Why Open Another Box?

A unconditional conversation between mother and daughter...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Finding Peace in Noritake China

For days now, since our move from Kansas City to Arizona, it seems that everywhere I turn, an unopened box awaits me, just begging to be unpacked. The living room, bedrooms, and oh-so-many toys—too many; all must be transferred from a box to … somewhere! And then there’s the kitchen; the dreaded of all rooms to assemble! Yet somehow in only two days, with assistance from husband and three pairs of little people hands (sometimes more distracting than helpful), my new Arizona kitchen was successfully unpacked.

Mid-happy dance I noticed two unaccounted for and, sadly, unopened boxes in the corner. In green sharpie, two beat-up boxes were labeled in my father’s handwriting: “Noritake China, serving platter, bowl, coffee pot, creamer, sugar bowl, special tea cups, wine glasses.” The boxes looked beat-up—almost pliable; but despite the crumpled corners and faded writing, the tape that secured them appeared remarkably fixed, unfazed by time and multiple journeys. I stared at them with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, similar to what one might experience when receiving a box in the mail missing a return address—who sent this? Is there a bomb inside? Or maybe (more realistically) it’s just that cute outfit I ordered? My mix of emotions was not however, produced by a package from an unidentified sender. The contents of these two misshapen boxes once belonged to my Mom, gone now for 17 years. I have been hauling them around like a gypsy for the past 13-plus years; unopened and intentionally forced-forgotten.

For all these years, I have not only carried these boxes with me from city to city and state to state in cars, moving trucks … I’ve carted other unopened boxes in my subconscious or soul, or some other hidden place. Piece by piece, I have begun the cathartic process of unpacking mom-boxes one by one. It’s been a sluggish process to open up my emotional baggage surrounding the near decade my mom endured Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease and eventually her death--even now 17 years later. I can trace the beginnings of my unpacking process to almost ten years ago when I stopped drinking. Lord knows you can’t be very successful at unpacking much of anything when you are blitzed half the time and pissed off at the world the other half. It’s a given that you will screw up and put things in the wrong places, or shove them into corners, and though you may have taken things out of boxes—you realize you’ve created a big ol’ mess. Until I had a clear mind and could face my emotions head-on, my unpacking process was precarious and counterproductive at best.

The past year has been a significant turning point in unpacking my mom-boxes. Somewhere between being closer to turning the age she was when she was diagnosed with her terminal illness (35) and my undergoing a remarkable spiritual awakening of sorts, I have become ready to open boxes like crazy! Physically I have opened boxes and binders of her memoirs and read them for the first time in my adult life. Emotionally, I have allowed myself to feel the feelings from reading her writing; sadness, anger, fear, laughter, love and many more. Has it been easy to open these boxes? No! Can I unpack them all in two days like I did my new kitchen? Certainly not! Does fear seize me at times and convince me I can’t do it? Yes! But with a little nudge from God, usually in the voices of the people who love me, I just keep unpacking. I do it when I feel in my soul that the time is right.

Yesterday when I encountered the green sharpie “Noritake China” boxes, I knew the time was right. I released the stubborn, sticky tape of years past and akin to an explorer on the verge of a great discovery, I unwrapped the “silver serving platters, bowls, coffee pots, creamer, sugar bowls, special tea cups and wine glasses.”As a bittersweet little addition, my three-year-old daughter, Laura, named after a grandma she did not have the privilege of meeting, shared in holding the delicate treasures of my two mom-boxes. We “wowed” and “oooo’d” together, and when the adventure lost its appeal, as it always will for a three-year-old, I cried a little on my husband’s chest. The tears for me are sometimes a necessary byproduct of unwrapping sadness from unanswered questions; “Mom did you pick the China out?” “How do I polish this silver?” “What kind of dessert can I put in those wine glasses?” Along with the sadness of the questions was the notion that my Mom didn’t have a long enough opportunity to use her silver serving platters, bowls, coffee pots, creamers, sugar bowls, special tea cups and wine glasses—at least in my human opinion.

After I safely placed each item of my Mom’s into my hutch and my tears subsided, I was able to reap the rewards of unpacking another mom-box. One more part of me has been released. And with its release, the sadness of what could or should have been is no longer important. I know this to be true because not even an hour after the last Noritake tea cup and saucer was proudly set out for display; I was overcome by a feeling of peace.

