My Brother, a Keeper

johnlettertosanta

In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about how, when it comes to downsizing, the world seems to be divided, more or less, into two main categories of people—Keepers and Throwers.

My brother, who died two months ago, was emphatically a Keeper.

Was he a hoarder? Certainly he exhibited some of the traits connected with hoarding, and certainly he kept a great many things that it made no sense to keep. I know this because after his death I spent considerable time helping my sister and brother-in-law empty out the very large storage locker into which he had loaded many of his possessions several years ago, when his illness (cancer) forced him to move out of his apartment and into assisted living.

There was a lot of junk in there, things that just simply needed to be thrown away or recycled, and never should have been kept in the first place.  Through the years of his slow demise, my sister tried—gently—to help him see this, and offered to help him do it, but he was intransigent on the subject. She—bless her heart—did not push him beyond the point of his tolerance. She could see that he had too many problems, and didn’t need one more.

That meant that the task would be left to us. She knew that, and she accepted the burden. I live far away and wasn’t able to help with the bulk of it. But I went there after he died to help as much as I could, for as long as I could. Though my sister is more of a Thrower than I am, we worked well together, and the process of cleaning out that storage unit was strangely therapeutic, I think for both of us, in a way that is hard to explain. Certainly we both felt close to my brother and to each other while we were doing it. I know I felt that we were helping him in a way that he needed help, and that he would have appreciated.

Many people feel resentful of the Keepers in their lives, especially when the Keepers leave behind storage lockers (and houses) full of stuff for their survivors to go through. I do understand their resentment, and I suppose it is pretty well justified. But, though it was a tedious, dreadful, and very sad task going through all the things my brother had left behind, I have to say I didn’t feel an ounce of resentment.

For one thing, though not as far along on the continuum as my brother was, I am a Keeper too. (So were my mother, and to a lesser degree my father, and many other members of my family. It runs in the family.) So I’m not inclined to cast stones in that direction.

For another thing,  I came to understand even better than I already had, as I read through some of the notebooks my brother had left behind, that people who can’t get rid of things really can’t do it, for some reason, or more precisely, reasons—psychological, emotional, maybe even physiological/biochemical. Not without just the right kind of help, anyway, and sometimes not at all. The process is so incredibly difficult and confusing for them that it may as well be impossible. It is also so deeply upsetting that they would rather bear the scorn of others and risk all kinds of social, emotional, and sometimes even legal consequences, than do what everyone knows needs to be done. People who are challenged in this way need understanding, help, and compassion–not criticism or ridicule.

So, yes, there was a lot of junk in that storage unit. But there was also a lot of material there that was definitely not junk—never-worn clothing, for example, and boxes and boxes and boxes of books. There were even a few (I think) valuable antique items—board games my father grew up with, for example, still in pristine condition. Also the first tricycle for both me and my brother. Wooden rocking horses made by my grandfather (now delivered to a cousin who has young grandchildren who are enjoying them). And hundreds? Yes, perhaps hundreds, of the die-cast model cars he adored.

Each of these categories of things represents a different reason for why some people have difficulty in getting rid of things. Compulsive shopping habits. Deep emotional attachment to the memories that objects evoke. The knowledge that “someone could use this.” The fantasy of  “someday” (“Someday I will have a house where I can keep all these things I love. Someday I will be able to read these books. Someday I will not have cancer anymore.”)

Then there was the note I found somewhere in all the confusion, a note he had written to Santa Claus when he was a little boy:

Dear Santa, I thought you might be hungry, so I left a snack. Would you hide my present in the liveing room. Would you sign your name here             . Your friend, John Hulstrand  P.S. The snack is on the bar, and in the wholes [sic] of the carton Christmas tree.

In the blank space he had drawn a rectangle, in which Santa had signed his name in handwriting that was uncannily very much like my mother’s.

This was one of many small gifts we discovered in the process of going through the things he left behind, my sister and I, in the weeks before Christmas last December.

We had to get rid of most of his personal papers. I gave some of the letters back to the people who had written them. Sometimes I felt a pang of regret or doubt as I placed things in the recycling bag, most of the time I did not. But I kept the letter to Santa.

I brought it home and put it in the book in which I am storing our family’s Christmas memories, and put it in the section for this year. This is the year we lost my brother at Christmas-time: this is the year we found his letter to Santa.

Does that one precious note to Santa justify the whole huge storage unit full of deferred decisions that my brother left behind? Does it make the fact that he also kept years’ worth of old bills and receipts that we had to plow through make more sense, somehow?

No, it doesn’t.

Could we have lived happily for the rest of our lives without having discovered that letter? Yes, we could have.

Did it provide some special insight into my brother’s life that nothing else could have? I can’t honestly say it did.

All the same, I’m glad that first my mother, and then he, kept it all those years. And I’m glad I was able to find it, and put it, once again, in a safe place.

me and my brother

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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5 Responses

  1. Janet, that was just wonderful. Your brother’s letter to Santa is a keepsake, a memory, a portal to a time gone by but not lost. It’s like a wormhole in space that takes you right back to that Christmas morning, maybe, when your brother found that Santa had honored his request and signed his name. Love it. Lily

  2. This is so beautiful. And I really like the photo!

  3. […] the memories of a favorite place in our grandparents’ house. We’ve written poignantly about a cherished brother and a beloved […]

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