Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. ~ Zora Neale Hurston
Some days, even in love, my soul wanted to stay in its hiding place.
Before the ambulance took my father away, he asked me for a favor. He wouldn’t look me in the eye as he asked me to pick up his toiletry bag and some fresh underclothes. He hoped it wouldn’t be a long stay, but his stays in Westwood were rarely short anymore. I didn’t understand his discomfort in asking me until I arrived back at his house and opened his bedroom door.
My father rented a room from a friend of a friend. I hadn’t actually met Max until that day. Max was a computer engineer who was nearly as untidy as my father. I walked past the living room full of computer monitors and keyboards and hard drives and motherboards and all the other components I could recognize but not name, and headed up the stairs to my father’s bedroom. After living with my father for a short while as a teenager, I knew to expect an unkempt living space, but I could not have expected what I saw when I opened his bedroom door.
I was unable to see the floor. To the right was his bed, covered with debris: saw blades; a hammer; a box of nails; a plastic bag containing unopened cans of Campbell’s Chunky soup; a seventeen-inch computer monitor I’d given him a year before; a box full of new and used and broken door knobs, hinges, and latches; nuts and bolts; a paper bag of fast food trash; empty Sprite cans; a cheeseburger wrapper; a few empty microwave dinner cartons and trays with most of the food eaten; business cards and stacks of paper; bills and file folders.
In all this mess on the bed, I wondered where he slept. On the opposite side of the mound there was a small space barely large enough for a small nine-year old boy, let alone a nearly six-foot-tall grown man. The pillow was dark with grease and dirt from his hair, which must have rarely been washed before he laid his head down on it. I pictured my father curled up in a fetal position just to fit into the space he’d left himself for sleeping, and tears streamed down my face.
There was no blanket, only a sheet that could be pulled halfway up to the top of the bed. It must have been months since the sheet had been changed. The other half of it was trapped under everything on the other side of the bed. A person who lives like this just can’t stay healthy. I wondered if the chaos of my father’s room had anything to do with him being perpetually ill. It certainly couldn’t have helped.
My eyes searched the room for signs of the belongings my father had asked for. Aside from the bed, there were dirty and clean clothes, as well as sheets, blankets, duffle bags, books, videos, more bags of fast food trash and empty soda cups with dusty periscoped straws, and magazines strewn about the floor. This had to be months of my father walking into this room, undressing, and getting into bed after a long day’s work without regard for having done the same thing night after night after night and not picking up a thing. I found unopened packages of both socks and underwear atop a stack of what looked to be clean clothes. I imagined he didn’t have the energy to rummage through the mess to find undergarments, let alone to wash or fold them, so he just went out and bought new socks and underwear when he ran out of clean garments.
Caught up in the chaos, I could not avert my eyes from the rest of the room. To the left of the door, on the opposite side of the room from the bed, was his desk. It was filled with more stacks of paper, more file folders, more books and magazines and mail and letters and trash and bills, which all surrounded another computer monitor and covered the attached keyboard. A corkboard hung from the wall above the desk with a single piece of paper push-pinned to it. I recognized the handwriting immediately.
My own words, written to my father years ago. I stared at the letter, eyes blurred from tears, surrounded by the insurmountable mess. What must my father think of himself to live like this? I turned away from the corkboard, leaving the letter untouched. I stepped out of the bedroom and refused to think about what I’d written on that page.
Above is an excerpt from my book, Seven Days. I’m describing what it was like to realize my father was a hoarder, but this was long before cable television created an understanding of what, exactly, that was. While, at the time, I attributed it to his natural bachelor-like tendencies and the fatigue he must’ve been feeling from the chemo treatments, I really have no idea what caused my father to live like that. I chose to have conversations about how to make him comfortable during the final months of his life rather than trying to find out how he’d gotten to that place. Sometimes I wish I’d asked him about it, but then, we didn’t have time for those conversations any more.
That’s the thing about this journey. Looking back, it might seem as if I’d made conscious choices about what I did and which conversations I had or didn’t have. In reality, I didn’t have the sense or the bandwidth to do anything but keep moving forward. When the bandwidth came, I would deal with conscious choices. Until then, I’d just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Maybe Friedrich Nietzsche was right: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”