Open letter: What is worth keeping

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By Julie Keon, special to Yahoo Canada*

It sits in her office beckoning for attention. This clear plastic container, bursting with everything that connects her to the deepest pain and greatest joy of her life. She sees it each time she enters the room. It is the last box standing after a purge of her collectibles gathered over a lifetime. It no longer made sense to keep a lifetime neatly packed away in the darkness of bins, bags and trunks.

The previous year, she embarked on a psychological and physical pilgrimage that challenged her to come face to face with the past and cleanse her life of mementos that were best given to charity. Childhood memories were encapsulated in miniature Monchichi statues and in a retro Girl Guide uniform with badges proudly stitched on by the hands of a child. She discovered tiny boxes holding pewter peace signs and rock ‘n’ roll badges that she once proudly pinned to her 1940s army jacket. There were the leopard-print ankle boots purchased at a hip store in Ottawa when her dad, desperately trying to connect with his sullen, rebellious, teenage daughter, drove her to the city so she could buy items that expressed her uniqueness.

An entire box of journals written throughout her adolescence and early adulthood revealed the truth behind the pain she carried at that time. Onto the pages of these hard covered books, she poured all of her anger and sadness; turmoil that was impossible to temper through visits with a social worker and the school guidance counsellor. She wept as she opened journals, reading random pages filled with rage about such things as the separation of her parents and the high school teacher who got away with preying on and assaulting young girls. There was the older brother of a friend who agreed to walk her safely home and then left his teeth marks in her arm and bruising on her breast. There was enough heartbreak causing her to question if she would ever be happy and there were the fleeting thoughts that perhaps the only way out of the pain was to end it all.

Then there were the letters, thousands of them, written in a time before texting, emails and Facebook messaging. These she shredded, including countless love letters from various suitors. She had contemplated keeping them as proof that she was well-loved in her life in case the day came that her memory betrayed her. She reasoned that the only one who mattered now, in fact ever mattered, was the man she had loved for the last 20 years and who loved her back in the way she needed to be loved.

For months, her home office space was a battleground between the past and the present. One by one, dusty lids were pulled off of bins crammed with everything that told the story of her life. At 45, she was optimistic that this was mid-life and that she still had a good 50 years of living left. However, she was reminded on a weekly basis through her work of writing and leading meaningful funeral ceremonies that there are no guarantees as to when our time is up. The calls came regularly from families needing her services to honour a loved one’s life that came to an untimely end, often tragically, through accidents, illness, and suicide. She thought about death a lot, a side effect of her job, and she knew that if there was ever a time to get things sorted and purged, the best time was always now.

Dying without warning, is always a possibility, and leaving her husband to navigate a lifetime of her hoard was enough to motivate the purge.

Months passed and the countless bins pulled from the space, affectionately referred to as the “hoarder room,” were condensed to one small trunk of photos, letters written by her parents and her husband and the many journals because to destroy them would be sacrilege.  The “hoarder room” became a walk in closet and any last minute decisions as to what to throw away and what to keep were quickly made due to the reality that there was no longer space to house them.

Yet one bin remained untouched, its contents partially revealed by the items pressed up against the clear plastic as though desperately trying to make an escape. From where she sits at her desk, a reindeer face, it’s antlers made with the handprints of a child, stares back at her with its googly eyes. Tucked in behind it are pink baby sleepers and a baby blanket that her mother crocheted for her while on an Alaskan cruise dipping it into the ocean as a baptism of sorts before gifting it to her.

Photo albums peek out from the bottom. There is a baby book containing hair clippings, and space to write important information like baby’s first haircut, first food, first step and first day of school. She remembers receiving it as a shower gift as she eagerly awaited the birth of their first born. Now it sits in the bottom of a bin, blank in so many spots because her baby’s firsts never came to pass.

It has been months since the great purge came to a close but this one box remains shoved up against the wall in her office. It has taken on a sacredness that she fears could potentially be destroyed by the simple act of lifting the lid. She has even considered placing a cloth over it and using it as a table instead of facing this last remaining collection that, like everything else, must be sorted and confronted head-on.

She is well aware that this box is a physical manifestation of the emotional container she has carefully constructed; a place to put the raw emotions connected to the past 13 years since her daughter’s birth on a cold, December night. Removing the lid of the plastic container could essentially blow the top off of the emotional burden she has carried as a mother to a child who lives each day with a massive brain injury due to a lack of oxygen at birth.

