“Frost and Steketee name the repetition of the process ‘churning’ because the objects are constantly turned over within the same space.”
__________—Possessed: A Cultural History of Hoarding, Rebecca R. Falkoff
In high school I watched a silent film of a tsunami as it struck the shore of a Japanese town, the result of a seismic shift, plates moving underwater, the undulation as it hit the edge of the beach and kept going, picture flickering in the projector. Cars, dishes, buildings, garbage, someone’s pet cat, maybe bodies underwater all slowly moved together in a giant roar we couldn’t hear over the clickety click of the movie grinding to a halt. It didn’t look at all like that Japanese painting of the risen wave, blue and still in the pause before it crashes down.
Trying to tell the story of what happened in my mother’s house feels impossible. Like trying to stop that tsunami. Do I tell it chronologically? Episodically? Metaphorically? Let me rearrange it again. I could start the story anywhere, but I’m just moving around the shame, dirty secrets, the love and memories into different paragraphs, like a person with a hoarding disorder does, not sure in the end how to organize what happened.
As I pull up in front, I’m trying to remember the names of some of the neighbors I haven’t seen for thirty years. I turn off the car after looking around to make sure my mother’s dinged-up Toyota is not parked in the crumbling driveway. Old mail, circulars, and some plastic bags seep out of the closed garage door. There’s a waterlogged pile of newspapers solidified near the empty trash can on the side of the house. The front door is covered with ivy, and I can barely see past the untrimmed arborvitae for a glimpse of the envelopes stuffed in the mailbox that hangs by one hook off the brick wall. All the window shades are closed. The living room windows are blocked by overgrown evergreen bushes that twist and turn against the house, hiding what’s inside.
It was never a bad house: three bedrooms, one and a half baths, an attic, kitchen, living room, dining room, and rec room downstairs next to a laundry room by the back door. A simple, white split-level with some brick on the lower half with black shutters and a black, wooden front door with a big brass knocker my mother had placed over a piece of wood covering up the window to make the door more secure. I was in seventh grade when she added the knocker, old enough to understand this had to do with my stepfather, whom my mother had just divorced. “It looks nice,” I’d told her when she asked me what I thought about the knocker. That was back when she did projects. And back when the house looked like all of its neighbors in the development: freshly painted, with a well-groomed lawn.
I’m feeling wilted from the hot New Jersey summer and tired after the fifty-minute drive from suburban Philadelphia where I live. Since she’s not home, I get out of the car. Part of me was imagining she’d be here and yell at me because I’d come to the house without permission. Neither my younger sister, Melissa, who lives nearby, nor I, have been allowed to have a key for years. I walk up the driveway and around the side of the house. Another unpruned tree leans over the chain link fence that somehow has been bent downward so the gate to the backyard doesn’t work. I have to push back some big branches to squeeze myself through, trying not to tear my dress. A mosquito bites my bare calf, and I slap it, cursing. I was supposed to be at a party this afternoon, but when I called my mother this morning to wish her a happy 82nd birthday, her landline was disconnected for the fourth time in six months. My sister is out of town, so I have no way to tell my mother that our plans to celebrate her birthday tomorrow have changed except to drive twenty miles over here and leave her a handwritten message.
Nobody just “stops by” this house. My mother won’t let anyone she knows come near the outside, much less invite them in. When she had her breast cancer surgery seventeen years ago, she was waiting at the curb, bag packed, for me to take her to the hospital. It’s 2016 and I have not been inside my childhood home since 1987.
Melissa and I joke that hopefully my mother will die outside the house, so at least we’ll know something has happened to her. There’s worry beneath our laughter. We’ve respected her autonomy, her right to live as she chooses, including not allowing anyone inside. But over the past year there have been a series of incidents. First, there was a hospitalization for frostbitten diabetic feet after she shoveled the end of the driveway during a snowstorm. Then, there is the matter of the phone being turned off several times. Finally, she’s told my brother-in-law she’s running out of money. As I look at the filthy windows I’m thinking, were we wrong to let her live the way she wanted? Should we have done something sooner?
