Fairness Is The Devil’s Promise

I was at the library yesterday, writing and generally minding my own business, when I overheard a grown man at the checkout desk say, “But it’s not fair!”  

I did not hear what the librarian said back to him. I really wanted to but alas, her words were lost in the noise of the crowd. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that libraries have become boisterous social halls these days. Talk about not fair.  

Scene inside the library at lunchtime. No one can shut up.

You know what else isn’t fair? Life. Or, at least it seems not-fair to us mere humans, with our lack of understanding of so much of our existence. Disease isn’t fair. The distribution of wealth isn’t fair. Bad people winning and good people losing, not fair not fair not fair.  

I eventually left the library and went back to work, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this guy and his complaint. Uttered to a librarian, no less. What could possibly be not fair in a library? You take what you want, for free. You bring it back when you’re done. Sure, they fine you if you’re a day late, but what’s so unfair about that? You knew the due date. It’s perfectly reasonable. Dammit, I wish I’d heard the rest of that conversation. 

Here’s a conversation I did hear: later that afternoon, my phone rang. Dad’s nursing home. “Hi, Melissa, no reason to panic, it’s nothing bad,” said one of my favorite nurses. 

Me, when they tell me not to panic.

“Okay,” I said. “What is it?” 

“Well, your dad fell out of his wheelchair,” she told me. “But he’s fine. He was trying to pick up potato chip crumbs. You know how he gets.” 

I do know how he gets. If there is a crumb or a scrap of paper or straw wrapper anywhere on the floor, he must clean it up, stat. I pictured him, leaning out of the wheelchair with no sense of his own tipping point, then tumbling to the floor, an old man, fallen.  

For whatever reason, at that very moment I thought of one of my favorite scenes from Frasier. Frasier, trying to prove that Michael Keaton’s wheelchair-bound character is a phony, pushes him out of said chair just before a phone call proves him wrong. Later, Frasier talks to his father about it.

Frasier: Now there was a lesson learned. 

Martin: Yeah, don’t throw a guy out of a wheelchair. Who knew? 

And so I laughed. I’m sure the nurse was a little confused. What kind of person laughs when told that her elderly father has collapsed to the nursing home floor? 

Well, me, I guess. I laughed just as if she’d called me up to tell me a really good joke.  

“He’s not hurt at all,” said the nurse, possibly panicking herself. Perhaps she thought now it was I who had fallen. Into hysteria. “Him and his cleaning though, huh?” 

I laughed more. God, someone stop me.  

We eventually hung up, and of course I stopped laughing right away now that I didn’t have a horrified, misunderstanding audience. I wished very much that I could tell my mother about this. I knew she’d think it was funny. We might have laughed about the time Daddy fell down the stairs trying to save my sister and me from a burned out light bulb, or the time he fell through a warehouse roof after being told very specifically to not walk there. We’d have laughed about these things because we didn’t know what else to do. Some things are too sad to cry about.

While I was at it, I wished my dad weren’t in a nursing home wheelchair at all. I wished I could tell him and my mother both about this crazy dream I had, in which she was dead and he was too feeble to pick up a potato chip crumb.

I wished for a librarian to whom I could say, “But it’s not fair!” 

I wondered what the librarian would say back to me. Maybe, “If you don’t have the 75 cents today, you can just pay the fine next time.” That is, if I was able to hear her over the loudmouthed jackasses at the table behind me.

So. I could pay the fine and move on, or I could stand there all day whining. My choice.  

Fair enough. 

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. 

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