

And then the last time will be behind us.

We missed it. We will always miss it.

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NCTE 2018 – Houston, TX

Please consider attending the following sessions if you are attending NCTE 2018 in Houston TX this November:

(C.28) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 9:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m.
Location: 340 AB

Running and Non-Fiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Strecher, M.C., & Thomas, P.L. (Eds.) (2016). Haruki Murakami: Challenging authors. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.


(E.24) Navigating the Similarities and Differences of Writing at the Secondary and College Levels

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 12:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: 351 D

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Kristen Marakoff, Travelers Rest High School (Travelers Rest, SC)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics


(F.32) Raising Voices through Critical Media Literacy in a Fake News, Post Truth America

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Location: 340 AB

An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.


(H.11) Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms

Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.
Location: Grand Ballroom B

Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms 

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

When my parents died in June and then December of 2017, they left a meager inheritance to my three nephews and me. The greatest bulk of that is their home, which we moved into when I was 10 in 1971.

My young parents, younger sister, and I lived in rented houses in Enoree and Woodruff, South Carolina before they bought the largest lot on the newly built Three Pines Country Club just north of Woodruff.

Scraping by and paying off the lot, my parents wrangled a local contractor to build their dream house in his spare time. The loan was more than they could handle and a bit less than a car loan for me much of my adult life.

The house they left behind was, then, the house I associate with my formative years, having lived there in some way into my early twenties. Even when newly married, I lived there briefly, and after I did move out, my three nephews all grew up in that house with my parents providing a great deal of their rearing.

So the four of us—and on Saturday my former brother-in-law as well—spent this past weekend doing the final herculean push to clean the yard and the house for selling.

We had begun this journey trying to account for all my parents’ stuff many months ago, and I have been wrestling with watching their life being reduced to so much trash.

There is, however, a finality to this past weekend. The yard has been rendered nearly barren (compared to the jungle my parents spawned), and the house is almost entirely emptied—much of that waiting in the driveway, a dumpster filled with lives now past.

IMG_5562

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, the task was overwhelming, physically demanding since it seemed that no matter what we hauled to the dumpster even more appeared to be hauled away.

But until late in the day Sunday, I had not found the experience the emotional hurdle that a best friend anticipated when he offered to help.

The unexpected, I suppose, must be unexpected.

I showed up Saturday after a morning cycling ride not really prepared for the day of work in the yard; my mind had convinced me that I would help inside. Once the scope and weight of the task at hand—having the house ready to sell by the end of the weekend—struck everyone, we were past midday Saturday and had resigned ourselves to the only way to finish was simply to throw everything remaining away.

So after working outside all day Saturday, I returned early Sunday morning with the same stubborn resolve to clean the inside of the house.

I began vacuuming the side porch, and although I was summoned out a few times to help the remaining loads to be packed into the dumpster, I then moved to each room of the house, vacuuming floors again and again.

A few hours after lunch and some unanticipated impromptu pest control, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Last on the list was scrubbing down the bathrooms and the kitchen.

I vacuumed the front rooms and kitchen, saving them for last since we were tracking through them during the day, and moved to cleaning counter tops in the two bathrooms, ending with the kitchen.

And then the unexpected.

As I wiped the counter and sink in the kitchen, my youth flooded over me, and I had to pause in order to restrain a powerful urge to cry.

One of the great joys of my life was simple. We were a breakfast-for-supper family, a treat we allowed ourselves a few times a month.

I grew up, in fact, thinking that French toast was mainly a vehicle for bacon—not a cross between breakfast and confections. French toast began in my mother’s kitchen with frying an enormous pile of bacon, the grease then recycled for cooking the pile of French toast as well as a side of scrambled eggs.

For most of my life, I ate French toast without syrup and butter—certainly no powdered sugar or syrupy fruit toppings.

But none of this is why I felt a sudden urge to cry.

I don’t recall when it began, but I was tasked in the family with cleaning up after supper. I washed the dishes and cleaned the entire kitchen, diligently.