There’s an empty, tall, blue recycling bin blocking the back door, and when I move it, I see the storm door’s glass is gone. I open it and notice the door to the inside has broken glass, too, as though someone has put a fist through it. My mother has stuffed this door with yellowing newspaper and heavy, shredded plastic sheets.
I keep looking over my shoulder. It’s creepy behind the house under the grey sky even though it’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday. “Who lives like this?” I say out loud. I look at the wrecked door and start to tear up. There’s something inside me that is taking shape in the July humidity—a resolve, a rage, a sadness, a fear I don’t fully understand. It’s about what might be inside, but also what this house is telling me about my mother. I’ve seen pictures of houses like this. The dirty, covered windows; the tall weeds blooming all over the yard; the mail she’s not opening are all signs of a life unravelling. I don’t know what I should do about the way my mother is living. But it’s clear to me that Melissa and I need to do something. My mother raised us. She was the parent who was there.
Two weeks later, with her grudging permission, I start paying my mother’s bills and discover that she’s had no water in her house for at least two and maybe as many as six years. This is why her infected toes didn’t get better, why she smells musty and wears the same clothes. Maybe she’s washing them someplace else? Who is this person? My mother used to wash all her nurse uniforms every day and hang them up in tidy rows in the laundry room. She left for work in white stockings and a crisp white uniform dress. She’d starch her nursing caps and leave them on the top of the washer to dry so they were always clean and stiff. How did my sister and I not know she’s been living like this? And then my mother has a car accident. She’s physically fine, but her green 2000 Camry that sags from the weight of papers, books, and bags is not. She was able to drive it back to her house, but without access to water, she certainly can’t be living there without a vehicle.
It’s 96 degrees outside and my husband Marc is bent over in my mother’s driveway, pulling things out of her beat-up car. He’s sweating and cursing under his breath. There’s a pungent smell of rotting things and mold in the air and piles and piles of books. The expensive exhibit catalogue from the Brandywine Museum my mother bought herself when we were there four months ago, the novel The Deep End of the Ocean, and a photography book featuring cats are just a few of the titles already lined up on one side of the car. He’s only emptied the passenger seat. My mother ignores this scene as she gets out of my car. She strides purposefully around the back of the house and comes out a few minutes later with a colorful quilted overnight bag so that she can stay with my sister.
“I have three shirts,” she says to me.
“Perhaps get a pair of pants, you may be there for a while,” I say, a little grimly as I’m looking at the piles around the car. She shakes her head to disagree with me and looks over at my sister’s car across the street where Marc, who has taken a break, is wiping his face with a bandana and leaning by the driver’s side window talking to Melissa, who has arrived to pick up my mother. The sun is beating down on us and the humidity is smothering.
“I need your house key.” I’m standing in front of her, blocking her path to my sister’s car, like she’s going to run or hit me or scream. But surprisingly she doesn’t fight this request at all. Deflating, she fumbles in her bag, takes a worn and dirty key off her key ring and hands it to me.
“Marc is going to see the worst hoarder house he’s ever seen from his rehabbing days,” she states calmly, like she’s telling me about the weather. For a moment, I’m frozen in disbelief. She’s more worried about Marc’s opinion of the house? Not mine? Or my sister’s? Does she think only Marc is going inside? It’s her fear that I focus on rather than the magnitude of the impending nightmare she’s warning me about. I want to make sure, like I always have, that she’s okay.
“Mom, it doesn’t matter, no one is judging you.” This is a lie that I don’t judge myself for in the moment as I lean my body down to hug her tiny one. “We love you and it will be alright.”
She walks past me and gets into my sister’s car without looking back at her house. My sister waves goodbye at me, and I watch them pull away. Marc has started taking more books out of the car and throwing them on the driveway piles. The initial moment of relief I felt clutching the key collapses into a big mass of terror, the kind you must feel before a major surgery or a decisive military battle. I’m slightly sick to my stomach thinking about what happens next.
“Are you ready to go in?” Marc asks, pulling off his work gloves and grabbing a flashlight.
