By Emily Zell
Cancer, cancer, cancer. It’s been living with me for the past year. It returned after 8 years of clean scans. Having been given a 1% chance for recurrence, I was shocked.
Surrounded by five close friends, I waited for the call giving me the result of the biopsy. I was frightened and then easily handed over the worry to my friends who absorbed the shock for me. My daughter, Lexi, her dad, Don, and Lexi’s partner, Sean, arrived soon after. Don brought cookies, Sean a doorbell to be installed and Lexi carried flowers and some silly things to cheer me up.
The reality didn’t sink in for a few days as I vacillated from being numb to being super cheerful. The days stretched out full of more tests and doctor appointments. My friends and family took turns accompanying me.
After the scans and chemo treatments were scheduled, I scheduled some other things. I looked around my house, especially my office and its closets and my desk drawer. All I imagined was my sister, ZiZi, sorting through everything to find passwords, contact information of friends and important papers. Even if I was only incapacitated and not already gone, I couldn’t bear the thought of her frustration, trying to figure out my filing system or my touchy garage door when it went up and down and wouldn’t stay at one elevation!
First thing on my list was re-organizing for my eventual demise, with a little room for doing something that brought pleasure to me: tackling my art studio. It was covered with unfinished and finished projects. I hadn’t minded because all the color made me smile when I passed it on the way to the laundry room. But I discovered that beginning to order the studio gave me room to work again without having to put things on the floor.
Next, I met with my attorney to be sure my will was in good shape. I already did that on an annual basis, so there wasn’t much to update. Then I typed out the pages of passwords and account numbers and ids for water, cable, garbage, Netflix, my Medicare and Kaiser accounts–and all the other accounts and passwords that have seemed to accumulate since the internet has become an insistent part of our lives.
As I worked, I added more and more categories of what needed to be organized. I cleaned and thinned out both office closets and the desk drawer. I ran stacks of an unnecessary accumulation of paper through the shredder after cleaning out my filing cabinet. I filled up the recycling bin many times and started to put in the garage things to give. Then there was a list of repairs, such as a water damaged spot in the living room wall and a window that needed to be replaced. I couldn’t deal with the idea of not having the house in order.
As I engaged in all this organizing, I thought less about my cancer. The organizing took me away from cancer and into my life.
Several weeks before the re-diagnosis, I had ordered an additional 4 place settings of my stainless flatware, which arrived just in time for my diagnosis. This prompted me to start thinking about who would take all this perfectly usable stuff in my house after I was gone.
My grandmother, Lucile McKay Kelly, 1887 – 1988, left a three-inch binder with every silver serving piece, china and sterling flatware set, painting, garden sculpture, and piece of furniture, along with to whom it would be given. There were also notations indicating a back-up recipient, in the case that the first recipient did not want the item or was no longer around. Guess I received my organizational skills from my grandmother!
For the last twenty years, I have been the keeper of my grandmother’s binder, and I began to study its organization in order to prepare my own binder. I was always impressed how Gramma gave a brief history of many items telling when and where she acquired them. I didn’t want all my history to be lost either.
It took about four months to move through my house, getting everything in order:
- Neighbor’s keys and who they belong to – photos of such keys
- Photo and operation of garage door and the sponge that keeps the electric eye from coming out of alignment
- A written description of quirks about the house
- A description of every item of furniture or piece of jewelry and how I ended up being its custodian
- List of friends and family with email addresses and phone numbers, in groups of “in town,” “out of town,” ”neighbors,” “close friends in town,” “close friends out of town,”“repair people I have used,” “house cleaner, etc
- Envelope for my sister, ZiZi, with all things business related
- Once I’d finished all of this, I was feeling pretty set. Then I opened the drawer in my dining room chest and realized that I needed to get some organization into that as well. The seven drawers’ ingredients included camera equipment, junk, too many tablecloths and placemats that I rarely used. (My orange placemats are my favorite and I am always drawn to them.)
I called friends Toni and Ramsey’s oldest daughter, Erika, who according to her mom, is a whiz at cleaning out and organizing.
Together, we began to bring order to my dining room chest — including painting it — then to my bookshelves and the many stacks of books around the house. It took hours to reorganize the books I could not part with. Next: my sewing room. Erika opened up the armoire where the yarn and fabric stash lived. For those of you who do not know what a stash of yarn and fabric may entail, it can be massive. I didn’t consider mine to be in that category; nonetheless, there was hardly any free space on the three shelves.
Erika helped me sort through all the yarn and fabric. The armoire is now clean and I can see everything easily. Erika and I also sorted all the fabric, which left me with two stacks I will use for a “Day of the Dead” quilt I will sew. It has been in the works for seven years.
(Click on images to view captions.)
We also organized and sorted give-a-way piles of clothes and other items, which had lined the walls of the sewing room. Once we were finished, I could walk easily–and even roll out my yoga mat, there was now so much space. The room was empty.
Or maybe it just felt that way.
The next morning, I came downstairs to survey my cleaned sewing room. On the sewing table, rather than piles of fabric and mending, only the machine was visible. There was plenty of room to sew now. I opened the cupboard and viewed the few stacks of projects I had chosen to finish. Then I went back upstairs.
I felt empty. Somehow the rooms full of stuff had been comforting. I sat down at my clean desk and paid bills and wrote several letters. Then I wandered back downstairs. I pulled out one of the mending projects to finish. In 20 minutes, I had altered the waistband on a pair of pants, adding fresh elastic. It felt pretty great getting that out of the way.
The thread was at my fingertips and the instruction book for the rethreading of the machine was within arm’s reach. I no longer had to dig through the armoir for what I needed.
Feeling encouraged, I pulled out the largest project, which was a quilt I began in 2008. It was almost complete; I just had to bind it. The quilt was for a double bed, but I had never had enough room to lay it out so that I could pin it. Now I did. With confidence, I spread the quilt onto the tile floor and worked my way around it with my pin cushion. Less than an hour later, I had changed the thread color in the machine and was ready to proceed. The quilt was bound before lunch.
Later, while enjoying avocado toast, I realized that I had made room in my life for all my creativity. I was surprised that I was no longer organizing for my demise, but so that I could live.
Update: My prognosis is pretty good. I am off chemo and on a pill-a-day regime. In the meantime. I am living!
Emily Zell was born and raised in Portland. She graduated, in Education, from Portland State University, in 1971. She migrated to the Bay Area in 1977, raised two daughters and taught elementary school. Among other things, she works in her art studio, is a history docent for the Oakland Museum of California and writes a blog called Zellously, all about living!
Editor’s note: Emily is the older sister of my wife’s longtime friend, Alexandra, aka Zizi. Lori’s connections have led to my own, such as teaming up with ZiZi’s partner, Brian, on a coed bowling team. It was at a milestone birthday party for Brian that I met Emily and took an instant liking to her. Last year, she made her debut on Rough and Rede II as a guest blogger.
Tomorrow: Andrea Cano, When four corners are really five