People’s burned-down homes are like graveyards. Entering them feels instantly disrespectful because you’re walking on former lives. I’ve stepped on honeymoon photos, baby blankets, favorite dresses, a love song a 14-year-old was writing his girlfriend. I sometimes stand right on top of something I know I shouldn’t just because I can.
All the time clients ask if I know what it’s like to lose your entire life, and then they start crying, so I realize this is a rhetorical question and that I don’t have to answer. This is great, because I have no idea what it’s like. I know what it’s like to lose your virginity in a place where it’s more appropriate to lose your phone. I know what it’s like to ask the person you want to grow old with if they love you, then wait through the world’s longest exhale and hear “not enough.” But I have never lost everything.
I used to imagine myself telling clients that what they’ve lost is just stuff, and that what matters is that they are okay. Then I’d picture myself casually putting my foot up on something like a burnt captain’s chair, and quoting Francis Crick, but without giving him credit. “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will,” I’d say and pause dramatically, “are in their associated molecules.” My point would be that their stuff does not exist without them; that death, and with it, the sudden curtain-drop on the soul, is the Total Loss. I’d be exploring my own developing theories about what constitutes existence, which is a pretty obnoxious thing to do when you’re hired to estimate the worth of someone’s former life, not stand around on it, pontificating.
It wasn’t until my grandmother was in the throes of dementia that I realized all my ideas about souls had come from late-night whiskey-sogged forays into heavy books. I’d always thought she’d die of a swift heart attack, but death snuck in the back door and did a real hit and miss job. None of us even noticed until the essential parts of her began to go missing: her five o’clock Jim Beam, the way her mouth twisted after she said, “Oh, pshaw!” how she’d yank me by my elbow and tell me to never, ever talk to my mother that way. Then, one day, she no longer hated the color pink.
I asked one of her doctors to tell me what was going on. “Her neurons aren’t communicating,” he said. “Basically, some are dead and some aren’t firing in the correct pattern.” Apparently, who we are is an electrochemical reaction, and my grandmother had blown her circuits. The molecules of her joys and sorrows, memories and ambitions, were on the fritz. Even her shoeboxes of old photos were a cruel pop quiz, but I never let her be wrong. I just listened as she made fathers into sons and sons into friends, and once, when we were sitting outside, a pile of pumpkins into her friend Abe.
For most of my life, my days with my grandmother had been spent hiking, identifying birds and having beers in a small-town Colorado bars. Usually, I’d come over to her place and find her already gone on a hike or pounding a hammer or underlining something she wanted me to read in the New Yorker. Now I’d come over and find that her caregiver had sat her in front of the TV with a bag of cookies.
My grandmother had never watched TV. “It dulls your mind, Steffie!” She now had a favorite show, The Planet’s Funniest Animals. It was somehow on every time I went over, filling her tastefully decorated living room with boings! and doings! and doinks! I’d come up behind her tiny grey head and bend down. Her eyes were usually half shut, her mouth slightly open, just enough to make her look toothless, like a skull. “HI GRAMMA!” I’d say.
If it was a good day, she’d raise her head slowly, turn it to the side and eye me incredulously, “Now, who are you?” This was her punch line. When her joke was done, she’d fling both arms toward me, smiling and squealing like we’d run into each other halfway up a mountain on the other side of the world.
If it was a bad day, she’d raise her head slowly and take too long to locate the direction of my voice. When she did, her bottom lip would fall and she’d look at me like we were in a fog and she was trying to make out my face. The only good thing about the bad days was that she always eventually realized it was me.
Whether it was a good or bad day, I only had a few moments before I’d lose her to a cat swinging from a chandelier or “Dog Loves Windshield Wipers.” I spent a lot of time on her couch just holding her hand while she stared at the TV, reading the scrolling closed-captioning: “Toyota Tercel… Tammie lost 142 pounds, Angie lost 80… Chicken McBuggles.” (She meant McNuggets.) I’d squeeze her hand or rub her shoulders. Sometimes her steady stream of words would stop and she’d see me for a moment and say, “Oh, hi honey.”
One afternoon, after a special double episode of The Planet’s Funniest Animals, I found a way to reach my grandmother. We’d been sitting on her couch, the one not by the TV, and I tried pretending I was a loveable mess, the tactic that had made her laugh my whole life: “Hey, Gramma, look! My socks don’t match and I don’t know what month it is! Hey, Gramma, look! I’ve been shaving my legs except for this one hair. I’m growing it out just for you so you can brag about me!” Nothing worked, so I mimed, “loveable mess,” putting my feet down hard on her coffee table then tying my shoelaces together. It was slapsticky and dumb. A young person’s best attempt at the warm-up act to life’s grand finale: Losing your mind.
My grandmother stared at me a moment, then said “Come here.” I leaned into her, afraid that for the first time I might be a stranger to her. But I let her hands cup my face and looked right into her eyes, and this time, there was something moving behind them.
“T-H-A-T,” she said taking one hand off my face and pointing to the table, “is an antique, don’t trip on it.”
“Yes! It is! It is!” I said, remembering all the boring antique auctions she’d took me to as a kid, how I shuffled around after her in the hot sun, getting gravel in my jelly shoes, looking at dusty gumball machines that didn’t even have any gumballs and begging her for an orange soda. Now I was begging her for so much more. Please know more about that table. Please know about anything.
I untied my laces and went around her house grabbing things I knew she’d had for a long time; the stuff from her former life—her mother’s hand mirror, a kachina doll that looked a bazillion years old, and a pottery vessel. I didn’t trust that anything newer than ten years old had been imprinted in her mind. The other day, I’d asked what she thought about Bill Clinton’s autobiography, which had been sitting on her coffee table for five years, and hoped her answer wouldn’t lead me to discover she didn’t even know who was president. She smiled and said, “He’s a great guy. He stopped by here for a bit.”
I splayed the random old things out in front of her and said, “Tell me all about these, Gramma!” Probably twenty years ago she’d tried to tell me about them and probably I couldn’t have cared less because they were old lady things. Now they were everything.
She pointed to the mirror and the doll and said, “Well, that was my mother’s ivory mirror and that’s Indian. What do you want to know?” The conversation that followed was so ordinary. So wonderfully ordinary. There were “beveled edges,” “ceramic bases,” and stories about breaking down in a jeep on the Hopi reservation. Somehow, these things from her former life had flipped a switch and rewired everything in her mind just right.
A year later, my grandmother had a stroke that took away her voice, but before then, I inventoried pretty much her whole house. Never before had I been so meticulous and so unwilling to just stand around on things that had been part of a life. It was a weird kind of séance to channel my grandmother—my grandmother who was sitting right in front of me—through antique washboards and rug beaters, but she almost always showed up.
The night she died, I sat down on the floor of her living room and yanked the drawstrings of my hoodie real tight around my face. The mortuary people were there, and I didn’t want to see them. My aunt and mother and I had spent the last five hours in bed with my grandmother, taking turns counting the seconds between her breaths, staring into the slits of her watery eyes looking for something. I heard the mortuary people introduce themselves and walk into my grandmother’s bedroom. When I heard the sound of something metal unfolding, I pulled my hoodie even tighter around my face and began writing down what I was going to take with me: Two of her red lipsticks, one bottle of her lavender dish soap and the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America: Revised and Updated (paperback). If I’ve learned anything from my job, it’s that nothing lasts, at least not in its original form. I decided to email myself the list, send it off into cyberspace so I’d know it would always be somewhere.