I'm right smack in the middle of my ten-day December manual-labor marathon: Four days of decorating wreaths, followed by six long, dirty days of clearing out and cleaning an elderly relative's house; she has been a hoarder, mostly of paper, for more than a decade. The house has been in horrible condition for all that time but people are free to live as they please in this country — as long as they aren't endangering others or are at risk for self-neglect. Our relative was finally declared to be the latter by her town's Council on Aging and her psychiatrist, who both insisted that she had to have a cleaner, safer house and a daily caregiver, or she'd be moved to a care facility. Finally, there was a mandate to clear out her filthy, dangerous, fire-trap of a house.
Four family members and a team of five organizers got started this morning, after the relative left to stay with family out of state. She had been told regularly about the clean-up plan for nearly two months, but chose to ignore it. She has dementia and is good at forgetting things she doesn't want to think about. The truth sank in when a two-ton dumpster appeared in her driveway yesterday. She was upset and didn't want to leave, but somehow we got her packed and into the car with her driver.
We filled that dumpster before mid afternoon. Tomorrow, we're going to fill a four-ton dumpster. We might need a third dumpster on Sunday. Then a five-member cleaning crew is coming for at least two days.
Today's highlights included the exhilarating satisfaction that comes from heaving box after box into a dumpster and watching the huge container steadily fill to the brim — trash we'd all been longing to toss for years. It was fun to finally see floors and other areas that had long been layered over with stuff. Being able to walk freely was entertaining, too. I kept forgetting; I'd go outside via one door and walk around the house to another entrance because it had always been easier to get to certain rooms that way, rather than climbing over papers. We all kept wandering around because we hadn't been able to do it comfortably since the '90s.
The house was full of dust, dirt, spilled food, mold, crawling and flying bugs, spiderwebs, and mouse droppings. Miss Havisham would feel right at home. Everything is awful in a house where very little gets thrown out. (She did throw out most of her food-related garbage, at least.)
We had an informal competition to see who could produce the most disgusting find. I found hideous, bug-infested clumps on the kitchen floor. To keep from gagging over this sort of thing, I've learned to sing folk songs from my teenage, guitar-playing years, which force me to concentrate to remember lyrics. I resorted to "Barbara Allen" a lot in the kitchen today. I unearthed a bag of liquid lettuce, but that was nothing. My relative B., who spent hours dealing with filthy, crammed countertops and cupboards, found food that had expired in 1995, cans about to explode, a box of rice that had been completely emptied by mice, apples that collapsed when she touched them, and the ultimate — an uncapped bottle of olive oil with a strange color. She told me it was a science project I might never see again, so I left my own task — sifting through tens of thousands of pieces of paper to find any of sentimental value while tossing 99.99% of it — to go see what B. had discovered.
We surveyed it with scientific curiosity. The olive oil was reddish and dark, and there seemed to be rounded objects growing and floating in the murk. It reminded me of my October visit to the Musée Dupuytren, the 19th-century medical museum at Paris's medical school, which was filled with many thousands of jars of creepy specimens (human and animal) floating in spirits and formaldehyde. I never expected to be nostalgic for that place, but it was better than the kitchen we were standing in.
I lifted up the bottle from the counter to get a closer look at what was within that cloudy, stinking red oil. Then B. said, "I'm pretty sure it's a mouse." I dropped the bottle in revulsion, sending some oil flying onto the floor, which made us both jump backwards. We began laughing at the horror of it all — the disaster of a house, the terrible changes that can happen to us as we age, at our terrible weekend job, and now... this doomed, symbolic creature. It was the most memorable moment of a memorable day.
And tomorrow we're heading into the basement, where the situation is said to be Even Worse. Wish us luck.