It happened years ago but I still remember it vividly. In a training for foster parents, I was given this exercise: “Think of the 10 things in this world you value most, which are most important in your life. Write them down in a list with the most important thing first, the least important thing last.”
Wow! How do you reduce the most important things in your life to a list of 10 things? First was easy: my spouse of many years, of course. Oops, “no people, just things,” the leader repeated. Easy, I thought. I’m not attached to things; people are what matter to me.
But wait. There was our family dining table, site of so many happy, sad, memorable gatherings. Such memories that table holds; surely it should go near the top of the list.
What about my mom’s wedding ring? She died many years ago, much too early in my life. Her ring is a precious memory.
And what about the children? The carefully drawn kindergarten greeting cards: “Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy. To the best mother in the world! I love you so-o-o much! Hugs and kisses!” All appropriately decorated with stick figures and hearts. My list grew.
The room was quiet. The other trainees and I toiled over this exercise. We were finding more than 10 things of value, things irreplaceable in our lives. Soon we were eliminating items that did not make our top ten.
Finally, our lists complete, we paused. I was eager to share my list and learn what was of value to my colleagues. But that was not the point of the exercise. “Now,” said our leader. “I want you to eliminate the least important item from your list, probably your tenth item, but you can choose any one item. However, it is gone for good. It can no longer be part of your life.” Ouch, reluctantly I selected an item from the most distant past. Immediate relationships were more important, I decided.
The next direction I had already anticipated: “Now eliminate another item from your list. It will be gone forever from your life.”
On we went. Reluctantly I gave up all mementos of my own parents and other relatives. My extended family was a big part of my life, and I felt alone and abandoned without them. We were down to three items, and all of us participants were decidedly uncomfortable. We were taking this exercise seriously.
I was left with a photo of our entire family; the precious kindergarten holiday and birthday cards; and my wedding ring. I gave up the wedding ring, feeling that our marriage would endure on its own and did not require a symbol. Then the cards from the children were gone. There would be no more reminders of those beautiful, creative, loving five-year-olds. Last of all—I had no choice—went the photo of our family. I could remember them, of course. I had no need of mementos.
Or did I? I felt alone. And lost. I who never succumbed to depression felt depressed. The room was quiet.
“This is how it feels to lose everything,” said our leader. “This is how a foster child feels every day.”
Mary Jane Kenny is the stay-at-home mother of 12, four of whom are adopted, and the foster parent of many more. She is the author of eight books and is a CPA as well. She has been married to blogger Jim Kenny for 59 years.