Just like autumn leaves
we’re in for change
to what remains
— TV on the Radio, “Province“
I remember early July, 1980. I was following my dad around in the woods surrounding the house that he would buy the following month, checking out where our property lines were. I would diligently inform him every time I saw a tick climbing up his pants or shirt. (I think I remember him collecting around twenty to my six.) I remember being thirsty afterward, and my mom holding me up to drink straight from the long, curved faucet in the kitchen sink, my first taste of well water. I remember how huge the house seemed, with all those empty rooms. I remember the smell of sawdust in the garage, since it was still a newly-built house. I remember the smell and feel of the grey wall-to-wall carpet as I lay there playing on the floor in the room they said would be mine. My mom and dad were both thirty-four years old then.
I’ve always been the neat freak of the family. Not obsessive-compulsive neat, not autism-spectrum fussy, but still, I can’t tolerate clutter and filth. When I get stressed, I soothe myself by cleaning things whether they really need it or not, a quirk which the Lady of the House considers quite the value-add. At twelve years old, once I no longer had to share a room with my messy brother, I started vacuuming and dusting my own room, doing my own laundry, etc. I gamely defended my little swath of tidy territory in the upstairs, battling the encroaching forces of sloth and entropy to a standstill, until I moved out at nineteen. My childhood homeland has since become a makeshift cat sanctuary, I believe. I haven’t verified this; I prefer to honor a dignified memory of the room as it was in its prime.
I was back out at the house last week. My brother called me, asking if I could help him get our dad to the hospital the next day if necessary. Both my parents had been diagnosed with the batflu earlier this month, but my dad seemed to be getting weaker, unable to drink or eat on his own now, let alone keep any of it down. After a quick confab on the phone about his condition, we decided there was no better time than the present. I told my brother to call an ambulance and we’d meet him there. When we arrived, Dad was in his chair, too weak to stand, severely dehydrated and disoriented to the point of near-incoherence. The hallway was too crowded with boxes, books, and other detritus for the EMTs to get a gurney in there, so they brought a wheelchair in. My brother and I had to do a modified fireman’s carry to get him out of the chair and set him in the chair, which then had to be carried down the back stairs to the driveway, where we hoisted him onto the gurney and into the ambulance. I’ll always remember his wide, staring, uncomprehending eyes as the EMTs asked him routine questions, the groan he made when we lifted him, somewhere between pain and fear, and the way his trembling hand instinctively reached out to clutch the railing as we carried him down the stairs. My brother and I followed the ambulance to the hospital, while the Lady of the House stayed behind with my mother, eventually convincing her to come to the hospital as well. (Both of them had gotten pneumonia, in addition to the dehydration. My mom was admitted to the ICU with an oxygen sat of 84, six points lower than the point at which home oxygen is typically called for.)
The garage which once smelled sweetly of sawdust was long ago converted into an office, which has since been further converted into an office/ground-floor bedroom. It’s filled with boxes, filing cabinets, and tons of books, among other things. (Both of my parents have been selling books online for many years, and have accumulated thousands that have never even made it to the point of being listed for sale.) With my parents determined to “age in place,” we convinced them a few years ago to install a full bathroom down there, since the other full baths are upstairs. Part of the reason my mom resisted going to the hospital at first was because she wanted to take a shower before allowing anyone to treat her, but in her weakened state, she couldn’t walk upstairs to do it. (There’s something inappropriately amusing about the thought of Vanity, even as you stand on Death’s very doorstep, nagging you to make sure you’re wearing clean underwear.) Why not use the one in the “garage”? Well, even if she could have easily gotten to it through the manmade maze, it has boxes of books stacked in it.
Most of the house is like that. Entire rooms are essentially just indoor storage containers now. Worst of all is the smell. The smell of dust, of stale air, of old furniture, of pet dander (and worse). After visiting there, my clothes always go straight into the laundry with the same sense of slightly-angry disgust, just as they did back in the days when I’d go to a club to see a rock concert and come home reeking of cigarette smoke.
Ironically, I remember, somewhere on a shelf in the attic (which was renovated a long time ago into yet another room), there’s an oversized metal pin, like the smaller type you’d pin to a jacket, that reads, “Someday I’ll Get Organized.” I’d guess it dates to the mid-80s. My mom has been making lighthearted excuses for the mess as long as I can remember. “Spring cleaning” was the excuse even I learned to give to friends who came over, even when it was summer. I recall a live Christmas tree that stayed up in the living room until early March one year, when I was around ten or eleven. There’s always something that prevents her from acting on her imminent plan to clean everything up. The details slightly change, but the pattern remains the same. In recent years, the backlog of books has been blamed on various things, but now, after a year in which there were no sales to attend, no new inventory to buy, there are no more excuses to hide behind. If these didn’t get listed, sold and shipped during a year of enforced isolation, when will they ever? My parents are seventy-five now. Are they going to have more time and energy when they’re eighty? Eighty-five?
Obviously, like all people, my folks are too complex as individuals to be reduced to one flaw. But as I stood there last week, stunned by the level of squalor that they had come to see as normal, it was hard to not see this episode as a cautionary tale about the danger of forty years of inertia, of bad habits, of avoidance and willful blindness and empty promises. Today, while eating a quick lunch at work, I saw a link to a review of what appears to be yet another exercise in pointless, Teutonic-academic, pseudo-radical, masturbatory stupidity presented in book form. The argument seems to be…well, as far as I can make out, that “fitness” is a sinister thing because blah blah “neoliberalism” blah blah “late-capitalism” blah blah. I’m not sure whether, in this analysis, people who work out are ominous ubermenschen shock troops for the fascist new world order, or pathetic humanoid hamsters unwittingly serving their capitalist masters, but either way, it helped clarify something for me. Why do I like exercising and staying in shape? Because I have a tragic worldview, one in which the forces of entropy and chaos are insatiable and constantly threatening to break down our dignity, to destroy the fragile solace and beauty we create in our small little gardens of order. Our bad habits, our fears, our weaknesses inexorably enclose us, shrink our horizons, limit our potential, and intimidate us into submission as long as we allow it. Those forces can’t be held off forever, of course. The barbarians of age and disease will eventually breach even the gates of our bodies and destroy them from inside. But perhaps there is dignity in putting up a good fight in the meantime. Perhaps we can stand as reminders that there are more options than cynicism and surrender. I stay fit for the same reason I keep my house tidy. It’s a practice, in the religious sense, a ritual expression of my deepest principles. Set your sights on beauty and order, and never stop fighting for them, even when it’s ultimately futile.
My dad came home from the hospital today. My mom has been moved out of the ICU and should be home soon. Now, my brother and I have to convince them that things need to change. Part of the resistance to change will come from the resistance that most of us feel toward thoughts of our mortality. It’s not just about getting rid of “stuff.” It’s about admitting that the place in your life where that stuff used to fit is closed and locked forever. It’s about admitting that all the “one days” have been used up. It’s about admitting that you’ve been living falsely in some sense, a prisoner of fears and vain hopes, and worst of all, only realizing it when there’s little time left to fully redeem yourself. I hope they’re strong enough to bear it gracefully, and I hope I’m strong enough to support them.