My mother heaped praise on me for being so meticulous; it was something I did well, and gave me status in the family.

I still feel something soothing about the process of making the kitchen space tidy, clean.

Mid-afternoon yesterday, with Clorox wipes in hand and leaning against the kitchen sink, I felt suddenly heavy, as if I was holding up my entire life lived in that house. I was cleaning my mother’s kitchen for the last time.

Tears made it no farther than the edge of my eyes, blurring my contacts as I breathed against that weight of memory and loss. I gathered myself, wiped the sink, and then moved on to the bar where I had stood day after day in my brace for scoliosis to draw from comic books throughout my teens years.

“The bar is clean,” I told my nephews when they came into the kitchen, “but it is so stained and nicked, it doesn’t look like it.” They mentioned the oven hood, equally clean and terribly stained as well.

My oldest nephew had used the Magic Eraser on the bar, he said, but it still looked dirty.

Some things are indelible, I think, like the sudden realization you are cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

All of us are back at our separate lives today, and that dumpster filled to the rim awaits a truck that will carry all of my parents’ life turned trash to a landfill to be buried.

I left with my baptism certificate and the family dictionary, family names scribbled on the cover since the 1960s.

IMG_5556

At some point, too, this will be just trash. Someone else’s problem, maybe even something to fret over before tossing it into a dumpster.

Later in the day Sunday, my nephews took new flowers and a small urn of my mother’s ashes to my father’s grave. I didn’t go.

I had spent the weekend in a kind of graveyard already. I had grunted and sweated toward a sort of stasis that might allow someone else to own this house and land of my parents’ blood, sweat, and tears.

Nothing prepares you for the feelings that rush over you, cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

I am afraid I will never forget. I am afraid I will forget.

Why I Am Not a Christian

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon].

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Born and raised in the Bible Belt, I have almost six decades of experience with the social anxiety associated with confessing that I am not a Christian.

The paradox of this anxiety, I suppose, is that the particular type of Christianity I have lived among in South Carolina is strongly grounded in witnessing and being very cheerfully public about one’s faith. “Let us pray” not as invitation but as directive.

As a public school teacher for 18 years, I was under the added weight of fearing that I would be outed in ways that threatened me socially and professionally. But when I moved to higher education, I really felt no more comfort in expressing my lack of faith—even as I was often directly asked by students, even though it was a professionally safe place to be honest.

In fact, it has always been far easier to share with students my communist/socialist/Marxist leanings than to say simply, “I am an atheist.”

The personal recognition wasn’t an easy journey, but during college, including reading and re-reading Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” and a significant amount of existential philosophy, I came to terms with ethical and moral groundings as well as being entirely comfortable with those ideals being in no way connected to God or organized religion.

Since my college years overlapped with the rise of the Moral Majority and Religious Right, that disconnect wasn’t even complicated. The most passionately Christian people of my community growing up and then the most vocal Christians in the public and political spheres of the Reagan era confirmed for me that I had zero interest in such anger, hatred, and most of all, hypocrisy.

I have taken comfort instead throughout my adult life in literature—works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which directly interrogate all the ways I find religion, and Christianity, more apt to be a bludgeoning device than a balm.

Religious text as a tool for authority, religion as the opiate of the masses—as Emily Dickson wrote as a contemporary of Karl Marx:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

In 2018, with Donald Trump courting and maintaining the passionate support of the religious right, specifically evangelicals across the South, and with the South Carolina summer primaries in which Republicans run aggressive TV ads shouting “100% pro-life” and images of candidates in front of NRA rallies and holding (even shooting) guns, I have never been more confident in why I am not a Christian.

During this time of Trumplandia, as well, one of the most devout and moral people I know happens to be a Muslim—whose faith is routinely and grossly demonized by Trump and his Christian base.

Christianity is rarely about love and charity, but often about tribalism and the calculated use of higher authority to maintain or gain power.

The narrator in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night argues:

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.

