The Essentials

She called us in a little over two months ago. Fabulous woman, fabulous place, filled to the rafters with stuff. She called us in because, in her words, “I’ve simply run out of space, and I’m not moving.” Music to an organizer’s ears, that. We worked with her over the course of a week, cleaning out her storage unit, sorting her wine collection, clearing and arranging her closets of amazing clothes by occasion, type, and color. We tidied her kitchen cabinets and created space to store china and crystal, cataloged music and books, swapped rugs, freshened the earthquake supplies.  She zipped around, between, and through us, darting from room to room, clapping her hands and cheering at all the change happening in her place. She sat with us, sharing stories over lunch, complimenting all of us on our work. We learned more about her, her former life as a high powered executive, the motorcycle, the men, the horseback riding, her balls out, unapologetic glee for soaking up as much as possible from life. This here was a woman I came to admire.  Tiny, tough, dressed to kill, and plotting an August trip to Mexico, she was a force of nature.

We got the call three weeks later. She was not going to Mexico. Her occasional complaint that her appetite had diminished, the lingering fatigue had driven her to visit the doctor. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I could see the difference walking in the door. Her swagger, style, and presence were undiminished, but you could see an unmistakable hollowing out of her body. She leaned on the door frame, speaking in short bursts, waving her hand dismissively when her breath was gone. We sat with her in the living room, Golden Gate Bridge to the left of us, cable cars clanging to the right. She kept stretching her arms over her head to catch her breath. She wanted everything gone, didn’t care where or how; yes, everything, yes, gone. We stammered in disbelief, trying to be delicate, be polite. “Look,” she said, “I have too much shit, and not enough time.” She gestured around her, “This. Isn’t. Important. Anymore.” She wanted to die in her own home, but without any of the extra crap weighing her down. She wanted a peaceful, uncrowded, and serene space.  And she wanted us to give it to her.

We started with the clothes, with her ready to throw everything out except 3 pairs of panties and a gown. We refused to pare her down that extreme. Part of creating this serenity included making it possible to retain some dignity. We selected comfortable, stretchy, washable clothing for her. I pulled out my tools and rearranged the shelves and poles to hold the greatly reduced wardrobe, and place it within  easier reach. We went through all the books and music, inventorying, boxing, and labeling them; leaving large beautiful art books for staging and to avoid feeling bare. We go through the kitchen and pack up all the formal dishes, elaborate cooking devices, grand serving pieces.

The fine art, the large sculptures, the furniture, stays in place. The drawers, closets, and cabinets are emptied of everything non essential. The process takes several days, with the photographing, documenting, cataloging, staging, and removal to offsite storage. We came back, and each successive appointment revealed further deterioration in her health. She said she could feel her body shutting down. Her speech came in shorter and shorter fits between gasps, oxygen was moved into her bedroom. Visitors started to trickle in; they’ve heard she’s out of the hospital, they don’t know the entire story. We heard instance after instance of her breaking the news while we faded into another room, behind another door, closed ourselves into closets and waited with hands to our chests. We realized we were there as a buffer, as functional distraction. Hospice came and commented on her clarity and foresight, they complimented us on our work and service, and we held each others’ hands passing in the hall as they left, short squeezes saying be strong.

There were formalities, interactions with the successor trustee, documentation, written communication, but the real work was in a softer, muddier area. The business suits, out. The stuffed Rottweiler, stays. Everything is optimized for comfort, the stage is set for fond memories. She sat in her office and talked slowly with us about the work we did three weeks prior; how what we did is making this journey so much easier. Because of what we did before, there was no fluff to sort through, only well loved things. Because of what we did before, the essentials showed themselves easily, both to her and to us. Even with her fading strength, when the phone would ring, she would take the deepest breath she could manage and let loose a resounding “OH, FOR FUCK’S SAKE,” before answering.

We finished on a Tuesday. Everything was pared down to the necessary items, for her and for any caregiver that would come in. One set of fine dishes; an abundance of sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels; underwear, stretchy pants, t-shirts, gowns, and robes. While we worked through the home stretch of large items, she weeded out yet even more clothing from her already pared down closet with glee. With everything cleared to her satisfaction, there was nothing left to do but say goodbye one last time. So we did, with clear eyes and full hearts.

She died peacefully in her own bed five days later.