With peace, gratitude followed shortly behind. After all, I may still have questions about how the Noritake China came to be in my Mom’s possession or the fundamentals of silver polishing, but although my Mom can’t answer them … there are those who will; and they will be happy to do it. In fact, for some, to answer these questions might be a means of unpacking a few boxes of their own. Call me an idealist, a dreamer, or sentimentalist—I’ll gladly respond to each. I believe in the power of sharing experience in the healing process. Come share with me! Cheers to an exciting, fun-filled road to unpacking!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


“Thank you, God, for a good day
and for another chance at life,”
Pastor Flak begins
our weekly prayer together.
those words say a lot to me,
particularly the phrase
“another chance at life.”

everyone should give thanks
for getting another chance
to watch the dawn,
to spend time with people we love,
to breathe in fresh air,
to smell good food cooking,
to hear beautiful music,
to learn something new,
to feel happy, sad, angry, proud, excited,
and simply to live.
But usually we don’t thank God
or anyone else
for the patterns of our lives.
If we are happy,
it is due to luck
or our intelligence
or hard work.
We take for granted
almost everything good
that touches our lives
because we are far too busy
to stop and contemplate
the incredible wonder of life.

It’s funny how you change your tune
when you know your days are numbered.
Life, as you have come to know it,
comes to a screeching halt
and you look at all
the ordinary things around you
(things you took for granted)
in a completely different way.
At least
that is what I did.

Oh, the foolish games
people invent
to delude themselves
that their earthly bodies
will never wear out or malfunction!
All creatures on earth are mortal.
Short lives or long,
all creatures die –
even human beings.
Yet, we choose not to think about it
and spend enormous sums of money
as well as time
trying to evade old age and death.

For me
the way I went about cheating death
and the aging process
was by taking daily aerobic classes,
eating nutritious food,
staying out of the sun,
and just talking about it.
I thought I could avoid the inevitable
by using these clever evasive tactics.
I mean,
I KNEW I would die some day
but I lived my life
as if I would live forever.
I took the ordinary, day-to-day activities
of my life
totally for granted.
I believed myself to be
reasonably conscious
of how precious
the gift of life is.
I loved my family,
living in beautiful Northern California,
and my upper middle class lifestyle.
But I never REALLY appreciated
how delicately balanced
our lifetimes are.

Threats to our fragile existence
come in many ugly forms:
cataclysms (floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc.),
and, of course, disease.
With the exception of suicide,
none of us knows
exactly when we are going to die
yet we continue to put off
saying or doing the things
that can wait until “later.”

There are also people
at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Instead of facing life
in a blasé fashion,
they become crippled and immobilized
by the fear they are going to die
and try to protect themselves
by withdrawing
from this dangerous world.
At different times
I have waited until “later”
and also have withdrawn from a scary world.
Neither policy worked.

Then I was given
“another chance at life.”
Each day
since I heard I was dying
much sooner than I’d planned,
I have thought about
what it means to be alive.
The first several months
after hearing the devastating news,
I gathered together
everything I cherished
and clung to it
in a state of icy panic.

All the people,
the philosophical ideas,
and the plans for the future
which made up my life until then
were threatened with extinction
because I wouldn’t be around to keep them alive.
The end of me
and of all the things I loved
scared me in a way
I’d never experienced before.
My focus turned radically inward
To my little made-up world.
Although I didn’t know it then,
I’d already received the gift
and was using it.
My almost obsessive attention
to every detail of my kids’
appearance and behavior
and my suddenly keen eyesight
for the beauty of the world around me
were the beginnings
of my recognition of life’s value.
All of my senses
were alerted to the threat
of nonexistence.
For whatever time was left to me
I planned to absorb life
like a sponge.
I was going to appreciate life
if it was the last thing I did!

Over time
my tenacious grip
on the little world
I had created and adored
began to relax.
Instead of trying to shield my world
from inevitable change,
I began to treasure each special moment
that came my way
then let it go.

When Flak and I thank God each week
for “another chance at life,”
it reminds me
how lucky I was that day
to watch the dawn,
to spend time with people we love,
to breathe in fresh air,
to smell good food cooking,
to hear beautiful music,
to learn something new,
and to feel happy, sad, angry, proud
and excited.
Even in my weakened condition,
I love being alive
and I consider myself privileged
to keep getting so many chances
to start living all over again
every single day.

I don’t think that my experience
will influence others
to live their lives differently.
It isn’t my intention
to convince people
they should wake up
and start appreciating life.
Unless a person is
challenged by circumstances
--like I was--
nothing I or anyone else could say
would alter that person’s
value structure.
The sad irony is
that it often takes
a “lucky break”
like I had by becoming ill
in order to truly appreciate
life’s simple pleasures.
I hope you are as lucky as I have been
to have some time
to reorder your priorities.

Having another chance at life
requires time.
I wish it for you.

By Laura Schiller
February 1987