“It’s that part of an imbecile,” I said, “that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”

As I grow older, it becomes more and more imperative that I seek a moral and ethical life—something I equally recognize as incredibly hard to achieve as a mere human among humanity, as we are all so flawed, so fragile, so unwilling to sacrifice and risk in the name of the hypothetical Other, the faceless and nameless human we choose either to treat as our brother/sister or to leave mostly ignored in the basement closet.

Christianity, I fear, too often allows the worst in us to thrive instead of inspiring us to be the loving community we are capable of being.

Love, community, and holding sacred all humans’ dignity—these are what matter to me, and why I am not a Christian.

My Life in Trumplandia Began in 1961

My first jobs were at the country club where my mother worked and on the golf course where we lived—a working-class family of rednecks who saw building a house there as making it, achieving the American Dream.

On rainy and cold days, all the pro shop and greens-keeping workers mulled around the club house. I vividly recall one of those days when a member of the grounds crew explained to me in careful detail that black people (he preferred the racial slur) were the consequence of Cain being banished for murdering Abel and then mating with apes.

It’s biblical, he proclaimed.

This experience, I must emphasize, was not an outlier. This was normal for my life, having been born in 1961 in Woodruff, South Carolina.

Such blatant and casual racism was pervasive among my white family, friends, and community.

So Roseanne Barr’s recent racist Twitter rant and the entire rise of Trumplandia—these are not in any way shocking while they are incredibly burdensome, a heaviness that will never approach the weight carried by those who are the targets of racism and bigotry but that certainly drags me closer and closer to fatalism.

I also know fatalism quite well.

In my late teens and throughout college and young adulthood, my relationship grew increasingly antagonistic with my father, often punctuated with heated arguments spurred by his racism.

Over years of arguing, I simply gave up, became a quiet and passive visitor to my parents’ house. Increasingly, I called fewer and fewer times; I visited almost exclusively on required holidays.

The ennui was the tension between the natural love felt for parents—and the incredible debt I felt to the many sacrifices they made for me—and the inexcusable ideologies my parents espoused, often relentlessly.

My parents were Nixon apologists, faithful Republican voters their entire lives.

They also were increasingly strapped for money, and their last decades were characterized by heart disease and just surviving the consequences of being working-class children of the 1940s-1950s (smoking and eating as many Southerners did).

My parents were the poster-couple for self-defeating politics, decades before the mainstream media became obsessed with understanding the disenfranchised white voter. And finally, my parents paid the ultimate cost for grounding their political and economic lives in racism.

At the very least, a healthcare system connected to universal insurance and a robust social safety net would have extended my parents’ lives, lives that ended very badly and with their life’s earnings nearly exhausted.

The house that represented their achieving the American Dream is the very last thing remaining—a depressing monument to their stubborn self-defeating ideologies, their racism.

Our last decade together is the most depressing. My daughter dated, married, and then had a daughter with a black man.

I am now the grandfather of two biracial grandchildren.

It wasn’t a hard decision, but it was hard—to give up on your parents as you recognized this family of yours deserved your complete devotion. Passive and silent were none the less complicit.

Everyone in my immediate family, except me, became entirely estranged from my parents as I attempted to meet some extreme minimum obligations as my father’s health deteriorated dramatically, and then my mother had a stroke.

The last six months of my parents’ lives thrust them once again into the center of my life, the fatalism to which I had resigned myself set aside as their reduced circumstances demanded we all recognize their essential humanity despite their own role in having come to these unnecessary and desperate ends.

No one wants to admit their parents are flawed or even horrible people—just as most white people do not want to admit they are complicit in white privilege and racism.

My parents’ deaths during the beginning of the Trump administration carry an awful symbolism in the same way my parents’ house does now as we rummage through all my parents’ stuff—throwing away most of it—in preparation to sell this crumbling statue dwarfed by the desert of their tarnished beliefs.

I carry in my 57 years another layer of exhaustion at the mainstream media trying to understand Trump voters—white angst grounded in the racism that social norms refuse to acknowledge—and the current wrestling with Barr, including some who are calling for explaining her rant as somehow connected to her mental health.

