What I Want You to Know About the Gift of Subtraction

“What is he into these days?”

That has been one of the most common questions I have heard from friends and family members since your mom died. Very seldom are they asking out of mere curiosity. They want to get you something. Anything to spoil you a bit and take your mind off your loss.

It makes total sense. When we see a hole in something we care about, our instinct is to fix it. And when we can’t fix it, we fill it. A Spider-Man toy is no replacement for your mom, but if it gives you a few moments of joy that takes your mind off the pain you feel, why not get it for you? Same with this Lego set and that stuffed animal and this video game and that jigsaw puzzle.

And you know who is the biggest offender? Of course you do. You talked him into another Lego set today when I took you to Target.

Let me tell you something about your mom. When she was midway through cancer treatment the first time around—she had gone through one set of chemo treatments and surgery and was gearing up for another round of chemo followed radiation—the thing that stressed her out more than anything else was the clutter in our condo. And the main source of that clutter, at least in her mind, were the Legos you had begun to accumulate from loved ones wanting to spoil you during that hard time. You had maybe six or seven sets that you had disassembled and partially reassembled as your imagination took hold and you worked out new ways to construct the world around you.

One small source of shame I carry with me in the wake of your mom’s death is the knowledge that our house and, in particular, your room would drive her completely nuts. If she thought six or seven Lego sets were bad, well, I’m not sure what it would do to her to see the five bins of Legos stacked up in your closet.

Now, the house isn’t that bad, and I’m not a hoarder, not in any clinical sense, at least. I don’t accumulate things out of attachment to them or the memories they hold. But I can be lazy and indecisive, and I struggle to find the time and energy to clean and sort and purge. So, without your mom here to regularly toss and donate things, they tend to pile up.

And so, our house fills up. From love. From generosity. From kindness. I am grateful for that. We have a lot of hole-fillers (who wish they could be hole-fixers) wanting to do what they can to help us both out. Our house is full because our lives are full of good people. What a good problem to have.

Your grandparents came to visit us and help you out this week as you head back to school. You were supposed to have an after-school care program this year, but that has been delayed due to the rise in Covid-19 cases across the country. Your grandparents, in their boundless generosity, changed their plans on short notice and drove across a couple states to spend some time helping us out.

In addition to watching you in the afternoons, one of the tasks your grandma has taken on is cleaning out your room. She has helped us go through clothes you’ve outgrown. She has come up with organizational ideas to help us keep the clutter to a minimum going forward. She even helped you pick out some of your toys and games to donate to clear out room for new ones that are sure to follow. She has found a few of the areas of the house where my own clutter has accumulated, and she’s working with me to clear those out, too.

Meanwhile, your grandpa has cleared out the outside clutter. He has picked up the leaves covering our driveway. He has pulled weeds from the yard. He has been thinking of ways to fix the areas in our lawn that have begun to brown. And he has taken Ozzy out on walks to take a daily responsibility off my plate.

Your grandparents are not the only ones who have helped us by taking things away. Friends and family have traveled here and made us meals, taken you on outings, and even landscaped the backyard. Your aunt helped clean out your mom’s dresser and go through some of her clothes, a task I could never bring myself to tackle. My friends have bought us DoorDash gift cards and Instacart subscriptions to take away some of the daily tasks that fill my day. A very kind friend, who was my supervisor not so long ago before she retired early, comes over every few weeks to play with you so I can have a few hours away to run errands or write. My current supervisor frequently takes on additional work so that I can have a modified schedule that lets me drop you off and pick you up every day. These are just a few of the kind ways people have taken things away from us, in the best sense of the phrase.

So, like your mom, I am learning to love the gift of subtraction. Whether that means decluttering a room, removing a responsibility, or just unburdening the load through a good conversation.

I could go on, I really could. But you know what they say. Less is more.

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