Death Cleaning

On September 16, 2016, I walked in to my mom’s hospital room to find her standing there in her hospital gown. Just standing there. She wasn’t on her way to the bathroom and she wasn’t heading back to bed, she was quite literally just standing there. She was not happy to be in the hospital and she wanted to go home.  

“What are you doing?” I asked her. As anyone would. 

“I’M PROTESTING,” she told me. 

“Oh. All right,” I said, and then we laughed and laughed. She remained standing because I guess the protest wasn’t over yet. I myself took a seat. She had no way of knowing it at the time, but she’d never see the inside of her house again. She died without ever going back there.  

My mom, by the end of her life, was only four feet, ten inches tall and maybe 95 pounds. She could be quite silly and funny at times. Other times, she was a tiny little fury of a person, irrational and angry and leaving no loved one unhurt.  She never understood her prognosis, which was: ten months if we’re lucky.  

We weren’t lucky. She got three. We cried. We cried more when our children cried. We had a funeral, we finished up paperwork, and when it was all said and done, we still had a job to do. Death Cleaning. 

Mom in her kitchen.

 

That same kitchen now.

It’s a real thing, Death Cleaning. From what I understand the Swedish came up with it, but for them it’s quite different than what my sister and I did. When the Swedish do Death Cleaning, they get rid of a lot of stuff while they’re still alive, as opposed to leaving it for someone else to do later, after they’re gone. It’s morbid and depressing but I still think it’s pretty brilliant. It’s the new Marie Kondo. I wish I could get my act together and do it in my own home, because clutter gives me heart palpitations and eliminating it would have to be so liberating. Soon. I promise. Very soon. 

In the meantime, there was Mom’s house. My mother’s main clutter was in the form of papers, tons and tons of papers. She kept everything, years worth of stuff, each document still folded and tucked into the business-sized envelope that it had arrived in. As for my dad, he kept everything else. Broken vacuum cleaners. Old eyeglasses missing an arm, and separately, the missing arms. Shortly after my mom’s death, my sister and I spent several days going through the house like vampires, laughing at some of the things we found and shaking our head at others, but ultimately sucking the life out of the place, one item at a time. It was devastating in a way that doesn’t seem too devastating at the time, but then you find yourself still thinking about it for months and probably years later. Our house. Their house. Our house. Ravaged as if by robbers, except we were the robbers. 

We never did clean it out entirely. I couldn’t imagine being there and watching a whole lifetime’s worth of possessions being tossed into a dumpster like so much garbage. So when I sold the house to some guys who were willing to take care of it for us, the relief was like a 40-pound concrete block no longer strapped to my back. They gutted the place before the closing even happened, renting dumpsters to get rid of everything we didn’t take. My mom’s books and makeup and stockpile of canned soup would have ended up in the dumpster, along with the furniture my parents had purchased new, back in the sixties. I guess the original green bathtub would have gone, as well as the note my mom had left for my dad when they still lived together: Ed – if you can’t wake me up, pick up the phone and press 9-1-1. Tell them you need an ambulance and give them this address. 

She wrote the address out for him, because by that time, he did not know it. I remember questioning her about that note. “Do you really think,” I said, “that if Daddy can’t wake you up, he’ll think to look around for instructions?” 

She shrugged. “Then I guess you girls should come over more,” she said. “To make sure he’s not living with a dead body.” 

Christmas, maybe 1979. My sister always took better photos than me.

I don’t think either my mom or dad would like how my sister and I handled their Death Cleaning. We were sentimental about plenty of things, sure. We took things, to remind us. But about plenty of other things – things which I’m sure one or both of my parents felt were nice or important or both – we said, Eh. Who needs it.  

And left it. 

I’ll go to see the house again, once the new owners have finished their renovations. I’m excited to see what it will look like, and I’m happy that someone is giving respect to the place. Treating it like it is worth something, like it’s more than just an empty shell that has seen better days. Like it’s a home. 

