A Life, in Bags and Boxes

box-1209969_1920It’s been almost two weeks since the phone call came. He introduced himself as a police officer from a small town about three hours from where I live. He explained, as gently as he could, that he had been called to do a welfare check on my cousin and had found him dead in his apartment. It appeared to the medical examiner that his heart just stopped working.

Because of a variety of circumstances, I was the only member of his immediate or extended family who had the time or willingness to do the work of wrapping up his affairs. I spent most of the last ten days sitting in his apartment, going through his things. His life, a box at a time, a shelf at a time, an envelope at a time.

I got help from unexpected sources, and I got refusals of help from unexpected sources. My cousin was a man about whom few people were neutral. He had friends and neighbors who were fiercely devoted to him. One neighbor stopped in to tell me that Jeffrey had taken him grocery shopping every week because the neighbor could no longer drive. With tears in his eyes, he asked if he might have some small thing to serve as a remembrance. I offered a few ideas, but soon realized that my wisdom was not sufficient for the task of choosing such a remembrance. I invited him to look around, and he settled on a set of refrigerator magnets in the shape of dogs. It seemed to represent their shared affection for the pets they had each known. Another day, a 95-year-old man described my cousin, young enough to be his grandson, as his best friend. It was an honor to entrust the care of his favorite Christmas cactus to this friend.

My cousin’s apartment contained many items of furniture from the home of our mutual grandparents. While I might have wanted to take it all, I am recently  retired and trying to downsize, so that just couldn’t happen. One of the best gifts I received was the name of an antiques dealer who loves his work and knows that every piece in his shop represents a story from someone’s life. (If you are ever looking for an antiques dealer in eastern Iowa, here’s an unsolicited recommendation for Hoppy’s Primitives in La Porte City.) Dave Hopkins and his helper Nick spent hours helping me sort through the things in the apartment. They purchased many items for their own businesses, and they made daily trips to donation centers in the area to drop off things that I couldn’t keep and didn’t have time to sell.

In the end, though, I Two weeks ago, I didn't know that this thing existed; has my life been less for the lack of it_was the only one who could sort through the boxes (and boxes and boxes!) of photos, memorabilia from family members, and notes from my cousin’s extensive genealogy research. The landlords had been as generous as they could be in giving us time to vacate the apartment, but there was only so much that could be done. Finally, the choices were stark: Keep or throw. Take on the work of caring for this item, or let it go and realize that a tiny slice of our family’s history goes with it.

It would have been easy to step on the slippery slope of trying to preserve everything, and several times each day I was tempted to do just that. The question I settled on to keep me focused was this: Two weeks ago, I didn’t know that this thing existed; has my life been less for the lack of it? Sometimes the answer was yes; my grandfather’s cribbage board, the vehicle for many enjoyable hours of conversation and some memorable lessons in the art of gamesmanship. But other times, the answer was no; photos of family members I don’t recognize, even though I can see the family resemblance.

Jeffrey baby picsSomeone else doing this job might have made very different choices about what to keep and what to throw. Someone else may have had the luxury of space to store everything while they worked through it more gradually. Whoever was doing the work, whether it was compressed into a week or spread out over months, would still feel the burden of the decision: keep or throw. As it is, neighbors in his apartment setting are gratefully making use of his furniture, his food, and his things. Family members will choose whether to remember the baby placed in the arms of his adoptive parents one autumn day in 1959, the hurt and angry adult who never learned how to let go, or the lonely soul who desperately wanted acceptance.

As I sorted, I thought often of the words I have said to hundreds of parishioners on Ash Wednesday each year: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The bags and boxes of things from Jeffrey’s life are just that: things. Ashes and dust. Adiaphora (a Greek word meaning “the little stuff”).

Jeffrey recent pics 2Jeffrey was a complex person. He experienced much pain in his own life; and he caused much pain in the lives of others. Some people will remember Jeffrey as mean-spirited, delusional, and angry. Others will talk about his warmth, his sense of humor, and his gentle manner. And they will all be correct; Jeffrey was all of those things. He was not merely the bags and boxes that we carried to the dumpster and hauled to the donation sites. He was not completely his worst self, and he was not completely his best self. The truth that will remain is this: Jeffrey was a child of God, claimed in his baptism, “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.”

