The Collector

David Malebranche
7 min readMar 22, 2020


“You can’t take it with you when you die”

I’m sure people said that to you before. I’m sure you rarely listened to them before you collapsed in your study and took your last breath. You were a former Chief of Surgery, a well-versed and traveled man of Paul Robeson-type stature. Why would you have bothered to listen to a tired cliché that served no purpose but to place judgment on your affection for accumulation?

Weeks after your passing, Mom and I started the daunting task of sifting through your possessions, unaware of the sheer volume of what you had acquired over your life. Hundreds of pocket and wrist watches, some gold, others silver, all of them hoping to be purchased at a nearby auction or upcoming estate sale. Decades-old wind up antique clocks with untold stories to tell. Fountain pens propped up in ornate inkwells, wondering if they’ll ever be used to draft another opinion letter to the local paper.

Books and magazines strewn everywhere. Endless volumes of them — bulked in groups together, piled on the floor, layered in boxes, or neatly organized in bookshelves. Surgical texts and journals that once helped you keep your skills intact. A Physician’s Desk Reference from 2001. Watch and clock repair periodicals. Magazines on cameras, photography, antiques, and travel. Mountains of Consumer Reports, Hobbies, and Writer’s Digest magazines dating back to the 1970s. Classic novels like Huckleberry Finn and The Color Purple sat alongside more contemporary works by Tom Clancy and Stephen King, while Louis L’Amour western anthologies leaned against Haitian historical texts and anthologies of ghost stories. Collections of the Far Side, Calvin & Hobbs, and the Boondocks were overlooked and unused, desperate to bring a smile to someone’s face. Many sat with uncommon patience, adorned with cobwebs and sprinkles of mold. A few stood upright in pristine condition, thinking themselves too good to be opened. They were all there, a community of souvenirs, neglected yet nestled comfortably in what seemed to be every corner of the house.

While combing through it all Dad, I could only make one conclusion — you were a hoarder. Not in the reality TV show way that pathologizes people who accumulate things as a way of dealing with life trauma. Not in the way where one allows clutter to stack up to the ceiling, obstructing potential pathways from one room to the other. Not to the degree that deceased rats, cats, and other rodents are dispersed among other inanimate objects, buried under the weight of your keepsakes.

You weren’t that kind of hoarder. In your mind, I’m sure what looked like disorder to others was simply organized chaos to you. Items you had only used once became lifelong companions for your journey on this earth. You held onto them like a tattered security blanket, even if you knew in your heart you would only use them once, then place them in a box or secluded crevice, never to be touched again.

In 2015, when you had your second heart attack, you learned that three of the four vessels from your 2013 cardiac bypass surgery were now occluded. Your cardiologist deemed you inoperable at 83 years old, with medical management being your only option for treatment. I left my job and came home to help you and mom, just like I returned to help you recover from the stroke that ended your surgical career in 2000. We rented a dumpster, planning to clean out the garage and piles of mementos that now littered a once wide-open space. You sat in a chair, your imposing stature hovering over me, out of proportion with the current shell of your former physical self.

“Dad, these old surgical journals are covered in mold. We can throw them out, right?” I inquired, raising them in my hand.

“Give them to me son,” you sighed, extending your hand impatiently.

I handed them over. You perused each and every one with exactness, seemingly oblivious to the caked-on dust and grime that glued pages together.

“Keep these. I will read them later,” you said flatly, handing them back to me.

“Dad, really?” I asked.

“I know I am old son, but I am not dead yet,” you retorted.

“Dad, I’m not talking about you…”

“I will not be discarded!” you snapped.

That was five years ago. We didn’t get much done that day.

Today, underneath the ocean of antiques, pens, clocks, watches and books, we discovered a different collection of yours that was waiting to be unearthed — the story of our family. Full copies of newspapers on the exact days me and my sister were born. Birth certificates and documents chronicling our childhood height and weight landmarks, interspersed among report cards, athletic achievements, holiday cards, and childhood drawings. Endless mountains of photo albums detailing vacations, holidays, and other family life events from you and Mom’s wedding in 1967 to present day — a living, breathing narrative of our existence, inscribed with names, dates, and times by your hand.

Your dedication to surgical excellence and providing for your family meant that you were unable to attend track meets, basketball games, and other meaningful events while we were growing up. I’m sure it hurt you not to be there. You had to realize you were missing out on experiencing memories you could never get back. Instead, you kept records and documents celebrating every stage of our lives and carried them with you every step of the way. You compiled our family history with the same exquisite care with which you operated on patients or worked on clocks and watches, even if you weren’t always physically there.

You assembled patients, recognition, and notoriety like valuable heirlooms. You saved countless lives and gave of yourself to your patients in immeasurable ways. After practicing close to 30 years, your career was cut short by a stroke, heralding the beginning of a relentless physical decline that would plague you for two decades. Perhaps retaining relics from your past served as a way to take inventory of a life well spent — a reminder that your life wasn’t relegated to performing cholecystectomies, mastectomies, and hernia repairs. Maybe it represented a form of grieving over losing the man you once were to an insidious aging process that was beyond your control. Maybe it was a way for you to make sure your legacy remained intact.

Maybe you just were afraid of being forgotten.

Last year you told me not to get old, as you often did when bemoaning the constellation of physical ailments tormenting you. Months ago while eating dinner, in what would be your final utterance of this phrase, you further elaborated on that sentiment.

“You know son, when you get to be my age, the less you see in front of you, and the more you see in your rear-view mirror. Right now, all I have is my past.”

I cling to those words as I walk back and forth to the dumpster to dispose of some of your belongings. I am drowning in a potent mix of resentment, pride, relief, and regret with each and every step. Resentment towards you for leaving Mom to deal with the voluminous mass of objects you wouldn’t dispose of yourself. Pride in the confirmation of the diverse, complex man you were. Relief in the removal of so many items that have merely existed as dust repositories for years. Regret that with each trip to unload more of these possessions, it feels like I am discarding you — just like you told me not to do five years ago.

It is this last feeling that floats to the surface above all the others, and I can’t seem to shake it. Somehow I am erasing your rich history and legacy in the unceremonious bowels of a twenty-yard rusty metal container.

Piece by piece.

Page by page.

Memory by memory.

I will keep some of your possessions for myself. They serve as fond memories I may otherwise forget. The rest I will dispose of begrudgingly. When I die, I wonder if family and loved ones will be sorting through my belongings in a similar fashion, curious as to why I was powerless to let go of so many of them. I think about the crates of vinyl records and comic books that have traveled with me since 1990 and wonder just how far the apple has fallen from the tree.

Your booming laugh drifts through the air like a kiss from a breeze. You’re witnessing me absorbing the lesson you had been trying to teach me for years, but I wasn’t quite ready to hear while you were still of this earth.

The cliché is wrong. We don’t hold on to material possessions because we think we can take them with us when we die. We hold on to them because we know we can’t.

David Malebranche, MD, MPH, is an educator, author, activist, and internal medicine physician who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He appears in the YouTube series “Revolutionary Health” as part of The Counter Narrative Project and also on the #AskTheHIVDoc video series. His writings and research have been published in JAMA, Annals of Internal Medicine, and Lancet. Dr. Malebranche also penned a memoir entitled “Standing on His Shoulders,” about his relationship with his father, which is available on Amazon. You can reach him on Twitter @DMalebranche.