Well, this week it happens. My favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, gets pushed aside for ‘black Friday.’ The mass frenzy to buy things we don’t even need explodes. It suddenly becomes okay to max out the credit card because, “it’s for Christmas.” What a shame. First we toss aside Thanksgiving, and then we use the holiday to honor the birth of Jesus Christ as an excuse to go all crazy at the mall.
I’ve been reflecting on what is really important. Not just at Christmas and Thanksgiving time, but ALL the time. What would we really grab first if our house was on fire and we had 30 seconds to get whatever we could out of the burning structure? We all say we would get our families out, and I know that’s true, but then what would come next? And what if we were home alone when the fire started? What then? If we had nobody we needed to get to safety, what would we run around and grab?
I love our home. It’s where we have made all our memories since our children were very small. It is like your house—filled with treasures and mementos, photos, journals, furniture, clothing, electronics, and the necessities of life. It’s also filled with a lot of stuff we don’t really, truly need. For instance, we don’t need the Nintendo Wii. Nobody uses it. It just sits there collecting dust. Why we ever got it, I will never know. It was my idea when the kids were out of school one summer and I thought it would be fun to get Rock Band. We did have fun with it for about a week and then we slowly moved back into the things we were most accustomed to doing—reading, playing music, or just talking to each other. What about the 14 million coats that I seem to have accumulated? I really only need one or two.
If we needed to grab and go in an emergency, do we have our most precious and important things in a place where we can access them? Do we even know where these things are? Are they too heavy? Can we really get them out of the house?
Then I think about really “going.” When it’s my time to go from this life into the next I won’t be able to take anything with me. My spirit will leave my body and return to God and my body will be returned to the earth. I will be physically unable to take anything tangible with me into the next life. All of it will stay right exactly where it was the last time I used it, or didn’t use it. To collect dust, or be thrown away, or sold at an estate sale, or given to other people. The point is that all of it, every single thing, even the clothes I am wearing when I die, will stay here. Nothing, nothing at all, goes with me. What I do take with me when my life is over is what is really important. My spirit, my personality, my testimony, my faith, my talents, my deeds–both good and bad, my love, my relationships, my knowledge, my obedience, and my real, honest, bare-naked self.
Five and half years ago, my stepmother died of melanoma. It originated in her eye, which she had removed to save her life 10 or 11 years prior. Then in 2008, she had surgery to remove her gallbladder, which was thought to be the cause of her new troubles, but upon investigation during the surgery, it was discovered that the melanoma had returned and was now in her liver. It was inoperable. She had chemo and all kinds of other therapies, which appeared promising until the tumors started to sprout up overnight, everywhere and anywhere. She was started on an experimental treatment, but failed to respond. Hospice was called in and she slowly withered away. She lost so much weight and was so frail. She remained optimistic and fought a hard fight, but succumbed to her attacker 17 months after the metastases were found.
Watching her slowly fade from a vibrant and healthy woman to a frail, thin, and weak little creature was very difficult. What made me just as sad was her realization that she had so much ‘stuff’ that she wanted to give away in order to see it go to the right people. She began having her neighbor sort through her many, many different rooms full of things she had collected over the years. It became a huge burden to her and my dad and it seemed to consume both of them. She personally was able to give many, many things away, but she had so many things that it was impossible to unload them all.
On one of my regular visits to help her, she sat down with me on the sofa and opened up a large box of jewelry that she wanted to give away. She said I could choose a piece, but she had one piece in mind for me that she really wanted me to have, but she wanted me to choose. It is interesting that I chose the piece she wished to give me. A beautiful, solid silver and genuine turquoise, Squash Blossom necklace made by the Navajo. It had been a gift from my dad on one of their many adventures. I love that necklace and I cherish it. I am careful when I wear it and careful how I store it. It’s one of the most beautiful things I own. But just like she couldn’t take it with her, when I die, I can’t take it with me either.
One week after her funeral, my dad’s basement flooded due to a broken sprinkler. He called all of his kids to come up and help. We had to carry out everything in that basement so the carpet could be torn up and replaced. I have never in my life seen so many trinkets. Her home had been a lovely home because she had been an interior decorator before teaching biology. She had exquisite taste. The home looked like it was right out of Better Homes and Gardens. But, as the years went on, the need to collect stuff grew and grew, without anywhere to put the stuff. Slowly the house was not as attractive and seemed to overflow with the latest shopping trip’s finds. When we had to haul everything out of the basement after it flooded, it completely covered their very long and spacious driveway and filled the garage, back yard deck, and my dad’s shop. It was horrifying to look at it all. Too many things to count still had price tags on them, set aside for future gifts or future projects.
