Surprise Party

“I want to go in there,” she said.

This has become a familiar phrase over the years, and when it’s stated, I know that something that its original owner has long forgotten is going to be in her hands.

It’s always the same smell—the opposite of new car scent. Everything assaults the senses at the door for me. When I first started to frequent second-hand shops with her, I always said,

“I’m looking at dead people’s stuff.”

I just couldn’t get past the idea that those 1970 avocado green coffee cups had once graced Aunt Myrtle’s kitchen counter. Or Olga’s mustard yellow crockpot had seen its final potluck when the grim reaper showed up, halting all the fun. I easily could put faces and names to all the merchandise.

The dusty burgundy brandy glasses had seen Helen’s last toast, and that super ugly lamp in the corner had gone dark after many days of illuminating the room so Fred could read the evening newspaper. Uncle Bud’s collection of beer bottle caps testify to the world that he liked to drink in excess while his team lost, and the ax leaning against the wall that once had given George calloused hands as he chopped wood is on clearance.

The ladle that great-grandma Beatrice used every Thanksgiving for her thick, bland gravy is up for grabs alongside cousin Lucille’s flour sifter and canister set with the yellow daffodils. Who could pass up on Sir Edward the Third’s favorite smoking jacket and Philip’s baseball cards that he had gotten with his first pack of gum? And then there’s the hatpin Betsy fastened neatly before her monthly book club meeting and Richard’s flashing neon man cave signs that have a bit of mid-life crisis attached to them.

I could go on, but besides envisioning the dearly departed, I could only think of one word: hoarding.

And there’s always these extra rooms and signs with arrows pointing to another secret passage that say: more, more, more!

In almost every visit, I have gone into lower levels where it seems like you are intruding into someone’s basement that got stuck in a time machine. Like a dungeon with concrete walls all around. It doesn’t help when you say to yourself,

“This feels like I am descending into hell.”

And the person who placed items for purchase thought it was a great idea to put all the rubber masks right at the bottom of the creaky stairs. So you are greeted by eyeless sockets.

She always gravitates toward the toy section because this is why we are there in the first place. As a successful creator on YouTube, she searches for more props to utilize in future videos. She is also highly skilled at resurrecting the dead through hair restoration and giving new meaning to dolls long fallen by the wayside. Once it’s in her possession, she will provide it with the best home and a life’s purpose.

I try to preoccupy myself with browsing through the items I once owned as a child and now are considered “vintage”. That sounds nicer than ancient.

How reckless were adults to give us real wooden objects to build with and risk getting a sliver? Or paint that contained unknown ingredients had we eaten possibly could have caused severe side effects? We lived on the edge then, I guess.

I have gotten more comfortable as time has rolled by. I try to block out the idea of the deceased and see it as a warehouse for second chances. I still have to combat a lot of sensations, and if I get too overloaded in a space, I move on to another one. My first indication of needing to keep moving is dizziness and a bit of disorientation.

We recently visited a busy store, and I struggled with feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff. As my daughters and I rounded a corner, she appeared with the most dazzling smile.

“Aren’t you girls finding anything fun?”

“Not yet,” I said.

She was beaming.

“There is a lot of good things in here. I was the owner, but I sold the place to my son. I’m 87 years old, and it was time. He has taken over and done way beyond what I did, and I am very proud of him.”

“You do not look your age at all,” I said.

“You are in the will!” She quickly replied.

“What do I get? All of this?” I said, sweeping my hand around as they do on game shows over all the prizes.

She threw her head back and laughed.

“Do you know what keeps me going?”

“No.”

“Fireball whiskey. I was given a huge jug of it, and it was so big it had a handle on it.”

“Did you get through the entire thing?”

“Of course I did!” More radiance.

I don’t recall how we got around to guessing my age, but she put me back into my 40s. She was close, but not quite. She went on to guess the ages of my girls. She couldn’t talk enough about her family living abroad in various countries.

“Would you ever go see them?”

“I don’t want to travel alone.”

Her husband had passed on.

“He had the best sense of humor. We got along so well, and it’s important to laugh in life.”

“And drink whiskey.”

“You are definitely in the will!”

Surprisingly, we left without a purchase, but then hours later, my daughter regretted not listening to her inward leading toward a particular doll.

“I can go back with you tomorrow.”

“I hope it will still be there.”

This is the one who always gives me the “look” when I am at a cross-road decision on something, and she knows I am supposed to have it.

“Angels are guarding it. God will make sure you have it.”

The next day was much quieter and calmer. Her prized possession was still waiting on the shelf, and she decided that there were some others worth looking at in locked cases.

While she stood by what she needed to view, I went to the desk where a woman was pricing merchandise.

