Yesterday, Sean and I began a top-to-bottom decluttering that lasted four hours and involved me bursting into body-wracking tears once, maybe twice. The girls were uncharacteristically compliant, alternating between quietly organizing corners of their rooms and working with heads touching to craft new LEGO structures. The kittens gleefully scampered through closets and under beds as we tossed things into donate, discuss and delay piles.
It happens every December: I find myself pretzeled in frustration over our collective clutter, and I don't just mean the things, I mean the ways. The breakneck, just-get-through-today approach we adopt out of necessity. Mornings of packing lunches, followed by afternoons of racing to Karate or sewing and evenings of "You want to watch a show or do Seandry?" We frequently let the former win. Our closets resemble day old, ice carvings, right corners gone and the faces melting into the ground. The storage cabinets are as bloated as holiday bellies.
We were in our room working side-by-side. Every so often, Sean would say, "Can I look at that?" I quietly rolled a few baby teeth from the girls in my right hand. Somewhere along the way, I'd stopped cataloging which was whose, or even storing them in one place. It struck me as so odd that we keep teeth, but keep them we do, because of the many things I let go, those weren't one.
A sundress I'd been storing as a keep forever thing sat before me. I brought it to my face; wood chips and sunscreen still lingered in the weave of the fabric. Or was it actually the pattern that conjured the scent, conspiring with my mind and heart to drum up the smells of the playground? I ran my fingers along the hem and gently placed it in the giveaway pile.
"Babe, are you sure? Sean asked.
"Yep," I nodded in that overly-emphatic way that says that I am anything but fine. He walked over to me and placed his hand on my hip. I looked up at him, "I'm okay. I really am. There isn't a dress or a onesie or any bit of paper that can make it be that time again." I was numb with a mixture of emotion somewhere between despair and resignation.
I scanned the room, the doorway flanked with four bags of clothing, just past them in the hallway three more bags of trash sat. My chest felt hot and my throat was shaking. I imagined myself going through them one more time, just in case something had slipped into the bag by accident. I thought about Avery's purple cast that sits in a cabinet in the basement and of the doll house that we keep moving, but more and more isn't really a part of the girls' play.
I stayed rooted in my spot. He was waiting. I tucked my head under his chin and wept. I cried for the strawberry knit hat that I remember, but can't find. I sobbed for the way Finley's chin and neck would be wet with drool as she'd lean into kiss me, bonking her face on my shoulder. He rubbed my back and the nights of him whispering "I love you" into my belly came to life around us.
He scooped me up and held me in his arms. I let everything go until the tears soaked my face, neck and his shirt. I heard their little voices like a chorus -- the words they mispronounced, their throaty laughs, their infant growls. I let the memory of their hands on my skin as they nursed envelop me. Through the tears I felt the tell-tale heat in a onesie bottom, the tangy scent of a blowout and the piercing siren of a middle of the night cry.
The girls watched in the hallway, each accustomed to and fond of my penchant for crying, the current sister refrain being, "Has mom cried yet?" I gave a good sniffle and then squeezed Sean.
He smiled at me, "I know."
We kept working, uncovering more wall in the back of the closet than I realized existed. A couple of times we called the girls in to look at things. "See this sweater? All of you wore it. And this one here, the one with the A? We bought that one for Ave, so Briar, you never wore it, you were already too big." They inhaled it, not so much the artifacts, but the details we revealed from the years before memory.
It isn't my duty to store keepsakes for them to have when they move or when I am gone. I accept that their babyhood won't come again, that it wasn't ever supposed to be more than the brilliant, life-altering experience that it was. For each t-shirt I might stow, a "Do you remember when..." will last so much longer. The marrow of this life is sustained as we share the memories.