Three years ago, at age 59, I reinvented myself and got my real estate license, a significant shift from my previous career as a writer, but nevertheless, nearly everything about the work came naturally to me. I got action right away—listings, buyers, contracts. I became quickly immersed in the mechanics of moving, and often helped my clients with their transitions—calling the junk guy, dropping moving boxes off at their homes, and running to village hall to cover the transfer taxes. I understood the stresses of moving, and I made it a point to be a calming and helpful presence for my clients, whatever they needed.
Then, after my first year in the business, once my youngest had gone off to college, I decided the time was right to make a move of my own. But as it turned out, leaving my four-bedroom house of 20 years—where I raised my two kids as a single parent—was far harder than I could have imagined. It was only when I was waist-deep in a lifetime of personal artifacts myself I began to understand just what our clients may go through.
It’s not like I didn't prepare. I spent an entire year decluttering, digitizing old photos, donating boxes of tools, toys, books, clothing, and furniture, and making my house show ready. My plan was to sell, then move temporarily into a rental apartment until I found exactly the right next place. I’ll save for another article the hazards of being your own agent. (Spoiler: I was an impossible client.) But I listed, went under contract, got my price, and the buyers were delightful to work with.
As closing day that February drew near, I packed and sorted. A friend offered to come help, but I waved her off. I felt like I was on top of it—then was mortified to realize the night before moving day that I wasn't going to make it. I had done about 90% of the packing, but it was that last 10% that was the killer—all the nagging things I was having trouble making decisions about. In the kitchen a towering inbox of papers—receipts, invoices, school concert programs, Illinois Department of Transportation notices that I had missed a highway toll, unfilled prescriptions, handouts of physical therapy exercises.
Into the Night
On a basement shelf, a collection of my sons’ ceramics from 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. In the boys’ rooms, Candle and Flowercup—two floppy, black stuffed ponies each the size of a flaccid loveseat. In the garage, bottles of wiper fluid, cans of WD40, tomato cages, a splintered birdhouse my ex-husband had built for the boys, a Red Radio Flyer, bottles of RoundUp, a pair of borrowed ice skates, and all my grandmother's framed needlepoints I had hung in the garage to display them without having to have them in my living room. Wasn't it clever of me, years ago, to have turned my garage into a cross-stitch gallery? Maybe, but now it was 11 p.m.—the movers were coming at 9 a.m., and I had to decide the fate of those embroidered birds and flowers all over again.
My 21-year-old son showed up at the house sometime after midnight, after finishing a late shift. He was immensely helpful. ”What should I do now?" he kept saying, and I would give him another task that I needed a hand with. Together we took mirrors off walls and sheathed mattresses in plastic bags. I directed him to an under-bed storage bin that held 13 years of his school artwork and papers. He dumped all of it into the trash in the alley. It took my breath away. I reached into the garbage to retrieve a few pieces—incredibly precious pieces. "Oh honey, you can't throw that away!" I cried, fishing out a bandana that was signed by all his fifth-grade classmates, when they were promoted to middle school.
This stubborn streak of nostalgia had been slowing me down in these last days and hours. What to keep, what to get rid of? What goes with me, what goes into storage? The decisions were excruciating. We were up all night. Finally, at 6 a.m. I lay down and focused on my breathing. After an hour, I got up, showered, and resumed packing. My son and I were starving and wanted coffee but couldn't make any because the kettle was packed, and we couldn't run out to get any because we didn’t dare stop packing.
The movers arrived, propped open my front door, and carried things out while we continued to work in the now-freezing house. Sometime after noon a frigid rain started to fall—a Chicago February specialty—and the movers tracked the wet, grey slurry into the house on their boots. Geez, take off your shoes! I wanted to shout, but of course they couldn't take off their shoes.
The light was starting to fade by the time the trucks were packed up and ready to drive two miles to the rental apartment. My fingers ached from the cold, every nail was torn, and my cuticles were split and bloody from clawing at the rolls of packing tape. I was so tired I had stopped wanting coffee or food. We drove across town, and as I directed the movers around the apartment, I wanted nothing more than just to go back home, put on my jammie pants and turn on the TV—and then the realization hit me that I couldn't go home.
My TV wasn't there anymore, and neither were my jammie pants. It's hard to say this without sounding melodramatic, but I felt myself moving into a state of mourning. I was 14 when my father died; it was my first loss, a big one, and I'll always recall that shock of feeling of “Never.” Wait—I'm never going to see my father again? Never? As the movers bustled past me, I nursed a similar feeling: How could I never be in my home again? How could something that was so much a part of me now recede into Never? The place where my children's toddler handprints were pressed into the concrete? The place where I had cared for my ailing mother as she went into a protracted decline?
“Why am I doing this?” I kept thinking. Why did I decide to move? I loved my house. Why had I just yanked myself out of it by the roots?
And then, I started thinking about a number of people I had dealt with in the last couple of years of my new profession—people who'd seemed, well, a little inept to me: sellers who still hadn't packed when I showed up with my buyers for the final walkthrough. Buyers for whom house-hunting had triggered dormant regrets and recriminations, an angry divorcée, an older man wondering why his children weren’t helping more. People about whom I'd thought, secretly, “Wow, put on your grown-up pants.”
Now I was in that same emotionally frail position. I was struck by an epiphany of compassion for a raft of people I had once felt so distant from—and a shock of shame. I had journeyed alongside so many clients going through this same transition and had prided myself on my empathy and hands-on help. But now I felt that I hadn't truly understood at all. When you move, you may feel you’re cutting off a piece of yourself, and if you aren't excited about where you're going next—or, in my case, you don't even know where you're going next—there's no happy anticipation to balance out the sadness.
I was ravaged by the end of moving day and I still wasn't done. I had two more days until closing to deal with the loose ends, and I needed every minute of those days. The next morning, I went back to the house to get all the things the movers hadn't moved—my computer, tons of plants, the dog crate, a broken piano bench that needed to go to the furniture guy, the contents of my refrigerator, spice rack, pantry, and liquor cabinet.
A good friend joined me, and together we made multiple trips from the house to the apartment. She also bought me lunch. The day after that, another wonderful friend came and scrubbed my refrigerator and my tubs. She also did the thing I had not been able to do myself: she stuffed Candle and Flowercup in a black contractor bag, their heads poking out like stowaways, and set them in the alley by the garbage. The sight of them out there made me laugh, and then cry. At closing the next day, I was coiffed and collected and felt like myself again, especially when the closer handed me a big fat check. It was still freezing February outside, but the sun had come out.
I don’t know what I would have done without those two extra days, and those two incredible friends, who were truly there for me. They serve as an inspiration to me, as a real estate professional. I am not suggesting that we must scrub our clients’ bathtubs or buy them lunch on moving day. But we must be mindful that, for our clients, moving may present overwhelming task lists or painful quandaries. They may not be getting a big check handed to them at closing. They may feel like there’s a death in their family—perhaps there actually has been one.
Our duty to our clients is to be honest and accountable, to work to protect their interests. Certainly, that includes making sure they know that we are there for them throughout the transaction, and especially on moving day.