My neighbor died a couple of weeks ago. He was an older man, and had been ill for a long time. I’d passed him in the hallway many times during my seven years of living in the building, and he parked his car two spaces over from mine in the garage, but we never had more than a nodding relationship. Over the last few years, he’d become markedly more hunched over and his forays outside of his own home were less and less frequent. Every now and again, the newspapers would pile up in front of his door for a week, and I’d wonder if he’d passed away. But then a few days later, I’d see him hobbling down to the mailboxes or out to his ancient Toyota Corolla with the Catholic radio bumper sticker.
According to the tribute posted in the elevator, Rudy had lived in the building for over 30 years, and died in the hospital with his daughter and son-in-law by his side. This is all I know about the man at the other end of the hall. I have never seen inside his condo, have no idea if he was a minimalist or a pack rat, if the appliances are brand new or 30 years old. I have no idea what he left behind for his daughter and son-in-law to sort through, to throw away, or pack up in boxes. We spend so much time behind closed doors, surrounded by the things we have collected. And then the moment we die, our treasured belongings become Stuff That Someone Else Has to Deal With.
I did a quick mental inventory of my own belongs: if I was hit by a bus or had an aneurysm tomorrow, what would my family have to sort through, throw away, or pack up in boxes?
There are the sentimental items (photos, favorite books), the disposables (toiletries, condiments, laundry detergent), the donation pile (clothing, shoes, vacuum), and of course the I-hope-my father-never-see-these items (sexy underwear, certain adult toys, lubricant). But when I picture my family members opening up cupboards and going through my drawers, the thought that makes me shudder with dread is of them discovering the cardboard boxes of old journals, school notebooks, angsty short stories, melodramatic romance epics, and other horrifying remnants of my youth.
Sure, we all struggle to define ourselves and find our place in the world, particularly in our youth. But we don’t all keep detailed written records.
In many ways, everything I wrote in my teens and early twenties is just as significant as anything I write today. The preteen soap opera-inspired novels, the doom and gloom poetry courtesy of my world-weary fourteen-year-old self, the rambling notes scrawled to friends in Spanish class – these were precursors to all that has come after, up to and including this very blog entry. But this doesn’t mean that they should ever be exposed to another living soul. I mean, if reading them makes me blush while sitting alone in my own home, how would my parents react to such horrors?
I could easily solve this problem with a paper shredder, yet I can’t bear to part with these cardboard box time capsules. It would be like throwing away a big chunk of my life. And if we forget who we were, how will we know who we are?