I never took Ryan seriously when he said Ed had been a hoarder. I thought it was an exaggeration because you had always been a pack rat. You always had bins of old paperwork, all of our school crafts, and you never threw any old clothes away.
I now know the difference between a pack rat and a hoarder.
After Dave and I picked you up from the hospital, we went to your apartment. You had warned the us that things were “bad” and it was going to be a “project” cleaning out the place you shared with Ed. We brought our vacuum cleaner and various cleaning supplies in preparation. When we reached your front step, you turned around and warned us a final time with your hands out in a cautionary pose, “It’s bad, guys.”
“It’s okay,” Dave said. “We’re here to help. You can’t scare us off.”
You unlocked the door, turned the knob, and took a couple of steps inside. The outside sunlight cast a beam into the darkened apartment. The old vertical blinds were drawn. The windows sealed and blocked with guard stoppers that were covered in cat hair. The longest wall in the living room was adorned with crucifixes and clocks.
To be fair, clocks were everywhere.
As we surveyed the damage, the three of us could barely move around in the one-bedroom apartment. In one corner of the living room was a pile model train sets in their original boxes and there were additional boxes of train tracks throughout the room. There were white, unopened boxes stacked from floor to ceiling in each room. From the living room ceiling hung two paper mache decorations: one a hot air balloon and one Mickey Mouse.
The carpets had not been vacuumed in years. The three cats we had when we lived together were now morbidly obese. The bed had been used as storage for years and Ed kept every pair of boots he ever had in the closet. Ed also never threw any mail away. You said before he went to sleep at night, he would beg you, “Please don’t throw anything away.”
He died in a tomb of his stuff.
He left you to live in a tomb of his stuff.
A life and death filled to the brim with his stuff.
And the stuff he had was very telling of the person he was in life. Beyond the model train sets, clocks, and crucifixes: Ed had a vast collection of different stuff. When we started filing through each room and peaking in those white boxes, we found more things that could be additionally defined as “stuff.”
Ed had a few dozen collectible Pez dispensers. He had a massive coin collection. He had newspaper clippings of World War II notices. He had 9/11 tribute statues. He had a variety of Jesus, Virgin Mary, and Pope Benedict XVI statues. He had Peanuts and Disney figurines. He had American flags. He had a collection of Time magazines. He had watches. He had guns. He had spam, sardines, and various canned meats. He had Marlboro gear that was ordered through the cigarette catalog.
In his life, Ed had found an unbreakable bond to his stuff.
When he died, you formed your own unbreakable bond to his stuff.
“My rule of thumb is,” I advised you as we worked out our game plan, “If you haven’t opened it or used it in a year: donate it or throw it away.” But even after we were all in agreement, we met resistance.
Dave and I had to present you with an item, have you look it over, then either throw the item away or put it aside. When we revisited the aside pile an hour later, you then looked through the pile again with less attachment and threw items into the trash pile. We were patient and you were diligent. And with time, I could see you learning to let go.
For the first time in a long time, you began to see what you wanted.
“It’s good you guys are here,” you admitted. “Someone needed to come in with no attachment and clear this whole place out.” The realization stung me slightly, but I knew you meant it in a positive way.
Dave and I had taken the day off to clear out the apartment. When we were near the cleaning phase after several hours of the disposing phase, the two of us took a break. We left Dave to clear out a little more stuff while we went on a quick trip to the grocery store.
I drove you to the very Stop & Shop you had your most recent seizure in. We walked the aisles leisurely and talked about our grocery shopping habits and preferences. I checked off items on your list as you placed them in the cart. We even picked up a few impulse buys. You were lighter and I was happy to see you excited about eating again.
When we finished cleaning the apartment, we made your bed together. That night would be the first night in years that you would be sleeping on a bed. With our work for the day finished, we packed up the car. As we said our goodbyes, you held me for a long time and said, “I love you.”
You took me by surprise and I mumbled it back quickly. That was the first time in years that we exchanged ‘I love you’s.’
And I began hoping again that we could mean it.