That layer of exhaustion has the face of the grounds crew member explaining to me that black people came from Cain mating with an ape; it has the face of hundreds of white people in my family, my community.

I do not need anyone to explain this to me. It is my life.

A life already well acquainted with fatalism resting against love and deep appreciation, a life rendered heavy, nearly too heavy to carry, certainly too heavy to move.

Yes, I gave up on changing my parents’ minds, shaking their souls in the name of human dignity as I looked into the eyes of my grandchildren.

How, then, to make strangers see the inhumanity in their racism, see their hatred and bigotry as self-defeating as well as entirely unwarranted?

Fatalism is a powerful narcotic.

Recommended

Prejudiced, Hateful and Degreed: PhD’s, racial dissonance, and the culture of indifference in academia | Think Piece

Who Me?

Jordan Peterson’s Ignorance of Postmodern Philosophy

Mama’s Boy: Aftermath

I have never liked Mother’s Day—as I have never liked any holidays, special days. The burden of celebrations and gifts.

This sort of ceremony and tradition has always felt forced, insincere, superficial.

As I grew older and my mother grew older, buying her gifts became more and more difficult because what do people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond need given to them?

It is Mother’s Day 2018. My first since my mother died in December 2017 just a few months after my father died in June of the same year.

This Mother’s Day feels even more burdensome than normal, of course.

As I have examined, we left living have been sifting through all my parents’ stuff, throwing away most of it—presents rendered just more trash.

As I have examined, I am a churning mess of anxiety, in part, as a biological and environmental gift of my mother.

She died over the course of about six months, slowly and fitfully after a stroke and then stage 4 lung cancer. The stroke took her ability to communicate, but worst of all, it supercharged her anxiety.

It was horrible to witness.

It wasn’t a fair thing for anyone to endure on the way out.

I don’t have much left to say except I am more convinced than ever that these holidays, these designated moments to celebrate and give gifts—this is truly a real failure of human imagination.

For gifts, I had begun to give my mother plants, living plants in pots that could be transferred and maintained. I just could not buy her another shirt she didn’t really want and certainly didn’t need.

When my father-in-law died 7 years ago, his daughters found stacks of gifts, mostly shirts, if I recall correctly, never opened, never worn.

Just resting in his dresser.

Somehow I thought the plants were a best case approach to gift giving, to this damned circus of stuff that we have reduced our human condition to in the name of love.

But they weren’t.

What my mother needed, what my mother deserved, what everyone deserves, was her human dignity.

Especially in the last years and then final months, she needed and deserved high-quality and affordable health care.

Instead, her deteriorating body and my father’s even more dramatic decline were hellish burdens on them and everyone around them. And this wore heavily on my mother who believed her stroked killed my father at last (in a way, it did of course, but mostly, his life was at its end and she had kept him alive longer, if anything, than his frailness really supported).

My nephews and I are still trapped in the calloused and mind-numbing labyrinth of bureaucracy surrounding my parents’ living and dying, the most evil part being the insurance system designed more to deny healthcare, to deny human dignity, than anything else.

Dignity, I suspect, seems too abstract, and health care, too mundane.

But if all we can must are a few designated days, some really awful cards, and then an endless stream of things people really never wanted or needed, we may be better served to consider the real value of human dignity and the essential role something as mundane as high-quality and affordable healthcare for everyone plays in that dignity.

To live as if everyday were a holiday, to live for others as if we all deserve the full fruits of human dignity.


Recommended

I Ask My Mother to Sing, Li-Young Lee

Eating Together, Li-Young Lee

The Gift, Li-Young Lee

the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying)

my mother has returned to where she began

fragility (and then i realize)

“Your House Is Just a Place for Your Stuff”

The secretary’s desk is dark wood with a pull down door and one drawer beneath the main section, divided into sections for office supplies and such. It sits now in a very dark corner of my parents’ living room, and I am certain we had that desk in our house in Enoree, South Carolina during the 1960s, and then in the two subsequent houses after.