At Marc’s insistence, I put on a long-sleeved shirt I’ve thrown in the car, so my arms are covered. This way we won’t expose ourselves to anything in the house. He does the same as we walk around to the back door. He unlocks it while I hold open the broken storm door. He pushes against it a little with his shoulder since it doesn’t seem to move easily. It opens a tiny bit, less than a foot. It’s so dark inside, it takes a minute for our eyes to adjust. The smell is terrible, a wave of funk hitting us like a storm cloud. I know this door opens to the laundry room and that there’s a washer and laundry sink to the right, while to the left is the water heater and door to the garage. Except you can’t see any of those things because everything is covered with stuff. There is no floor, there’s kind of a sloping step made of things: bags and unidentifiable solidified objects that are about a foot tall. As my eyes get used to the dim light, I see the piles continue to rise up into a kind of wall between the laundry room and the rec room. The rec room is also dark because the heavy orange curtains are closed, letting in only a tiny sliver of outside light.
The wall of things divides the rec room from the stairs that lead up to the rest of the house, but there are no visible stairs now, even though I remember six of them, covered with 1970’s burnt orange carpeting. There are just objects piled up like a mountain. We climb over books, papers, clothing, and empty plastic shopping bags, our feet sliding and barely able to push forward, up into the kitchen where there is the ceiling leak my mother told us about. Large pieces of wallpaper hang from it. I can reach up and touch the ceiling as we stand next to the refrigerator.
It’s like we’ve landed on another planet. There’s dirt and cobwebs and something that looks like rust on the top of the fridge. Or maybe it’s a Martian life form. I’m coughing and choking from the stench. We pause to try and take it all in. The sink is filled with dishes and the counters are completely covered with pans and glasses and vases. The stove is heaped with papers and clothing and dirty plates. There are items of clothing in dry cleaning bags hanging from the doorways to the rec room and the dining room at either end of the kitchen. In one of them is the purple silk suit my mother wore to our wedding twenty-two years ago. The big wall clock in the kitchen has stopped at two minutes after 12. There was an antique kitchen table that is still there, I think. But the stuff on the floor, which is at least three-and-a-half feet high, rises up and covers it so there’s no demarcation between ground and furniture.
I’m shaking, numb and in shock. I have no words for what I am seeing. Marc doesn’t say anything either.
We crunch over more things to head into the dining room and living room. It’s just a huge mass of bags and paper and clothing and garbage and recycling with weird spots of order that contain some of the items I remember. I recognize the antique curio cabinet against the wall under the high windows between the rooms, the glass salts on the little shelf in the living room, and the giant cat watercolor by the front door. In one corner of the living room there’s a puffy blue recliner I remember from my adolescence. I can barely make out its grimy form because it is filled with papers, used tissues, books, and newspapers. It sits half buried in the mounds of things rising from the floor. Next to the chair is the phone I’ve hooked up for her. This must be where she’s been sleeping.
Now I’m sobbing, tears running down my face. “Oh my god, oh my god, what the fuck, what the fuck.” My hand covers my mouth as I look around me and try not to get sick. In the dining room, we are standing on more than two feet of things that make a sort of crunching path like we are walking on glass as we move through the dense mess. There are piles that reach as high as four and a half feet over near the window. There’s no air here. It’s stifling, and we haven’t habituated to the smell, which is overwhelming. Marc clambers toward the living room windows to try and open them. My mother’s central air is not working, and it’s got to be a hundred degrees here.
“This is really incredible,” Marc says. He has a look on his face that is part sadness, part dismay, and something else, maybe revulsion, that I’ve never seen before as he surveys the landscape. “It’s much worse than I thought,” he says with his usual understatement and an unusual lack of irony.
The last time I saw this place I was 26, and now I’m 56. It feels like two worlds have collided in a planetary disaster, and I’m standing in the middle of the rubble. All I can do is sniffle and cry and moan, “I don’t understand, I don’t understand.”
We crunch “upstairs,” which is really just another hill. At the top, outside the bathroom and across from what used to be my sister’s room, are gallon-sized plastic water bottles strewn around on top of the two feet of stuff. There are hundreds of them filled with fluid. “What is it?” I ask, and Marc says tightly, “Urine, I think it’s urine.” The bottles spill out from the bathroom—they are blue-tinged, and Marc says maybe she put toilet cleaner in them. There’s a different terrible smell assaulting us from the bathroom area and my nose fills up and I’m coughing again to clear my throat.