Rest eternal grant him, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him.


Published by

Barbara Bruneau

Barbara Bruneau is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is semi-retired, having previously served congregations in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Barbara enjoys knitting, reading, cooking, and weaving. She shares her home with cats named Abigail and Bijou.

9 thoughts on “A Life, in Bags and Boxes”

  1. This has been an unexpected challenge and I believe you were the ideal child of God to undertake the task. Thank you for sharing your journey and your powerful proclamation of the Gospel. I am sitting here, actually reclining on my couch, with tears welling up in my eyes and rolling down my cheeks. Peace be with you, Barbara.✝️

  2. I’ve got so many thoughts. Thank you for this. I’ve been wondering how it went. I really appreciate the question about not knowing the thing existed two weeks ago.
    Blessings to you, and to all who mourn.

  3. Beautifully written, Barbara! You are a kind soul to take on the challenge that was presented to you, I am sure Jeffrey would have appreciated it. As I was reading your blog I thought of my in-laws that recently passed away. The family spent countless hours over many weeks sorting through boxes and boxes of things that were treasures to them with us struggling to determine what would help us remember them. In the end, we realized it wasn’t their belongings that were going to help us remember them, it would be the special memories we have of time spent together that will always surround us with their love. Take care and it was wonderful meeting you even under these circumstances.

  4. Jeff and I became close friends almost 6 years ago thru his second cousin.. my sister Lisa..He always made me laugh with his humor and was always so upbeat with me.He was my biggest Cowboys supporter and I always looked forward to his company on fb, or thru messenger when the Cowboys played.He was pretty much supportive of all my fb post.I knew when he didn’t respond to a very important Cowboys game and win that something was really wrong?I tried messaging him, texting him and calling him(went straight to voicemail) for the next 5 days.That was on the 26th and is last time their was any communications from Jeff,with myself and all his other friends..I knew it was time to do a welfare check.I live in the Tx Panhandle.If I had lived close by, I would have checked on him day one of my concern!.I kept hoping it was phone issues, but knew deep down something was very wrong, because it was so out of character for Jeff.!Getting the news he had passed away, saddened me deeply.I miss his constant presence in my life, his spirit, his quirky cleanliness remarks and the funny things he would post about his OCD and anxiety.He was able to outwardly make fun of himself and he was really a funny guy!His Love for cooking and canning made me envious, lol..His caring and giving heart to so many, when being sick himself , showed his true character!He will b surely missed,by those who’s lives he truly touched!He went to church no matter how bad he would feel.He was a no doubt a Christian and seldom missed church.I knew right away he was in heaven with his beloved mama and grandparents that he spoke so highly of!Was so relieved to know, that he was being taken care of by family and that his ashes would b put on his mama’s grave when it was warm enough! U are in my daily thoughts and prays J Gustoff Pratt and I will never forget u my friend!.R.I.P my friend R.I.P! 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻🎈

  5. Amen. He was a great man. Many conversations. Many talks. As a EMT, minister, former animal control officer and now farmer he and I always had something to talk about. 1 thing I can say, he tried hard to forgive. He tried hard to understand and the pain he was in was tremendous. He was a great friend. I wish I could be there to wish my friends a farewell trip to his Eternal Home. Rest In Peace my good friend. When I come to the crossroads of life, may you be there with our Lord and guide us all with Him.

  6. It’s been about 4 months now and I miss you everyday. I miss your wit and humor, your funny jokes, your Trump jokes. I am so sorry that I didn’t realize just how sick you were. You never complained except when your skin disease was acting up. You really wished you could have a pet again but realized you could not properly care for an animal in your financial circumstances. With me you were an easy person to love and love you I did. I will miss you my friend and I will never forget you!!!!!

  7. I corresponddd with Jeffrey on Facebook. He is a cousin to my husband. I didn’t know he was gone! What a shame.
    We did genealogical research together!
    If anyone still possesses the photos I would dearly love to have these treasures!

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