There are just some things a daughter should not see. Nor a parent suffer the discovery by their child. A life blurred at the edges as the body and mind ever so slowly, or in other cases swiftly, go into neglect mode. A sibling sends up a red flag and things that were swept under the rug, or shut behind closed doors leak out: revealing a confusion and clutter that is beyond embarrassment. It reaches into the realm of denial and then surrender. What he had been hiding from us is out in the open and it is not pretty.
Boxes, dozens of them, little brown boxes, stacked high like termite towers landmine the rooms. Evidence of late night shopping for unneeded and forgotten items that filled a lonely life and give witness to a life chapter where there are expendable funds but nothing meaningful on which to spend it.
Unopened bills and financial statements. I say a prayer that somehow these got paid and remind myself that the cable is still connected and the electricity on so some arrangements must have been made. Respectful of his pride and independence I resist the urge to question his bill paying approach and let that one go. Larger looming are questions about the shopping channel shopping sprees and the donations he’s made and hoping he has not been taken advantage of. He supports a multitude of causes and I love that he loves to do that. But still…I want his funds to last him as long as his body does.
My brother, acting as a self-proclaimed “prick” about this tries to keep him focused on the most important task at hand: deciding the fate of each item. Lake house. New senior apartment. Donate. Toss. We are gently urging things for the toss and donate. He does not need all this stuff but he is having trouble letting go. My brother, who is the calmest, most positive man you will ever meet, is not a natural in this role of prick. He even says so to my father and my father tries to take advantage of this admission, looking for a weak spot that will let him keep his unneeded stuff. It feels a little overstepping as we secretly shift things from the “take with” piles to the donate piles but still necessary to do: we want him to have a fresh start. A clean page. A less cluttered foothold on his new reality. And we truly believe that we will not miss those things about which we made these decisions. Three flashlights are enough. He will not miss the other seven in assorted sizes. Nor the second set of ecofriendly non-stick pans that are so thin I worry about the effects of smoking food on the atmosphere (and smoke alarms at the new place).
In the kitchen the clutter and filth is appalling. How long has he lived like this? How is he cooking and eating? How is it that he has not gotten sick? My own stomach is queasy just looking at it and breathing in the air slightly tinted with rotting fruit and burned coffee. I believe the stove will need to be replaced before this place goes on market unless a successful exorcism can be performed.
The amount of date expired food and bizarre packages procured from the import stores that he loves is stunning. A dear friend who has arrived to pitch in wonders why someone alone needs so much food. Together we conspire to toss anything previously opened or outdated. We divvy up unopened up bags of Trader Joe Pine nuts and still send a few with him. Did he buy a new bag with each Trader Joe’s visit forgetting that he already had several at home?
Teetering on the bar top, among the piles of used plastic bags, corks and crisply aged rubber bands are several bottles of “Men’s Slimming Pills.” This confuses me. My father is fit for an 85 year old. Heck, he’s fitter than most 75 year olds. But during some part of our mucking out he rushes in with urgency saying “I hope you haven’t touched my special medicine on the counter.” I tell him we have not but it’s something I want to talk to him about later. He rolls his eyes, swoops it up and squirrels it away in his bedroom where we will sort through it later.
Later, as we are dining out for dinner, I, as casually as possible, ask “Does your Doctor know you are taking diet pills?”
“No.” Then under his breath “but they said a doctor developed this and it’s apparently supposed to be safe.” These words from my PHD professor father who hangs everything, including his denial of God, on pure scientific fact, render me nearly speechless. Dad goes on to say how he can’t lose the fat around his waist though he doesn’t eat cheese and he is getting plenty of exercise. He is not fat. He is not his thinnest either. But he’s perfect enough for me and in impressive shape for his age. I’m intrigued by his self-assessment but even more worried that he is taking diet pills ordered from a shopping channel along with his blood pressure medicine. And living in a nearly haz-mat situation.
There are other things that shock me. Things that a daughter should not see. Things I can’t share in this love and concern based disclosure. It saddens me to see his world crumbling around him. The last thing I want him to feel is embarrassed. There were years when we could easily put each other on the defensive. When a word or a comment from my father could easily send me back to a rebellious teenage brat-like state. Or a poorly phrased question from me could send his walls up. (Unfortunately that time was not that long ago.) But in thinking about the decluttering of his life and his near willingness to let us do so, I realize we have come full circle. I have taken on the protectiveness a parent feels as they launch their child into a new life. I want him only to make good decisions, knowing that there will likely be some that will serve as lessons. I hope. I hope I have the grace in me to respect his dignity when things crumble more. I hope he can see that the toughness with him comes from love for him and not a desire to take away any shred of independence he deserves. The inner struggles I have as we muck out his place are so familiar. They are the same I have for my son. A combination of protectiveness, irritation, pride, fear for his wellbeing and love. The greatest of these is love.