93: Trash or Treasures

93: Trash or Treasures

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Trash or Treasures

Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.

~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

Shortly after Brent was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I awoke one morning and trudged down the steps as I tried to muster the energy to face a new day. I walked into Brent’s room and found him weeping at his desk. Before him was a small clay figure of a dog missing an ear made by our granddaughter, Kalin, 17 years ago; a gray dinosaur eraser (once green) that his daughter, Midge, had given him more than 45 years ago; a photo of him and his son, Jay, on a boat in Brazil with their arms around each other and a look of adoration that few are able to obtain; a photo of him and me shortly after our wedding; a picture of our five grandchildren; and an ordinary plastic container that had been kept in our safe for 15 years to ensure its protection. He was carefully holding each piece as though it were the most precious item in the world.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m gathering up the items I want buried with me while I can still remember what I want,” he solemnly responded.

“I promise, you’ll be buried with them,” I said, as the tears rolled down my cheeks.

Every day, I sit at my desk and stare at the safe. It’s impossible to ignore considering it weighs more than 400 pounds and takes up all the legroom where I am sitting. I maneuver my legs astride the monstrosity to log onto my computer, pay bills, sew, read, or just think, in what I consider to be my sanctuary. As I hear the light trickle of the fountain that sits at the end of the couch, I inevitably begin the first of many attempts to open the safe; I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Left four, right three, left again, and then I cross my fingers as I slowly turn the knob to the right and hope for an audible “click.” I grin as I grasp the handle and open the cavernous vault.

I look past the jewelry, passports, birth certificates, and legal documents. My eyes focus on a small blue plastic box containing Brent’s partial dentures. I remove it from the safety of its home and gently cradle it in my hands. My body is filled with admiration, and I remember how unique, special, and unconventional my husband was. I smile and a warm glow fills me, as though I have been touched by the heavens and recall just how extraordinary and wonderful he was. We called him BIG, for his initials, and he was indeed BIG-ger than life.

Many have said, “Why didn’t you throw his teeth away? That’s disgusting!”

I simply respond, “My husband’s wish was to be buried with his mother’s teeth, so how can I throw his out?”

Fifteen years ago, after his mother passed away, I came home from cleaning out her room at the nursing home. I agonizingly made piles of trash and keepsakes. The first item in the trash pile was her dentures. Upon seeing this, my husband yelled, “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t throw those away!”

My rational response was: “Why not? It’s not like she needs them. What are we supposed to do with them?”

Without hesitation, Brent said, “Put them in the safe so I can get buried with them.”

I doubled over, laughing hysterically, and tears rolled down my cheeks as I tried to catch my breath. “I’m just glad she didn’t have an IUD!” But I did as he requested and put them in the safe where they remained for 13 years.

The day after Brent passed away, I unlocked the safe and carefully bundled the precious items he had chosen to be buried with. I drove to the funeral home to make the final arrangements. Documents were signed, flowers chosen, and Jewish traditional preparations were made: the Chevra Kaddisha to cleanse and wrap him in a burial shroud, the Shemira that would sit with him the days preceding the funeral, and Shiva (which I adamantly refused to do). After all the decisions were made, Mr. Stein solemnly asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“There is one other thing,” I responded. I placed on his desk the precious bundle: a rubber dinosaur trinket, a small clay figure of a dog’s face minus an ear, a picture of him and his son, a picture of him and me, a picture of all five grandchildren, and the small blue plastic container.

As he scrutinized the items laid out before him, his eyes immediately went to the denture box and he said, “I will have the Chevra Kaddisha put his teeth in.”

“That won’t be necessary. These are his mother’s teeth, and they’re to be placed along with the other things next to his heart. His partial dentures are in the safe at home and will be buried with me. And I would like Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ played throughout the service.”

At his funeral, hundreds of friends, some who went back more than 65 years, stood in line outside the funeral home in subzero temperatures to say goodbye to BIG. One remarked, “He was the original Fonz at our high school in the fifties before there ever was a Fonz on TV.”

Fifteen years before Brent died, I couldn’t fathom why keeping his mother’s teeth was so important to him. But now I can. I am able to cradle the priceless blue box in my hands and feel blessed.

An ordinary plastic container holding his dentures would be trash to most, but to me they are the most valuable item in the safe. They are a constant reminder of just how special, and unconventional Brent Irl Greenberg was.

I am able to smile knowing that I could carry out BIG’s final wishes—to die in my arms at home where he felt safe and loved, and, yes, to be buried with his mother’s teeth.

~Robin Greenberg

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