Life, death and memories reverberate through the things my parents purchased.
My mom died eight years ago and it hurts less than it used to but probably more than it should. I am frequently soothed because I live in the home I grew up in, and I am surrounded by memories and ghosts at every waking moment. They wink at me and I wink back. When I walk in my kitchen in the late fall and hear the crickets outside and see the fireflies flit around, I am instantly transported to a night spent playing with my Transformers on that kitchen floor while my parents watched Knight Rider in the next room. Kit’s whir-whir-whir-whir blending with the crickets and becoming something of a soundtrack for my childhood. Or I tuck my kids in to bed at night and remember the time I had food poisoning the day of my grandfather’s funeral, and how my mom rushed me to the hospital and stayed with me and fretted because I was violently, violently ill. When I finally came home she slept on the floor, next to my bed in the room where my youngest son now sleeps.
Now that my own parents have died and I have my own little family, I think about that day — the day of my grandfather’s funeral — a lot. My mother chose me even though she was in tremendous pain that a little me could not possibly fathom.
But about those receipts.
Part of what comes with living in the house I was raised in is the paperwork. My parents were meticulous paperwork keepers. There are files and files of color coded, folder and subject sorted, alphabetical-always papers. Filing cabinets full of receipts stapled to the bills stapled to a note stating when the check was mailed for payment. Then there are the carbon copies of each check; back from when carbon copies were a thing. Back before digital banking existed. There are so many receipts that I still find new (to me) boxes in the recesses of the attic, or the cellar or the garage.
Just when I think I’ve finally finished sorting through parental things, I find something else hidden in a room my sister jokingly calls the Room of Requirement. The things I need to use or need to remove magically pop up whenever I start poking around.
This is why this past weekend I tackled the sordid task of shredding the medical records. While I was shredding I came across the receipts for new tires from Sears, a washer machine and other odds and ends from stores long gone. Zayre. Carson Pirie Scott. Marshall Fields. I found an American Express receipt for the jewelry my father would often gift my mother. A can of Pepsi at Walgreens. Tacos from Pepes. A business dinner at the Signature Room. I found a Worldwide Personal Travel Accident Insurance plan for my father, which coincided with the time we drove around the country for two months and visited every state between Illinois and the Pacific Ocean.
Yes, my father believed that I should see the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains majesties, and the oceans white with foam. This Midwest girl saw her entire country (except for Alaska — that came later) and understood it by the time I was 10. When we drove to the Great Salt Flats and climbed down into the Grand Canyon, saw the Hoover Dam, got out our car to to see Mount Rushmore and came face to face with a moose in California, I realized he wanted me to understand that this is my country and to see it for real — not just read about it in a book.
The receipts tell stories.
Toyota recalled mom’s green Avalon because of the accelerator pedal reinforcement bar installation gone awry. She had them come tow it, and she kept the receipt from the tow company so that she could be reimbursed. She saved Home Depot receipts, storm window repair receipts and roof repair receipts in a folder she addressed to me — instructing me to keep it for warranties. The folder also included her “daughter-do” list from the Great Beyond. (I’m nearly done but still working at it. Slowly.) The history listing of her oil changes paired with her grocery receipts paired with letters of thanks from places where she volunteered paired with letters from students she tutored paired with her oncology appointment blood panels tells me a lot about how she spent her time as she died from stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her bones and then her blood. I thought I knew all there was to know about my mother. I saw her every other day. But the receipts showed me how she always kept it moving; always doing something for somebody despite being ill.
I saw the receipts from my father’s medical plan. All the issues that eventually decreased his quality of life and led him also to die, eventually, of complications from diabetes. $4.22 for a blood panel. His portion, of course. $14,565 for a hospital stay. I think that was the time I was pledging Delta Sigma Theta, and I wanted to stay by his side but my dad, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, told me to go back to my line. He said my soon-to-be Sorors would sustain me even if he was gone. And like all things, he was right about that too.
Eventually I got to Alaska. It was a bucket list trip with my mom. We tackled it after my father died. She’d gone to see the Panama Canal with my sister and next she wanted to see the glaciers and Tokyo. So we went. And Alaska was beautiful and not as cold as you might think. We saw whales and lots of glaciers. I almost nearly gave her a heart attack, she says, when I got caught in a waterfall that gushed out from a suddenly-cracked glacier while I was taking pictures from near the bow of a catamaran. I can’t recall exactly how this went down, but the blurry pictures and video on my cell phone are a series of chunky blue objects paired with shrieks drowned by the roar of water. I was soaking wet. The upside, I joked, was that I tasted and swallowed super fresh, slightly mineral-tasting water that was frozen back when Jesus -no Mohammad! — was alive. The downside was the chill.
My mother, who knew her days were numbered, took off her coat and put it on me as I shivered and we hustled back to the mainland. I accepted hers without thought. But now I wonder how cold she must have been while she watched me drip. She bought a second winter coat while we were in Yukon territory about to board an old rickity mountain train. “Just as a precaution.” She carried it with her every time we went out on another excursion. She kept that receipt too. I found it.
Amongst the pile of things I set aside to shred was something I forgot that I had kept: the receipt of the belongings my mother wore to the hospital that were returned to me the day she died. I don’t know why I held on to this macabre document. It read like she was permanently checking out of life. Sweatshirt. Gold ring. Diamond earrings. Bracelet watch. Jeans. Time of death. I signed the paper unconfidently. You can tell. The scribbled signature fades and drops. I don’t remember that day at all, but look, here is the receipt.
What a thing to be reminded of.
I shredded it.