Time and experience have taught her that one must plow through that fear no matter how convinced one is of the impossibility of doing so. Shrinking from life’s biggest obstacles robs one of valuable teachings and living life with depth. Keeping this in mind, she musters the strength, as she has done so many times before, and pulls the heavy box to the centre of the room. She gingerly removes the lid.

On the top, she discovers countless progress reports from the many therapists who paraded through their home in the early years. She remembers reading the reports searching for a glimmer of hope. They were rare but always cause for celebration. That was when she and her husband still believed they would all wake from what felt like a nightmare. The therapists come less frequently now as the reality of the long-term effects of the brain injury became glaringly obvious and hope was nowhere to be found.

There was the letter from the neurologist which was kept in the glove compartment of their van for the first few years. It reads “This child cannot sit in a car seat due to her medical condition.” It was to be used if the police pulled them over and questioned why their child was sitting unrestrained in the arms of the mother in the backseat. She is swept back to the days of holding her screaming child in her arms as her husband drove the 120 kilometres to the children’s hospital. This flash of memory elicits the trauma, buried deep within, sustained on these road trips.  

As she lifts each item from the box, she unwittingly journeys further back in time until reaching the bottom layer. There is the original hospital card from the baby bassinet in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit announcing the name and weight of their newborn. Cute illustrations of teddy bears and birds dance around the information oblivious to the tragic outcome of the birth.

Countless photographs were thrown into the bin haphazardly over the years, moments captured in time. She recalls the forced smiles and the application of expensive under eye concealer to hide the ever present dark circles; a result of years of broken sleep and unrelenting stress. A smile crosses her face when she catches the metallic sheen of a deflated mylar balloon. That balloon, purchased during one of the many stays at the children’s hospital when her baby was just eight months old, was the catalyst for their baby’s first gummy smile.

A letter written by her father just three weeks after the birth is carefully crafted so his words do not reveal the fear and sorrow he carries for his daughter, son-in-law and new grandbaby. Reading this handwritten note triggers long-buried grief. One by one her tears plop onto the yellowed, loose leaf paper on which the letter was written. She is tempted to stifle them but instead lets them fall away like the dreams she once had for her baby.

Long forgotten gifts, like a now-tarnished silver baby bracelet, angel charms and prayer cards for the sick, are set aside to make their way to the thrift store. Everything else is returned to the bin. One by one, she folds each tiny sleeper. She returns the baby book to its place in the bin covering it all with the crocheted baby blanket for safe-keeping. She is not ready to let go of them just yet. There will come a time when the predictions of her daughter’s life expectancy will come to fruition and all she will have left is this bin of souvenirs.

The heartbreak of an empty baby book have faded with time. Day after day, my daughter teaches me that grit and resilience do not come from wearing an army jacket and leopard print boots, as I once believed. My child, in spite of her injured brain, teaches the greatest lessons in living fully even though death is always lurking nearby. I know now that it is just stuff and the real keepsakes of this part of my life, the hard-earned wisdom and complicated joys, cannot be stored in a plastic bin.

***
Julie Keon’s professional career began in the early 1990s in the field of social work. She always had a strong desire to work with people as they navigated through life and its various challenges. Eventually, certifying as a birth and postpartum doula (DONA International), Julie founded Mother Nurture Childbirth Services in 1998, assisting couples through the childbirth experience and the early weeks at home with a new baby. Seeing the need for specific support, she created a workshop for women who had experienced difficult or traumatic births.

Julie welcomed the opportunity to become a licensed marriage officiant for the province of Ontario in 2012. To expand her services, she graduated as a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant® in early 2013 from the Celebrant Foundation & Institute with a focus on funeral and end-of-life celebrations. She specializes in the creation and implementation of ceremonies to mark life’s transitions from the start of life to the end of life and everything in between.

Julie published her book “What I Would Tell You~ One Mother’s Adventure with Medical Fragility” in May 2015. She released a revised and expanded edition in December 2017.   

Julie is a graduate of and now teaches for the Beyond Yonder Virtual School for Community Deathcaring in Canada. In 2017, she created Ready or Not~ Preparing for the Inevitable, a unique, end-of-life preparation course offered to her community.

Her interests include psychology, health, travel, cooking, writing, and staying vibrant and resilient while holding on to a sense of humour. She shares her life in the Ottawa valley with her husband, Tim, and their daughter, Meredith.

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