We go into the bedrooms and my antique bed is in my sister’s old room. There are weird little shrines of objects arranged decoratively in the middle of chaos, like a tableau with my niece and nephew’s pictures set up neatly on a filthy table. I have to get out, I have to get out. “I have to get out.” I hear myself saying it out loud like I’m breaking a spell.
Marc says calmly, “Let’s go outside. NOW.” We retrace our steps through the house and out the back door into the light.
I cry as I lean against the warm metal side of our car, and then he comes over and holds me.
I keep thinking of that news photo of the wave of garbage that circles around the ocean, swirling and getting bigger as more trash, more things get sucked into the tide. It’s vast and endless. What’s garbage and what actually had meaning doesn’t matter since it’s all lost and part of a giant mess.
The next day, we’re prepared, covered head to toe. I’m wearing lightweight hiking pants, an athletic wicking top, a long-sleeved camping shirt of Marc’s with vents in the back, high socks, and sneakers that were new a few weeks ago but are already ruined from our visit yesterday. I have sprayed and wiped myself down with two different kinds of insect repellant, the nuclear deep woods stuff, even under my pants, because the mosquitos are that bad. We unload boxes of black, 42-gallon, heavy duty contractor bags; disinfectant wipes; a can of Lysol; more masks, “for when we sweat through them,” Marc explains; and boxes of black nitrile gloves, the kind that are difficult to rip. We have several different brands of hand sanitizer for when we take them off, including a lemon scented spray one.
We can do this, I think. I take the grubby key I’ve attached to a lanyard and unlock the back door. Marc pushes it open and as soon as he does, the fetid smell assaults us again like an angry being we’ve disturbed. It must be vanquished, I tell myself.
I scramble up the first set of stairs from the basement that lead into the kitchen. Walking through, I step on mounds of plastic bags that crown the three-foot layer that is the “floor.” I pass through the dining room and living room, trying not to lose my balance on what is essentially a narrow path of packed layers of papers and objects. I don’t want to touch any of this filth, but I definitely don’t want to face plant onto it. I hear my breathing through the mask like I’m a space explorer. Unknown universe, not sure of the danger. I walk slowly, clutching my box of contractor bags like a talisman or an instrument I’m going to use to sample the environment I’ve landed in. Dust and dirt float through the air—debris from mice nests and god knows what else I’m stirring up as I walk. A miasma of that putrid odor clutches itself around my throat, making me gag even with the mask. I’m working very hard to not trip and break my leg. If an 82-year-old woman can navigate this, I can too, I tell myself. I push up the stairs, then past the gallon plastic jugs of mystery fluid, some of which Marc has already rolled to the sides to make a narrow pathway down the “hall,” a two-foot-deep pile of debris.
The door to my mother’s bedroom only opens a little because there’s a three-foot pile of clothing behind it, but there’s a foot or so of floor right as I step down into the space, where I can see the brown nubby carpeting underneath. Seeing that there is something below the mess, the only spot of floor in the entire house, gives me a fleeting feeling of purpose and drive. How much can we get done today?
Other than my crunching steps and the sound of my breathing, more ragged now from my climb in, it’s quiet except for the occasional bird call from the open window. I start to tear up as I look around. There’s the marble-topped bedside table next to the antique bed with the dark wood headboard. On the table is a lamp with a book, an old shoe, some papers, and a roll of toilet paper. Boxes, bags, and old books scatter the floor. There’s a jumble of clothing, a mirror, and more bags on the bed which still has filthy sheets on it underneath all of the things. She hasn’t slept here for a long while. Photographs I remember of my great-grandparents and our old babysitter share space with my sister’s and my bronzed baby shoes on the uncluttered (at least, compared to everything else) bookshelves next to the bed. An antique chair has her mink stole draped on the back of it, the pelt now matted and covered in dust. There’s nothing in the open closet but a few hangers and a cheap black nightgown carefully hung in a clear plastic travel bag. The matching marble-topped dresser has her sun hat hanging from the little mirror, but the top of the dresser is completely covered—an empty frog plant holder, plastic bags, old cosmetics, jewelry spilling from open boxes, a travel clock stopped at exactly 5 o’clock, and assorted tissues and papers. I find a card on the dresser with the picture of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown and holding baby Jesus. Our Lady of the Sacred-heart is written in script underneath. She is the hope of the hopeless, I read. It makes me snort. Every drawer in the dresser yawns open with clothing and other items spilling out. A long braid of fake brown hair drapes over the top of the piles. So strange, I think. Maybe from her dating days. A dead plant hangs from the ceiling, its leaves still preserved and black.
