Home Spirituality Life on Purpose The enlightenment of letting go

The enlightenment of letting go

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I am learning to let go.

The truth of that statement is in the progressive tense of the verb phrase “am learning to let go.” It is a work in progress and so am I.

I apologize if you tire of hearing me whine about selling our house and moving, but it’s kind of on my mind every morning, noon and night as I attempt to de-clutter and pack 18 years worth of stuff.

I’m not exactly sure why it’s so hard. It’s not like we haven’t moved before. In fact, in the 31 years that we have been married, My husband and I have moved a total of five times, the last two of them into our own homes. Each time we moved, we moved with more children. Our last move here, almost 20 years ago, we had four kids 12 and under. My youngest, Johanna, was two.

With each expansion of family and space, the clutter grew too. We homeschooled for the majority of those 32 years, so each move involved more curriculum, art supplies, science projects and the like. I empathize with teachers who have to pack up their classrooms to move at the end of the year and begin again in a new space in the fall.

Our classroom was our entire home and our one-acre property and barn. I’m still finding old sketch journals and science notes and reports. It warms my heart and some of it is hard to let go.

It’s hard to let go of the expectations I placed on myself. I am much more forgiving of my kids. It’s okay that they didn’t complete those journals or re-write the science report. But it’s much harder for me to give myself permission to let go of the undone tasks I thought I would complete or the milestones I imagined I could achieve.

The other day, I was listening to a podcast on de-cluttering as I was separating things into toss, keep and give away piles. The podcast was timely indeed. A professional organizer was encouraging others to recognize what lies beneath the clutter (besides dust bunnies and lost change). She said that most of our accumulation of stuff represents someone or some expectations or memories that we are struggling to release and let go. When we acknowledge these interior processes, we are free to choose to let them go in the way that honors our memories and experience.

This understanding of why we hold on and how to let go has helped me in packing up the house and in addressing some emotional baggage too. I have some unusual things that I have held onto all these years. The best examples are from my daughter Johanna’s room.

Raising a child with brain injury and developmental delays, who is also medically fragile, creates some interesting clutter. For example, for her 21st birthday, my daughter received quite a few wine glasses decorated with specially designed congratulations, celebrating that she was officially legal to have an alcoholic drink. Though she never has more than a few sips of wine or beer, she has enjoyed this rite of passage. Right next to the decorated glasses, is her artwork, crafts and toys which are tell-tale signs of the eternal childhood which makes my daughter a unique gift to the world.

In Johanna’s room, there are four toys that represent much more than the cluttered spaces they occupy. Two of them are large stuffed animals — Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. These colorful stuffed toys don’t mean a lot to my daughter. She doesn’t remember where or who they came from, but I do — like it was yesterday. The other two toys are holiday Barbie dolls, in festive red velvet and white fluffy dresses. Think sleigh rides and hot chocolate — not a typical dress for Barbie. The very unusual thing about these dolls is not so much the dresses but the makeshift sleighs upon which they ride.

The sleighs are really footed leg splints, made of durable plastic and covered in soft lambskin. When Johanna was in a coma years ago, from Thanksgiving until nearly Christmas, those splints helped keep her legs and feet straight, protecting the muscles from atrophy while she slept.

On Christmas as Johanna and our family were waking from her long sleep, the nurses gave my daughter the Barbies. My older girls spied the splints as the perfect sleigh ride for the holiday Barbies to ride. The velcro straps which once held my daughter’s tiny legs and feet now secured the dolls for long adventures in the girls’ imaginations at play.

As for Tigger and Pooh, they were my pillows on the sleeper chair during the long nights in the ICU, as I slept at my daughter’s side. I’ve bagged and boxed many things for donations; some were harder than others to let go. Tigger and Pooh and the Barbies in their sleighs are still sitting on the shelf. Every time I try to put them in a “to go” box, I remember and cherish the time they represent.

They remind me of the little comforts and the resilience of our family in an immense time of struggle. For now, I’ll keep them on the shelf — maybe even bring them to our next home, packed up in a box marked “special memories”. When I am ready, I can gift them to a special child and a mom who needs them now or give them to a grandchild.

As I am purging the clutter, I am also learning to accept again, that my life is unique because I am parent-caregiver who will be caring for an adult child for the rest of our lives. Some of the clutter of caregiving is unavoidable and needs space —like the IV supplies hidden away in the ottoman, the shower chair in the bathroom and the wheelchair in the garage. These are all signs of a commitment I didn’t choose but gratefully accept at the dawn of each new day.

November is national family caregivers month. It is a very appropriate time for me to let go of expectations of what I thought life was going to be like before I became a caregiver. Letting go of these expectations is an important process for anyone. But it’s especially important for the courageous women and men who care for their disabled and chronically ill family members.

When we moved to the North Fork, we were searching for a better life which including the natural beauty of spacious skies and spectacular views of the sun rising and setting on the farm fields surrounding our home. None of us realized that our youngest would become more impaired as she grew and require care into adulthood.

I expected that I would have more time to read more books, do more craft projects with my kids and cook more elaborate dinners from the cookbooks I’ve acquired over the years. But some years we were just breathing, grateful we were all still alive to see God’s artistry in the skies.

So now as I’m purging and packing, I am letting go of the books we never read, cookbooks with recipes I never used and many supplies for projects left undone. As I let go of the outside stuff, I’m letting the inside stuff go too. I am letting go of what I thought life should be and gratefully embracing what life really is — a purpose-filled adventure of ups and downs from the sun’s rising to its setting — in a beautiful North Fork sky.

Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen