Visiting my mother has always been painful. Every time I went, things were worse. She wasn’t able to see that.
See, my mother was what they call a hoarder.
“I ain’t no hoarder. That’s first things first,” she’d say. “I’m a keeper. I like to collect things. And I ain’t gonna change a damn thing.”
Her yard was overrun with broken planters full of dried up plants, cardboard boxes crumpled and moldy from the rain. There were the old bikes from my childhood and a kid’s pool she bought at a garage sale. All worthless and rusty and stinking. The smell when I would pull into the driveway hit me with a thickness I could not describe.
To get into the house, one had to walk around to the back door, shove it open and slide in. Step just so, making sure not to put a foot on anything that could break. Making sure not to get yourself stuck.
Junk was everywhere. Piles of newspaper reached to the ceiling. Boxes of dollar store and garage sale treasures that I was sure she couldn’t remember buying. Old blankets and clothes and food topped off the heap of stuff. The bottom was what I feared the most. Antiques and family heirlooms mixed with trash and rat feces. And the smell was the worst part.
The last time I went to see her at the house, I couldn’t find her. I walked through the kitchen. Dishes covered with dust and fuzzy food were everywhere. A cantaloupe bled juice out of a deflated side. She wasn’t in the living room. Her chair, once her only empty seat, was occupied by several black garbage bags. I didn’t have the courage to see what was inside.
“Mom,” I said. “Where are you?”
All I heard was a moan. It sounded from upstairs.
Somehow I made it up the steps. As I climbed I tried to figure out how she’d gotten up them. She had a bad knee and was about 100 lbs overweight. Not to mention what the atmosphere in that house was doing to her lungs.
The moan again. From the bedroom she used to share with my father. The bedroom where she’d found him, dead by his own hands.
“Mom, what happened?”
I walked to the door jam. She was sprawled out across where the bed should have been. A heap of her hoard on top of her, crushing her. A dresser and a bookshelf pinned her down. Her legs and one arm were being held down by the furniture and books and hills of clothes.
“How am I supposed to get you out of there?” I said. “Mom, I’m going to have to call the fire department.”
“No,” she said, so weak. “No fire men. Don’t you let no one in this house.”
“But we have to get you out of here. You need to get to the hospital.”
“Don’t you bring no one in here! It ain’t none of their damned business.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Get me out of here yourself.”
I knew what she feared. They would see this place and condemn it. They would force her to either clean up or get out. And where would she go?
“Mom, I can’t.”
“Then leave me to die.”
My head swirled. I dialed the number for emergency on my cell phone.
The ambulances and fire engines were there within minutes.
It took hours to get her out. She refused to go with them. But they didn’t allow her that choice. Her language was poisonous. She threatened and swung her good arm at them. They strapped her down.
At the hospital they had to take her right into surgery. They could only guess how long she’d been stuck up there in that room. The damage festered, turned gangrenous. Her legs were amputated.
“She’ll never be able to live alone again,” the social worker told me. “She’s going to need to be in a facility.”
” What if I clean up the house?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not. She can’t live there. No one can. Your mother will need round the clock care.” She fanned out half a dozen glossy brochures. “May I make a few recommendations?”
The responsibility of cleaning up the house fell on me. I was so tempted to light a match to the old place, take care of the problem that way. Each time I stumbled on a bag of rotten fruit or the petrified body of a cat I was more and more disgusted.
How did she live like this for so long? Why did she do this?
After months of filling huge dumpsters and much scrubbing and sanitizing, the house was empty. It was then I could see the decay of the structure. Holes in the floor, black mold creeping up the walls, water damage and drooping ceilings. It was completely destroyed.
And so was she.
I would visit her every day in the hospital and then the nursing home. But I never told her what I was doing at the house. It was too soon for her to know.
The day after I finished the clean-up, I brought her lunch.
“Hi, mom. How ya feeling?”
“You say that every day.”
“Because it’s true.”
“Well, I brought you some soup and a salad.”
“I want to go home.”
“I just want to go be with my things. I miss feeling them around me.”
“You need to stay here. Get better. Build up your strength.”
“You been to the house, haven’t you?”
“How’s everything looking?”
“You know, maybe you could bring a few of the things here. Just so I feel more at home.”
“But those things make me happy. They’re my things.”
I looked away from her.
“What have you done?” her voice shook. “You wouldn’t.”
“I had to, mom.”
“No!” Her scream surprised me. “Those were my treasures!”
The last time I heard her make that sound was when she found my father in their bedroom, his body still warm but empty of life.
“Mom, those things were killing you.”
“But I loved them!”
“They crushed you.”
“You had no right! You had no right!”
I walked away. Her cries followed me all the way to my car.