Something cracks inside me looking at that plant. Red hot, smoldering rage begins to choke out. Suddenly I’m crying and swearing as I reach up by the window and yank at the whole plant, not caring if I pull the hook from the ceiling. It takes me a couple tries to pull the pot down and I almost slip from the mound of papers I’m standing on. I hurl it at the wall as hard as I can, shattering the pot; dirt flies everywhere, covering more dirt and more disgusting dust that forms a thick coating over everything. What does it even matter? “Fuck you,” I shout. “Fuck you! How could you do this?” My voice is muffled by all the things.
Later on, I’ll develop a system for this cleaning process, but at the start it’s trial and error. I reach down to pick up something, let’s say my old favorite overalls from high school (Really? She even saved our old clothing?), but the pant legs are tangled up in my mother’s white nurse stockings and other pantyhose and a slip with straps which are wrapped around a dry-cleaning bag with the hangers still hooked in the plastic which is also hooked to a belt from a dress that is tangled up with a black dress pump so that when I lift the first object, everything else comes up together like spaghetti and can’t be disentangled from whatever is connected. It’s like a booby trap on a planet that’s hostile to life.
I yank hard and almost fall back into the dresser, barely catching myself. Fluttering down near one of my old Dr. Scholls wooden sandals by my foot is a pile of cancelled checks, including one for my application to Beaver College dated December 1977. It’s then I realize what’s in this room is mostly from 1976 or earlier, around the time my sister and I started closing this door. My mother still slept there, but we went in less and less as we spent more time going out into the world to make our lives with friends, apart from her.
I open a carry-on suitcase that’s adrift in the center of the room. Inside is a scuba mask and flippers and binoculars from a trip she took with her boyfriend. I fill one contractor bag by stuffing the whole suitcase into it along with some more clothing. None of it is salvageable because it reeks so badly. Then I start a second bag. And a third bag. And a fourth and a fifth. I look around and the landscape looks exactly the same. I’m dragging each bag out into the “hallway,” but they are heavy with purses and clothing and papers. I can’t get very far with them. It’s terribly hot, but I can’t take off any of my clothing, and I can’t get enough air through the mask as I’m exerting myself lifting the bags. The house is creepily quiet. A kind of terror starts to build that makes sweat trickle from my forehead onto my glasses, making it difficult to see. I’m trapped. I’m totally trapped. I can’t easily escape the room because the bags are blocking the hallway and the door keeps slowly closing. It’s overwhelming and stifling, and now I am panicking. I push my way out into the hall. My feet start to come out from under me as I slide back down the stair hell holding tightly to the banister. I work my way back toward the rec room. I can hear Marc grunting through his mask as he’s thwacking at a pile near the back door and cursing occasionally.
“Can you help me?” My panic causes this to come out more like a wail than a request.
“Yeah, give me a minute.” Thunk. It sounds like he’s chipping away at something hardened. Maybe he’s finally reached the floor?
“I need help with the bags.” My panic starts to subside as I talk to him. He follows me back up, and I help him push the bags down the hallway. He hauls them over his shoulder all the way downstairs and out the back door. I stumble behind him to the yard and we walk around to the front of the house.
I can’t believe I have a man who loves me enough to do this dirty work.
Marc opens and sits in a never-used camp chair with the tags still on it that he found inside the laundry room. For some reason, it only smells a little. He takes a second camp chair for me from the back of his car and leaves the hatchback open, so we have some shade to rest in.