On the day my stepmother died, my dad called all of his children to offer the sad news. It was on a Sunday afternoon and I remember grabbing the emergency overnight bag I had packed weeks before, for this specific purpose, kissing my family goodbye, and rushing to his house. During the seemingly endless 20-minute drive, my heart pounded hard and fast. It had really happened. My stepmother was now gone and I had watched her slowly wither away. I had never seen a dead person, except at the mortuary for viewings. Now I was approaching my dad’s house and I was afraid. I didn’t want to go inside, but I didn’t want my dad to be alone. I will never forget that experience for as long as I live. I walked inside and Dad took me to her side. She was on the bed, looking peaceful, but so very small. The reality of what had happened started to envelop me and I broke down. She was perfectly still. No more pain and no more suffering. She was now suddenly free and happy again. We sat with her for a long time in the quiet, just me and my dad. Then he asked me to start calling people. That was hard. I had never done that before. Her children came and her sister, and I think her mom. I think only one of my siblings came that day; the rest chose not to for some reason. I am so glad I was there. It was very heartbreaking and difficult, but I learned so much.
My dad called the mortuary. “It’s time. You can come and get her now.” They sent an attendant in a nice, big, unmarked van. He brought in a small stretcher with a black plastic bag on top. After the papers were signed and we visited for a few moments, it was time to do what I will never forget. He placed the plastic bag next to my stepmother on the bed and very professionally and gently began moving her into it. I will never forget what she looked like, wearing a lavender t-shirt and a purple sarong tied around her waist. My dad removed her jewelry and gently kissed her face before the bag was zipped all the way up. Then the bag was kindly placed on the stretcher, wheeled outside to the van, and seemed to quietly disappear.
This beautiful, smart, and gifted woman who had been a mother, wife, interior decorator, artist, teacher, scientist, and world traveler, left her beautifully decorated home and took nothing with her. I know that when she died only her spirit returned to God, but even when her body left her physical home, it took nothing. No jewelry, no books, no photo albums of her many adventures to Africa, Peru, Thailand, Belize, the Amazon rainforest, or Australia. No overnight bag or toothbrush. No phone or computer. Just her frail little body gently wrapped in a purple sarong. Later it was her family and friends that had the burden of distributing her things and putting the house back together. It was good to look through her things in that way, to remember experiences and adventures, but it was also a somber thought, knowing it all stayed behind. We had a large garage sale and sold most of it. The rest went to charity shops and antique dealers to be sold to others. She was able to give away her favorite treasures to people she cared about, in person.
We have all heard, “you can’t take it with you.” Well, it’s true. We can’t and we won’t. I’m sure we won’t even want to. There is no need for those things on the other side. I have a feeling that while we were all removing her things from the house and basement that day that my step-mom was looking on, embarrassed, apologizing profusely for creating that burden.
Whenever I buy something new or think about buying something new for me or my family, I always think, “where are we going to put that,” and “do we really need that?” I don’t want my stuff to be a burden on my family when it’s time for me to leave this earth and return to God. More importantly, I don’t want my existence on this earth, during this critical time of learning and developing, to become controlled by my stuff. After Hurricane Katrina, I think most people pondered the idea of how much stuff they had and how much they really need and don’t need. It could all be taken away at any time, but we could also be taken away from it. What is really and truly most important to us?
In the Bible, Matthew 6:21 to be exact, it says: “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I want to make sure my heart is not in my stuff—my tangible belongings, my collection of things in my house. I want my heart to be in my God, with my Savior Jesus Christ, my marriage, my children, my family, my faith, my knowledge and wisdom, my testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel, my love and kindness to others, my contribution to building the kingdom of God, my scripture study, my family history work, my service to my fellowmen, my obedience to God’s commandments, my loyalty to my covenants, the submission of my will to God’s.
How do I do this, really? It’s overwhelming to think about it and try to do this all at once. I think it’s important to simply think about it. To desire to HAVE less. To truly desire to BECOME more. When it is our heart’s sincere desire, we will be attuned to what we need to do. Our time won’t be spent in the trivial things, but on the things that are of eternity. We need to cherish and protect our marriages, our relationships with our children, our friendships. We need to try hard each day to make the world a better place with a smile, a kind word, a simple gesture, or even just a happy and cheerful attitude. When we take the time to put God first in our lives, the other worldly and trivial things will not consume us. Maybe by the time I reach the end of my life I will have it all figured out, but for now I just have to try a little harder, every day, one day at a time, to put God first. All things will fall into place after that.