The last two months have been a tidal wave of housecleaning. Literally. On April 27th, the first house I ever owned, 3300 square feet which my ex-husband and I chose 13 years ago as the place we would raise a family, the home where both of my children were born, became the property of another family. Then on May 11th, my mother’s house was sold, leaving another empty space in what I had always envisioned of my life plan. These two transitions felt like major losses and big changes on one hand. But on the other hand, they each brought unexpected moments of peace and triumph.
Our family home went not just to a mom and dad and two little kids, but also to a church family. A nearby Presbyterian congregation purchased it to use as a parsonage. This fact brought such calm to my heart because it was an assurance that there would finally be a whole village of people– an entire community– to repair all that had been broken. A new group had come to fix up a place I had loved but hadn’t been able to care for. The broken windows, the cracked stair spindles, the doors off hinges (mostly the result of my son’s rages) would be replaced, repainted, remodeled. For nearly a year, every time I had come back into that house, I felt the pain and loneliness sting. It was as if the house itself was a child I had once loved but abandoned. When I looked at bits of peeling wallpaper I had long since given up on smoothing over, part of me remembered gently taping and cleaning and making better little parts of this house the way a mother washes a scraped knee, puts on a bandaid and makes everything better with a kiss. Even Aubrey felt it the first time she came there with me. She said she understood why I cried about it and why it was so hard, but that cleaning it out and selling it would be like opening up a wound to wash it out. At first it would feel really raw, but in time– and soon– the wound would heal and it wouldn’t hurt so much.
For months I tried to sort through the things left in that house. As much as I tried, I could never bring myself to organize a plan to clean it out completely. I just couldn’t face the ghosts in that home because I had nothing to tell them. And I didn’t know how to explain my departure and close it up.
The week before settlement, Aubrey and her family helped me move key pieces of furniture to storage. Then the day before it sold, Dan and I brought a truck to get the rest. It took hours more than I expected. Everything was heavier than I had anticipated. We worked from 9 AM until 11 PM and were not even finished. Throughout that hard day, I wracked my brain trying to figure out how to get closure, how to transition the house and myself in a way that felt good. I felt much the same way about getting closure with this home as I had about writing my mother’s eulogy– I had one chance, it was going to be a challenge, but I would never be able to take a do-over on this one. If I wanted to do it in a way I felt proud about, I had to do it now.
Feeling depleted and out of tears, the morning of settlement very early I went back to take a car load of donations to the thrift shop and say goodbye. I vacuumed each room for the last time, closing the doors as I went along. Then I loaded the car and went back inside. I decided to honor the house by saying a prayer in each room, much the way my mother and her friends had done for a house blessing years before. But this time I added a new twist. Stepping through each doorway, I recounted all the things I felt grateful for in that room. And then I asked the universe for special protections for the new family. I don’t remember my exact words, but the gist of this prayer of passage is below:
Thank you for this space you helped me find & create
Thank you for the fun we had here, for the chance to see my kids learn to walk in this home,
for the meals made in the kitchen, for the holiday celebrations.
Thank you for the doors that welcomed so many people, for the nooks & hiding places my kids explored.
Thank you for that feeling of calm & shelter when the weather was bad or the night was too long.
Please, Lord, bring the new family joy as deep as that in this house.
And God, please, please no mean words in this house.
Protect the new family from conflicts that have no resolution, keep them safe from harm,
strengthen the walls, the windows & the doors so that they may not break or slam.
When they feel sad, bring them comfort.
When they feel angry, let this home become a soothing place that calms them.
Make this house a place where love & respect & peace & tranquility can live.
And no matter what, through everything that may happen in their lives,
please help them to know
they will always be protected and loved.
I cried through it all, I repeated myself and stumbled over almost every word. I must have sounded like a blubbering idiot, talking to the house as if it were alive, reassuring it that this change was good and things would get better. Even from a clinical perspective, I still haven’t figured out what all of that was really about, or how it helped. But it did. When I left, I walked out the door for the last time feeling like I had accomplished the task I set my mind to. I left flowers in a pot on the foyer table, with a note for the new owners which read:
“We tried our best to clean everything, but we know we missed some things (hence the clean out service). The last few years were rough for our family, and many things kinda fell apart on us– including this house. But before that hard time, this home was a place full of laughter & joy. We hosted family celebrations, huge Christmas tree trimming parties and ‘drive-in’ movies in the back yard, and the house was always filled with people. We hope that you find as much joy here as we once did.”
I felt tired and run-over as I followed Dan back to the truck rental place, thinking about the overwhelming number of boxes I had just added to my new garage. As we drove back to our neighborhood, Dan remembered the letters from Alex’s bedroom door. I dropped him off and went back to get them.
When I knocked on the door– on my own front door which wasn’t mine anymore– another mom who looked as familiar as family opened it and invited me in. She was kind and soft-spoken. Her son (age 4) and daughter (age 2) played around her as we talked, giggling and running around in circles from the foyer to the breakfast room to the kitchen over and over like my kids used to do. She told me my note really touched her. She invited me to talk about the house. And she listened. When I couldn’t hold back my emotions and the tears welled up, I told her about my prayer and she offered a hug, which I accepted. Finally, I realized the closure. It hadn’t come through an ending, but rather through a new beginning– which in this house was hers, not mine. The new mother in my old house allowed me to share in her beginning, helping me sense the security I needed for a transition much too big for words or rituals. And the second time I said goodbye to that house, holding A-L-E-X in my hands, I finally felt the healing begin.