We sit for a few more minutes next to the car having the conversation that has been on repeat since yesterday:
Me: “How can she live like this? Who lives like this? I don’t understand.”
Marc: “I don’t know. I don’t know how you live like this.”
As we talk, he suddenly looks over at the sprawling bush next to where we are sitting and puts his finger to his lips. “Look,” he whispers. Underneath, in a little scooped out indentation, sits a large, unmoving, brownish bunny. Eventually, as we sit there quietly, the rabbit turns over on its back, cooling itself in the heat. I wonder if my mother ever noticed it. I imagine her talking to it. Its spot looks lived-in.
I start back in, just in front of Marc, outside the laundry room where the stairs go from the rec room to the kitchen. I feel less panicked, and the shaky, tearful feeling that washes over me every time I think of the enormity of what needs to be done is more manageable in Marc’s company. He’s stopped saying much, but his sighing and the sounds of the shovel make a tiny island of comfort in this sea of chaos.
If I squint my eyes and look at the rec room, it’s almost as I remember it—bookshelves lining the wall, the TV in the corner—but when I open them and really look, the pictures on the wall are askew and there’s an ironing board in the middle of the room with a photo of my sister and my oldest niece, a roll of Christmas wrapping paper, and other papers on top of it. There are boxes stacked all around the room and piles of clothing and other jumbled objects. A clothing steamer sits next to an unopened box of bedsheets that rests next to a new lamp in a box that is surrounded by bags of all sizes from different stores filled with god knows what. There’s so much down here that the furniture (if it’s still underneath all of this) isn’t visible at all.
I’m getting more used to breathing through the mask, and I breathe in the redolent stench I will never get used to—a combination of body odor, mold and other types of putrescent odors that are indistinguishable because they blend together and form themselves into a thing that follows us everywhere. Even when we leave the house, I’m aware of it, seeping out of the windows and under the still locked garage door like a hoarder house ghost that has been unleashed by our presence.
Marc hangs a contractor light on the door to the kitchen and shines it down the steps so I can see things better, although I’m not sure I really want to. I start picking up what’s covering the stairs. This mess is different than what’s in the bedroom. First of all, it’s wet and moldy. Water seems to have been running from the kitchen somewhere, down the stairs and into the rec room. For how long? I think. I pick up sodden spaghetti clothing and more dry-cleaning bags, but now there are things that are just trash as well—food wrappers, empty coffee cups, unopened mail, training notebooks from continuing education she did when she was became a nursing director, books in bags, books we got her as presents or that she insisted on buying as souvenirs in recent years when we went to places like the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
As she’s had less money and couldn’t buy as much for herself, she’d plead for something like an expensive art exhibit catalog, which I’d get her, maybe for Christmas or maybe just because she insisted like a child. What’s the harm? I’d think. It makes her happy. But in the past several years, I’d have a sick feeling in my stomach as I did it. Some part of me knew there was something wrong, something about the compulsive way she asked and clutched it in the shopping bag after it was purchased.
Empathy is my Spidey sense—I’m a clinical psychologist and if a client comes in tired, I feel the fatigue. When I pay attention, I find I catch things from other people if I’m not careful. It’s like a good pass in hockey—suddenly the puck is on my stick and I can speed with it toward the goal. That’s a useful skill for inside my therapy office. Outside, if I’m not careful I’m sometimes unprepared when the puck arrives, slamming into my leg at 100 mph. I wanted to take care of my mother, as I might care for a client, so I’d meet her demands, but try and do that only enough to connect with her pass to make the play work. There were times I’d tune her out and just watch the puck slide by me, powerless to stop what I suspected was happening with her.
I toss the hardcover catalogue of the Hudson River School exhibit I took her to into a contractor bag. It reeks, it’s wet, unsalvageable. I start to cry again, but this time the hot rage is like a current, running through me and giving me energy to rip through another pile of books that are still in their Barnes and Noble bags. Here are hundreds and hundreds of dollars she spent on multiple copies of the same book about China or Scotland. There are also unwrapped presents, often with greeting cards for the grandchildren and for my sister and me. The grandchildren gifts are old—things they would have liked fifteen years ago.