Because it was, and it is. I think, or anyway I hope, that my parents would be at least a little happy about that. 

It’s Mother’s Day. Don’t Tell Daddy That Mom Is Dead.

I made the executive decision, back when my mom died in December. “We’re not telling him,” I said, regarding my dad. Some people thought that was weird. They weren’t divorced, or estranged, or anything that might explain why a man wouldn’t need to know that his partner of 53 years was gone. That he was now a widower. My parents were still married. He still liked her. He still asks for her, sometimes.

“She’s sleeping,” is what I tell him, every time.

During the funeral, I kept thinking of him, sitting there in a nursing home, completely unaware of the death of his wife. Of the fact that we were sitting in a church, crying as the priest said nice words about her. Of the fact that his daughters had lost their mother. Of anything. Maybe that’s a good thing about Alzheimer’s Disease – you can let them believe whatever seems best.

“Mummy’s sleeping,” I say.

The other day, I was sitting with him in the dementia unit lounge and he said to me, “Where’s Mummy? Is she still sleeping? Wake her up, she was supposed to bring me something to eat.”

I said, “Oh, let’s let her sleep. She’s tired. Your lunch will be here soon.”

I wasn’t lying about the lunch. It was there, within minutes. He ate most of it, and did not ask about Mummy again.

However.

This Mother’s Day, I wonder what she would think of all this. If there’s one thing I know about my mother, it’s that she sometimes enjoyed seeing people suffer. She loved the show American Ninja Warrior and one of my kids once said, “That’s because she likes to see people get hurt.” We had a good laugh about that. I even told it to my mother, and she laughed about it, too. Now, when it rains, we say that Grandma is in Heaven competing on the show. And just fell in the pool because obviously, you never make it through the course on your first try.

I don’t think she’d want us to cry and sob and be overwhelmed by grief forever, about her death. I do, however, believe she’d want the full impact of it to be felt. Especially by her spouse, who by rights should miss her at least as much as the rest of us do.

Instead, where Daddy is concerned, her death was a non-event. Nothing to see here. Mummy’s sleeping.

So on that note, I’m composing a little note to her, to take the place of the Hallmark card I’d have normally given her for Mother’s Day. Here it is.

Dear Mom:

First of all, happy Mother’s Day. You did a good job. I learned from the things you did wrong, and the things you did right were so eerily, perfectly right that I still can’t quite get my head around how you did it. Allowing me to read at the dinner table, for example, my book propped up around my plate and maybe even hiding half my face, when I was younger. This is a habit that has served me well, particularly when I choose to eat alone in public with my book propped up around my plate. Not many mothers would permit this type of behavior. You told me you figured that at least I wasn’t doing drugs at the dinner table. This is a logical leap that I still can’t follow, but thank you for it, and for all the other exactly right mothering you did.

Second: no. We have not told Daddy about you and we’re not going to. But the nurses have said they think he knows, anyway. He gets teary-eyed when he hears certain songs, and when he asks, “Where’s Mummy?” you can see a little more than just your average-level curiosity in his face. Also, the fact that he asks “Where’s Mummy?” at all is a pretty good testament to your legacy. He doesn’t ask about anyone else. He still expects you to deliver his meals. I like to think you are still taking care of him, from wherever you are, and so I let him think it, too.

Also, I like to imagine the reunion, when he joins you in the afterlife. “Jesus Christ, Maureen,” he’ll say. “When did you die?” And then you’ll laugh, and tell him how it happened, and then he’ll say, “But why didn’t those assholes tell me?”

Then you will both laugh, and then you’ll probably go to get him something to eat.

The only bad news is that I’m pretty sure he will beat you at American Ninja Warrior. But on the bright side, no one ever completes the course on their first try, so surely you’ll get to see him fall a few times. That will be fun.

Third: I love you. We all do. Rest in peace.

And happy Mother’s Day.