A week ago Sunday I had a heart to heart with my wife and admitted my uncle wouldn’t be with us in a year’s time. Sometimes you just know. He had been sick for several months, a shell of his former self, hoping to get back to the apartment he once lived in, but recognizing he probably wouldn’t be able to. It had been a taxing few months. How horribly right I was. By the next morning I got one wakeup call that he had been taken back to the hospital. Within the hour I got another call that he had died. And so began a week of getting his affairs in order and calling the people who needed to be called. I’m writing down some of what we did in case it helps people going through the same thing faced with the insurmountable task of going through someone’s life possessions and finishing the final chapter of what they can’t do for themselves.
#1 the plans: My uncle was prepared… It was helpful to us. He never had kids of is own and my sister and I were pretty much the closest family he had. Some time ago he had deputized us to hang on to his personal papers for the one day they were ever needed. My wife and I visited him several years ago and he handed over the papers. We went through them briefly that day. He handed me the contacts for the funeral home where he had prepaid for cremation. He handed me a copy of his will, a copy of his medical wishes, a copy of his bank account numbers, and some important telephone numbers. He had me put them away until I needed them. This week I needed them. It was still a very crazy week but the fact that he had taken care of some of his own plans gave me a roadmap for what he wanted in the end. There were no family fights. He had made it all pretty clear about how he wanted things to be. Still there are so many things left to do when someone dies… things you never think of.
#2 the apartment: when it came to his apartment my wife and I have had to move quickly. It’s unfortunate but death doesn’t know when the rent is due, and an apartment which had already sat empty for four months continues to charge us for rent. We triaged the apartment. We separated things into keep and toss and donate. We then separated the keeper items into the actual shipping boxes where they’d be going to save time. My uncle lived in a senior living complex. As people came by to offer their condolences, we’d see what they might need. Most folks don’t have a lot of money there. One resident asked for his microwave. Another took his coffee pot. One friend who always came down to watch TV with him took his small TV. Another who shared his love for show tunes took his CD’s. Others took trinkets we were going to donate. We were able to remove many household items and other things that normally end up in the trash just because we kept an ear out for the people who could use them. I felt the most sense of accomplishment in seeing friends get to reuse the items he cared for.
#3 the donated items: my wife and I researched the closest donation centers. This was about speed and convenience if we needed to make multiple trips. We made drop-offs to Salvation Army and also Goodwill. The Goodwill was open later and had an easier drop-off so we went with them for more of the trips. That left us with the big pieces of furniture in my uncle’s apartment. What do you do with old TV cabinets and bed frames and desks and items that aren’t exactly heirlooms. Again we researched the best donation centers which would pick up items. They all booked trucks for two or three weeks ahead of time. We didn’t have that kind of time. We needed to be moving the items. We finally found a hospice center in the East Bay of San Francisco which understood our time constraints. They had a truck out there the next morning. They took many items which will either be used by someone in need, or sold to fund their operations. They did it all for free… moved the items out of the building for free. I was grateful some of these big items will be used by someone who can need them.
#4 the leftovers: the donation centers still have some standards. They don’t take some items which they can’t reuse or resell or are clearly damaged or old. In our case, the items included the bed and mattress, a chair, some other boxes of junk that accumulate over the years. We called 1-800-GOT-JUNK which hauls away stuff. They charge by the amount of truck space you use. They were also great and moved all the items out. They even moved a couch to a neighbor who decided at the last minute that they could use the couch. The total charge for this was less than $300 dollars. We live in LA. A building manager let them in for this part of the process. We did it all over the phone.
#5 the keeper items. We had already sorted them into the boxes to mail. One box was for me and we brought it right back to LA. There are so many things I want to go through when we have time and when emotions settle, old photos, mementos, the folded flag which honored my grandfather. Two other boxes went right to Fed Ex and into the mail destined for loved ones. We didn’t want to be hanging on to them forever and knew we wanted to get these items to the people who wanted them. My sister’s box contained photo albums and other mementos and personal notes, and even a special snow globe she had gotten my uncle several years back. Still another box went to close friends of his. We did the slowest Fed Ex shipment to save on money, but asked for signatures just for some peace of mind. Total cost on the Fed Ex was $125 dollars.
#6 medical items: a special note on medical items which many people have when they’ve been ill. These can also be donated. Donation centers were happy to have his walkers. We found someone in the building who needed a new wheelchair who happily took his motorized wheelchair once we found out he owned it and didn’t rent it. I was very happy to see we had found a home for that.
#7 pets: this is a tougher one and one my uncle didn’t really prep us well for. We have been working very hard to get his cat a loving home. We have put out feelers on social media and with friends and online. I know we’ll make it work. I would have loved if he had made a plan ahead of time for the cat to give me some guidance.
#8 hurt feelings: there will still be some. I guess that’s just the way it is. My uncle has a neighbor that got very angry at me and the process of cleaning his apartment, and even that we hadn’t offered her any of the items when she had cared for his cat for several months. The truth is we had offered, but she may not have heard through her grief. This week she said I was “not an honest man” and not a nice man and she said she hoped my uncle knew the truth. The words were crushing. The words were spoken through her grief I’m sure. I don’t know that that bridge will ever be repaired but this all wasn’t about her. It was about my uncle and making sure his final wishes were carried out. For her the time for grieving was clearly now. For me, the time for grieving will be when I know his wishes have been carried out and his affairs are in order.
I don’t know why I wrote this all down. Perhaps it will give other folks ideas if they are faced with such a challenge. This summer we’ll head back to the bay area with plans to scatter my uncle’s ashes. He planned for that as well. I won’t tell you where or when but I can tell you he had it covered.