At a holiday gathering, my mother would arrive bearing a beautifully wrapped present and hand it to me saying, “I got you something else you’d really like too, but I can’t find it,” laughing. “Oh, it’ll turn up,” she’d add.
“Look,” I say to Marc, turning around and trying not to fall down the stairs I’m precariously standing on. I hold the little stack up for him to view, “All the missing presents have been found!”
He grunts and looks up from his continued chipping away at a hardened pile of something that I can see now looks like a torte or lasagna. He stops. Leaning on the shovel he makes the understatement of the day. “This is not fun.”
I go back to the task of clearing the steps. After an hour or so and about eight more bags into it, I’ve made a passable path almost to the kitchen doorway. You can now step on a small area of floor up most of the six steps. At the entrance to the kitchen, pushed up against the door like a wave threw them, are piles of photo albums and packages of photographs from her more recent vacations. Finding these like this disturbs me the most, probably because I value photographs and hold carefully to my own. They are the talismans of memory and will be the only thing left of our stories, long after we are gone. Here are two carefully put together albums from the trip she took to Disney with my sister’s family. My oldest niece is standing next to Mickey Mouse and waving. There’s a picture with my mother and the grandchildren smiling in front of Cinderella’s Castle. The photos are wet and blackened with mold. The album covers are damaged and torn. Where is the water coming from? Maybe it’s under the refrigerator. Reaching toward the pile by the door, I realize there are probably a hundred envelopes of developed film and negatives from her trips to China scattered everywhere along the wall. Some are wet, all are damaged. I don’t throw any out even though they are probably ruined. I know they meant something to her once, so I don’t understand how she could leave them like this. I don’t understand at all. Shut up, I tell myself. Not now. You can’t do this right now.
I try to set things like this aside as I go, but mostly I’m throwing out a fortune of unopened, defiled things from the bookstore—books, toys, cards, little games and tchotchkes for around the house. I find a copy of Dante’s Inferno buried in the pile.
Crouched on the stairs, I ready my assault on the kitchen. All the other things rise up like a mountain ahead of me, one on the verge of an avalanche. There’s nothing to do but to keep going. I pull out a VCR tape in a case—a course she took (although she never had a VCR): No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, Part 2. I have to laugh, and I pull off my glove and take my phone from my pocket to get a picture of it nestled in wet moldy sweatshirts, papers, and plastic bags.
“Jesus,” Marc says. “If you load books into these bags, make them lighter, you’re killing me.” He laughs and heaves one of the eight bags over his shoulder and out through the back door which can be opened most of the way now thanks to his hard work. He’s taken the broken glass out of it, so the storm door is just a frame.
At the edge of the kitchen by the stairs, I dig down deeper where there’s nothing but black rotted papers and other mess at floor level two and a half feet down. I’m scooping up rotting muck and putting it in the contractor bag. It smells rank. I roughly pick up another bag and it rips open, spilling something wet and foul onto my arm. It takes me a full minute to process my shock. It’s shit. It’s my mother’s shit smeared onto my arm. My mother was shitting in plastic bags in her kitchen. I start shaking and feel pure revulsion start in my gut and scream its way out of my mouth. “OH MY GOD,” I yell, “OH MY GOD. GET IT OFF OF ME. WHAT THE FUCK!”
“Okay, okay,” Marc yells up to me from below, “I’m coming with the wipes.”
Now I’m sobbing, “It’s shit, it’s shit, it’s shit.”
“I know,” he says, “I know.” He holds my arm and gently cleans it with the damp Lysol wipe. “Outside,” he orders.
“What do you mean, you know?” I ask. He looks away for a minute.
“I’ve been shoveling feces and hardened baby wipes for the past three hours,” he says. “That’s what was by the back door. Bags and bags and bags of it. Some broken open and everything hardened to cement. I was hoping it was only there, but I guess it’s not.”
I want to retch, but I can’t. I’ve always had a strong stomach, but this is an Olympic sized test. Who lives like this isn’t even a question anymore. It’s a refrain. What kind of person does this?
