This thread is not
about your stuff
. Well, it is, but it isn't--just bear with me. I apologize for the length, but I really feel this needs to be said because it's something we don't discuss here very often, if at all. Let me start at the beginning.
Back in December, I came to the shocking realization my Big 5-0 was right around the corner. (Actually, it was more than right around the corner; it was coming up my front walk, shrieking at the top of its lungs and prancing around in glittery platform heels. I would've had to have been in a coma to ignore it.
). So I decided that in honor of my 50th, I would get rid of fifty percent of the unnecessary crap in my house. I started a countdown on Listzilla, restarted my blog, and prepared to kick butt and take stuff out of my apartment. The universe then laughed hysterically at my plans, poured a drink, and began to amuse itself by throwing various obstacles in my path such as a raging kidney infection (I sorted thru boxes as I laid in bed or on the couch) and a zillion hours of extra work at my job (I cleaned after I got home, even though I was usually exhausted).
Then my uncle died.
It wasn't unexpected. He had been sick for the past six or seven years and had limited mobility for the past four, sometimes to the point of being bedridden. We all knew it was coming. What complicated matters was the fact that he and my aunt (mostly my aunt) were hoarders. They lived on-and-off in third-degree squalor for heaven only knows how many years. There were long periods of time when my aunt refused to even let anyone in the house; I can only guess what it looked like during the time we were kept out--and that guess isn't pretty.
Family and friends tried to help. On three different occasions, a group of relatives, friends, and hired help went in to clean and clear when we could finally talk my aunt into accepting some assistance. We made a little progress each time, but it was like a drop in a bucket of water at the edge of the ocean. My aunt would refuse to let go of this or relinquish control of that or throw away things which were obviously garbage, like empty soda bottles, so we never really made a lot of headway. We did what we could here and there--cleaned the bathrooms, carried out the junk my aunt would let go of, etc.--but we never came close to really putting it in order. Have you ever heard the expression "like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic
"? Okay, imagine trying to rearrange those deck chairs when you're dragging them thru piles of trash and animal waste, then have nowhere to put them.
During the last cleaning frenzy, I was very concerned about my uncle's health, so I made sure his room and bathroom were clean. My mother and I even put a small fridge, microwave, and coffee maker in there so he wouldn't have to navigate the mess to make it to the kitchen, but that was all we could do. Shortly after that, my aunt stopped letting people into the house once again, and that was over two years ago. Although I did see my aunt and uncle on several occasions out in public, I was not allowed into the house again until after he died.
For everyone who wants to know why Adult Protective Services or some similar agency wasn't called, I can tell you it was a topic of many heated discussions within the family for several years. I threatened to do so more than once, and even called for authorities to do a welfare check on my uncle a couple of times, but since he and my aunt lived in a remote rural community, no real investigation was ever done. My aunt was able to stop the inspectors on the porch by bringing my uncle to the door where he could easily convince them that everything was fine, thank you very much. Since they saw he was alive and well, they signed off on the report and went on their way. Why the smell from inside the house didn't lead them to investigate further is anyone's guess, but they never did. Like many government employees in rural areas, I'm sure the investigators were probably responsible for overseeing an area that included multiple counties, so since my uncle appeared to be in no obvious distress, it was simply easier to not take a closer look in the interest of saving time.
As I said, when my uncle died I had not been in their house in over two years, but since he was in his mid-80's and my aunt in her late-60's, I thought they must surely have all their paperwork in order: wills, power of attorney, burial insurance and instructions, etc. I surely thought wrong. When my uncle died at the end of the year, he had no will, no burial insurance, no instructions of any kind--absolutely nothing. This was a great thing to find out as his body lay in the morgue, awaiting delivery to a funeral home. My aunt was hysterical, his three kids from two previous marriages all lived thousands of miles away (and had all pretty much disowned him because of my aunt's hoarding), and even though I lived over 100 miles away, it fell to me to figure out where he was going to go and what was going to happen to him.
After standing in animal waste up to my ankles and trash that was three feet high in places for several hours, I found what I needed in order to get him buried. But it didn't stop there. Over the next seven weeks, I made the 210-mile roundtrip at least two or three times a week to dig thru a 2500-square foot house buried in stuff and squalor to find the paperwork needed to finalize all his affairs, start the process to be sure my aunt would receive the correct benefits from his years as a civil employee and veteran, transfer all pertinent bills to her name, etc. When possible, I also helped as family and friends once again came into clean and clear out the house, but I admit I didn't put a lot of effort into that part of it. I felt I was doing my part by taking care of all the probate issues and to be honest, I think the odds of my aunt keeping the house clean are almost zero.
But what bothered me far more than the long drive or the trash or the squalor was the fact that with every minute I spent in that house searching for the information I needed while standing in waste and surrounded by trash, I felt all the good memories I had of my aunt and uncle slipping away. Instead of being able to cherish the thought of how my uncle loved to try new types of cookies or coffees, or how proud he was of his beautiful garden, those wonderful images began to be swallowed up by anger and resentment. Why did I have to make order out of this chaos that I didn't create? Clean up this mess that I didn't make? Why did I have to take time from doing things that were important to me--like cleaning stuff out of my own
home by my birthday--to tie up loose ends that shouldn't have been loose in the first place? Other friends and family members unfortunately felt the same way.
The paperwork is finished now, the house is as clean as it's going to get, and I've managed to hang on most of the positive memories I had about my uncle, even though it wasn't easy. It's so sad the last image of a good and kind man was colored for even a moment by the mess that was left behind. It was so unnecessary and I hope in time all the negative thoughts that have filled these past few weeks will fade away while the good memories remain.
I'm not going to hit my goal of "Fifty Percent Gone by the Big 5-0"--I know that. I don't like it, but there's not much I can do about it. I've got less than two weeks to go, so I'll do what I can in the time I have left. But it's certainly not going to stop at my birthday. (Well, it's going to stop on
my birthday--who the heck wants to clean on their birthday?
) But now more than ever, I know I'm going to keep going until all this stuff is either put up or put out of the house. Why? Because when my time comes, I want my loved ones to remember great things like how much I loved animals or how I knew all the best shortcuts thru the city during rush hour or that I knew all of Julia Sugarbaker's best speeches from Designing Women
by heart--not how they had to spend precious time sorting out what was left of my life after I was no longer living it.
So what will you leave behind?