I spent part of Saturday afternoon taking three car loads of trash from their house to the nearby dump. But part of the time helping one of my nephews go through everything in my deceased parents’ house was spent cleaning out that desk.

Stacks of medical bills reaching back almost two decades, tax returns from the late 1980s and 1990s, unopened packs of pens and Rook playing cards—the desk was some awkward combination of mausoleum, careless filing system, and hoarding.

I found handwritten notes my nephew had left for my parents to wake him on time; also his assorted certificates from school along with school pictures of my other nephew when he was on the basketball team.

In the single lower drawer was a hefty stack of newspaper pages and clippings—all of me.

There I saw a jumbled cataloging of my hair, facial hair, and glasses (or not) styles, and then on the bottom, I found a dark yellow page crumbling at the edges.

The date was 1968, and staring out at me was my first-grade school picture beside a brief story about my surprise seventh birthday party.

My childhood at that moment holding a crumbling yellowed newspaper seemed especially foreign, as if not in a different time but a different world. A child’s birthday party and picture in a small town newspaper.

I felt like the brother and sister must have in Pleasantville after being transported into a TV sitcom from the 1950s.

My nephew and I were on a second weekend of going through my parents’ stuff, in hopes that we can over the summer sell the house. The finality of my parents’ death can only come through the total eradication of their stuff, in the wake, of course, of all the legal complications of deceased people, their stuff, and those who may have claims against them and that stuff.

The process has developed into determining if everything is either something someone in the family would want, something for a yard sale, or trash.

Almost everything from the desk I shuffled through went into a large box that I loaded into my SUV with as many garbage bags as it would hold to toss mostly without any thought into the giant and relentless trash compactor at the waste site.

The main compartment of the refuse receptacle has criss-crossing bars over the top to control the size of what people can toss in. The near side is a large angled metal surface that bags and trash slide down violently into a smaller area where a giant plunger pulls back and then compacts the trash into a surprisingly small storage area to the right.

All this stuff my parents had kept, much of it paperwork documenting all the stuff of their lives—this machine thoughtlessly pounded into a uniform rectangle of just trash to be hauled to yet another refuse facility, probably a landfill.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

The stuff we just had to buy, the stuff we made ourselves miserable to attain, and the stacks and stacks of paperwork documenting all that stuff and all the payments of our monied lives—all of it comes mostly to trash.

But before it is trash, it must be handled one last time, christened trash, sometimes thoughtlessly and sometimes with the hesitation of placing it in a stack as if it should carry on—until in a flash it too is tossed into a box or bag as once-stuff-now-trash.

Three times carrying my parents’ stuff to my SUV, three times unloading bags and boxes to be tossed into the giant compactor, three times driving to and from the waste site—this mini-ritualizing of my parents stuff into trash was yet one more thing I could not have anticipated about the terrible thing that is any person’s death.

Just common flawed people, my parents both died in ways no one really deserves—clinging to bodies that simply had run their course and laboring under the dark cloud of how much everything would cost and a medical care system reduced to a mechanistic nightmare by the insurance industry.

As I paused a few times watching the giant trash compactor work—steeling myself against the smell and the din of this machine grinding on and on—I recognized an unintended metaphor for what my parents had experienced in their dying.

Or to be brutally honest, their living also.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

During one trip back to their house from the waste site, I thought about George Carlin’s routine on stuff:

“The whole meaning of life, isn’t it: Trying to find a place for your stuff”—so when you die, it is all in one place, easier to sort through and mostly haul off as trash: “They don’t bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.”

I put yellowed and brittle paper from 1968 to the side while I finished sorting through the desk. I picked it up, thought about being seven and recalling my parents as a young couple, and then could not bear the thought of taking this newspaper page to my house for someone to look at and decide it was finally trash.

All of that stuff mattered the wrong way, and then it became in a flash stuff that doesn’t matter at all.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.