With a few exceptions, I turn down most of the well-meaning and generous offers to help. One friend whose help I do accept is Jackie, who heads the photo department of a major news organization. “Would you come take pictures?” Every night I write in my journal what I’ve done here and what I’ve seen, but I haven’t taken many pictures. I know later on, when I’m able to slow down, I’ll want an actual record of what this was like because my own memory will be fragmented, won’t be able to hold all the details. Jackie’s covered wars in the Mideast and all kinds of natural disasters. I figure she won’t be fazed by what she’ll witness here. I also trust she won’t judge my mother or judge us. I still feel the urge to protect her from other people. I don’t want them gaping at the traffic accident of her life. At the same time, I’m both judging her hoarding behavior and our crime of not helping her sooner. It’s shame and guilt, a toxic mess.
“Wow,” Jackie says and not much else when I take her into the worst of the three bedrooms. She takes pictures of the swirling mass of stuff on the bed and then of the thousands of pennies scattered on the floor in the dining room. She shoots other pictures as well, but I’ve gone back to work after the first few minutes, leaving her on her own. I hold open the contractor bag for Marc and sift through each scoop finding photographs, tax records from six years ago, and, when we reach the floor, a beautiful diamond and ruby ring my mother used to wear.
After a while, Jackie puts her cameras back in her car. “It’s so sad for her,” she says to me, opening another black plastic bag as she joins us in the cleanup for a little while. I don’t want judgment, but I also don’t want compassion. Not for my mother. I want compassion for me. I know Jackie is recognizing my mother’s illness and how fragile she is. But I can’t let my anger go because without it I won’t be able to function in this hellish house.
“I’ve seen a lot of things,” she muses, watching me sip from my water bottle outside the garage as she prepares to leave. “I covered Katrina.” She pauses and surveys the piles in the dumpster and then looks at me. “This house destruction is worse than Katrina.” I hug her, too numb to cry at that point.
That night, when I’m home and looking at her photographs, I’m stunned at how she has made a strange beauty of the scenes. There, in black and white, is my sister’s old wrought-iron bed filled with the swirled mass of filthy bedding, newspapers, books, and old peanut butter cracker wrappings. Somehow Jackie has caught the weight of my mother’s body where it indented the messy piles, leaving only her ghostly imprint. There, in color, are the solidified newspapers by the back door, seen up close and morphed into abstract artwork from the way the rain and weather have carved them solid, their texture like canyons. She captures me, amidst the trash in the kitchen, about to open the door to the fridge when we finally reach it. I’m joking about what we’ll find, but Jackie has caught what’s below my humor, the reverberation of my exhaustion, my face partly turned away from her camera as I ready myself for some other horrible surprise. And, from my old bedroom window, a shot of the half-filled thirty-yard dumpster in the driveway below, ripped lace from the grimy curtains framing the view.
What has to happen to bury your own life? To care so little for yourself that you disappear and don’t hold onto anything by holding onto everything? I try to work it out over and over again, but I’m not really able to. Then it comes to me. In each photograph, Jackie has captured what I’ve been trying to understand. This is my mother’s creation.
A few months before we entered her house, my mother, in a rare display of directness, told me during a phone conversation that my sister and I are the best things she did. She was proud of the adults we’d become.
But once we grew up and left her, she became like one of those pet hermit crabs she’d allowed us to keep as children, hiding in a shell until it became too small, not allowing anything out, making herself a kind of prisoner. Her garbage, all the things she bought created a barrier to the outside world, a fortress built from her loneliness. She filled her house with books that were never read, newspapers, pennies, and unopened presents for the people she loved. And at the center was only space for one, a recliner where she slept next to a phone that didn’t work.
Scientists have created a floating gauge in the ocean that is able to detect the difference between a tsunami and an ordinary wave, even if that wave looks smooth and green and swells like any other. With a gauge, they will know when a tsunami is coming to knock down all the buildings and change the very shape of the shoreline, then—receding wave—it changes back into itself to become ordinary water again. I’m still trying to understand. I will always be trying.