When You Reach “The End”

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent hour upon hour absorbed in the deeply unhappy task of clearing out the home of someone I loved very dearly. This task fell largely to my sister and I, and we did it because that’s the way life works. It gives you unpleasant tasks from time to time, and you do your best to complete them.

So we’ve sifted through old books and clothes. Through what amounts to a history of her life as a teacher. Through quilts and notebooks containing the careful sketches of all the quilts she designed and made for members of our family. And as the sifting went on and on, I kept finding myself, as someone who thinks a lot about story in general, in the midst of stories about her.

There are stories about when she cooked a particularly awful meal, but still met with a whole family’s groaning about it with good humor. About the times when she brought my sister and brother and I to her school for the day, with us dressed to the nines—because that’s what one does. About the time she took me to a Color Me Beautiful consultant to have my colors “done.” I was thirteen at the time and stymied by the request to bring all my make-up (which consisted of one Wet N Wild eyeliner and some lip gloss). About the composition notebooks full of lists and advice she used to give us (for real) and the Vogue magazines with dog-eared pages with looks she thought we should try (also for real). About her joking that the wig she wore during chemo looked much better than her real hair.

But it wasn’t just thinking about these stories that got to me—it was dealing with the realization that these were the only ones I was going to have of her. These old stories that we’ll tell and retell—that we’ve already spent considerable time retelling—are the only ones we’re going to get. There are no new ones to come. Cleaning out the house made that more finite for me.

I sometimes joked, while she was alive, that she was a real character. We all are, in a way—the protagonists of our own stories and the secondary characters in the stories that belong to other people. And she was one hell of a character. None of which makes it any easier that her story has reached its “The End.” But like a well-worn edition of a favorite book, I’ll reach for these stories again and again, for comfort, for laughter, and to remember the importance this particular character played in my life.