“Can I help you?”

“I need key 21 to unlock a case.”

She turned and spoke to a man who I recognized from the night before.

“If you get me the key, I can help them,” he said.

When he came over to us, I asked,

“I met the former owner last night. Are you the son who took over?”

He laughed.

“I am not her son, but I did buy it from her at the beginning of the year. She always refers to me as her son, and it’s so nice of her to do that.”

She was a sharp person, so it wasn’t a case of dementia. She truly counted him as her child.

“I am in her will now,” I said.

“Get in line. She says that to everyone.”

“She had nothing but good things to say about you. You took what she started and are making it even better.”

He pointed to a poster on the wall. The business had earned one of this year’s Best Awards, meaning it was voted as a number one place to visit in the area.

“I did that already, and we aren’t slowing down.”

With both cases laid out on the counter, my daughter began looking through the piles of clothes and accessories. The lady who had been marking items now was watching.

“She restores things,” I said.

“I do too. I redesign old clothing. I have a big room I work in at home, and it passes the time since my husband isn’t around anymore.”

I saw a man standing behind her with his hand on her left shoulder.

“My husband Barry died eight years ago.”

“You know he is standing right next to you. You can feel that, right?”

It’s getting harder lately not to let it be said, and the words seem to fly out of my mouth before I know they are going to.

“Oh, yes! Right here,” she said, pointing to the spot where I could see him. You can’t spend that much time with a person and have them just disappear forever.”

“You are right. I’m glad you know it.”

“He was diagnosed with throat cancer, and we were told that it would be easily cured. Well, it wasn’t. It was a big shock when he passed on. But his alarm clock went off every morning when he used to get up for work. Even if I turned it off, it would wake me up the next morning. He has never left me.”

I know she misses him, but she also seemed very peaceful about it. I guess she has come to accept what is, but the feeling that he is near also is helpful.

God just keeps showing me more as I ask for it. There’s a scripture that says in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57:

O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”(ESV)

I can say that when you know that someone has advanced on and they are at peace, it makes grieving easier. You miss them, but like in this woman’s case, she can still sense him around. I keep having similar experiences.

The night before my birthday last summer, I was in a store by the bakery waiting with my daughter. She was having the worker write a message on a cake. When it was handed off to her, this older woman came out of nowhere, leaned in, and read it out loud to me with much emphasis:

“Happy 53rd Birthday, mom!”

Like loud, like my mom would have. And her body language and clothing were in full mother mode. Then she disappeared into the masses.

The next day, on my birthday, while I was standing outside a building looking at flowers, a man walked right up behind me and started singing Happy Birthday at the top of his lungs in this super booming low voice. He sang it all the way to his car. About a week before that, I had said,

“Mom, I want you to sing Happy Birthday to me.”

I had forgotten I had requested it until he was yelling it practically into my hair!

While driving home that day, I recalled that we would see my grandparents on some of my birthdays in North Dakota. They always saved one firework for me.

In Minnesota, the powers that be don’t think we can handle it, so it’s illegal. But not there. Apparently, the residents have better eye-hand coordination in that state.

I told my girls that I always had one bottle rocket or something sent skyward to commemorate another year.

Later, after I got home, I thought I heard a muffled pop. This was way past the 4th. I went out the front door to see the biggest explosion of color rain down over my house. That was it—just one.

“Thanks, mom,” I said, going back in.

I think we have put the afterlife into a confined space to make it more acceptable. Many people have a low-level fear that keeps them from seeing clearly, and then the sadness of grief gets piled on.

The preoccupation with loss blocks some vital heavenly signs from being seen or heard. And, while it seems like something has been taken, it has been transformed into better. That doesn’t mean there won’t be tears, but there also can be laughter which is just as healing. And those who have walked through the door, we all will someday, wish us joy.

I have gotten used to not being able to explain anything, and the more I allow it, God keeps sending extra my way.

I can’t say I’m okay with all of it at times, especially if it’s something really extraordinary and out there, but I have decided to do this from Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight. (NIV)

It is a little scary to live like this, casting yourself totally into the care of heaven. But it also is so fun at times that I can’t imagine living without it. It sets you apart from the trivial cares and traps that are easily laid before us.

It helps you understand and see everything at a higher level of existence so you can drop away from those things that really don’t matter.

In some ways, it’s like being the unsuspecting victim of something good happening. Like when all your friends decide to secretly plan something that you will be the center of attention. You walk into a room expecting one thing, and then they all jump out of hiding. It takes the mind a minute to accept it, but then you realize this has been done for you. Once the shock wears off, you see it for what it really is.

You never know where God will show up next, who you will cross paths with, and how you will be spiritually awakened further by the next surprise party.

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