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. 

Fat Is The Memory That Never Fades

Cloud, tree, chair, shoe. Nose. Hat. These are just a few of the many, many words that my dad no longer knows. He can still put together a coherent sentence, usually – as in, “here, have some” (when trying to share his lunch) or, “go that way,” (when I’m pushing his wheelchair to take him outside). Object names, though, are lost to him. As are most descriptive terms.  

Except for one, and that is FAT. Fat, he remembers very well. 

“Look at her,” he’ll say, chuckling, nodding toward a nurse or aide. “Fat, huh?” 

The nurse or aide will pretend she didn’t hear and maybe put rat poison is his dessert later, who knows. I will say “shut up!” under my breath, but by now he has forgotten all about it and gone silent. You have to wonder what he’s thinking about, at those moments. Maybe it makes him happy to get something right, for once. Maybe he’s clinging to fat as his last known adjective, and wants to throw it around whenever possible. Whatever. The rat poison won’t kill him so I let it go. 

He’s never called me fat, or at least, he’s never used the word directly. One day he told me, “You’re different . . . there’s more of you.” If ever you need to tell a person they’ve gained weight, I suggest this particular wording. More of me! How can that not be a good thing? It was practically a compliment. Except not. 

Another time, the only seat available in the TV lounge was a smallish metal folding chair, which I pulled up next to him. He watched in horror as I sat down. “Jesus,” he said. “You’re lucky that thing didn’t break.” I laughed, because it was funny. I mean, coming from a dementia patient. If a guy sitting near me in a restaurant said it I guess I’d have to stab him. 

I found this while searching for images related to “fat.” I am truly mystified this time.

It’s sort of amazing to me, how “fat” has become such an insult. Like, you could describe a person as tall, and no one would be mad at you. But fat – really, just another word to describe shape or size – is enough to make me want to crawl under my seat when my dad says it about a nurse. If I could fit under my seat. Which I cannot. Dammit. 

Say we were living in a society where food was scarce. In that case, we’d all be praying for fatness. Instead, we live in a world where food is in sometimes appalling abundance, and so for that reason, it is most virtuous to avoid it. Even if you must take drugs to do it, or to take a stapler to your internal organs, or worse.

My husband, I think, has worried that I’m on some kind of fat crusade. Like, I’m purposefully rebelling against the system to make a point. That is not the case. I became fat because I wanted to learn how to be normal, and it turned out that weight gain was an inevitable byproduct of ditching 30-plus years of dieting. I think I am closer to normal now than I have been since approximately 1984. I have not eaten ice cream in probably two weeks or more, and not because I’m on a diet, but because I didn’t want any goddamn ice cream. I try new things. I cooked Brussels sprouts and liked them. I had never eaten Brussels sprouts before that. 

I think this is progress and I think it’s health. And too bad for anyone who looks at my appearance and thinks otherwise.  

As for my dad, I will go to see him later today, and he will likely look me up and down and laugh, or poke me in the stomach and say, “that’s big!” And I’ll say, “I might be fat, but you’re the one who’s trying to drink coleslaw through a straw.” And then I’ll laugh, and he’ll laugh along with me, because as we all know, insults only hurt when we agree that they’re insulting.

My family and I will participate again this year in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. You can join our team or make a donation here. We will not cure my dad, and I will continue to write ‘POA’ after my name even when it’s totally not needed because I have just gotten that used to it. All the same, I’m pretty sure future generations will thank us if we can put this nonsense behind us once and for all.

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