This is part one of Notes from the Problem Child
On my father’s 92nd birthday, my mom, brother and I marked the occasion by getting rid of all his clothes.
He wouldn’t be needing them anymore. By that time, he’d been dead nearly 5 weeks.
Two thoughts echoing inside my head kept me from crying uncontrollably as we set to this arduous task of hunting, gathering, sorting clothes and assembling bags and boxes of like-items. The first idea that relieved the sting from this procedure was that we’d be donating all the clothes to a shelter in the inner-city. When my parents first got involved with the shelter, it was fledgling. They volunteered to work in the soup kitchen every Thursday and serve food. By that time in their lives, they were well into their 70’s and they‘d been doing it steady ever since. The notion of two seniors venturing into a seedy part of Chicago to carry on with this filled me with a lot more respect for them, which was plenty to begin with. My dad also founded a literacy program through the shelter and routinely visited some rough neighborhoods by himself to tutor children of broken homes. These were kids without dads, whom he taught how to read. I like to think that there are a few people walking around in a better place right now because of him. Now that the shelter was thriving, with the donation of these new (old) clothes, I knew that, even in death, he was still helping bring more people to a better place. At least they’d have some comfort. It’d been a cold winter, not unusual for a town on the Great Lakes.
It was his birthday and he was giving someone else a gift.
The other thought I had wasn’t as pleasant. It was something that had burned inside me for years. The collection and removal of clothes represented just a small fraction of the enormous amount of clutter that my parents (but in particular my dad) had amassed over the years. And I was determined to get rid of it. Dad was a collector (which is a nicer version of the word “hoarder” but the latter may be more appropriate). Since I’m the youngest of 3 kids, I have this feeling that I’m entitled to more anger about having to deal with this problem than my brother or sister. Since most of this stuff had accumulated while I was living at the house (with my bother and sister away at college), I had dealt with it more. I had tripped over, stubbed on, lost amongst and attempted to work and grow up around…junk, for longer than anyone else. Of course I’m entitled to feel more frustrated by this, right? And of course, with that, there’s a guilt that goes with carrying a degree of hate toward two people who were (and are) so accomplished, so good and wonderful.
There was clutter; in more ways than one.
Problems started surfacing when my dad began deteriorating last spring. He was sick and acting strange, at times nasty (totally unlike his personality). He was not cooperating with doctors. Doctors didn’t know exactly what was happening to him, which was another source of frustration. New words entered our lexicon. One of the most widely used was Dementia. One symptom led to another and medication A was followed by medication B, then C. My mom did her best to handle everything but she isn’t one to push for answers and keeps her feelings inside. She more or less rolled with the punches.
To make matters worse, neither of my parents had a will, power of attorney or health care proxy, despite the pleadings of their children to be prepared for the inevitable. We didn’t know what their wishes were or even where all their records were. There’d been no discussions beyond the kids (very respectfully) asking for steps to be taken, for plans to be laid out. We had anticipated trouble for years. We asked for stuff to be thrown out, sold or designated to be handed down (God forbid either one of them should trip and fall). We’d asked for home repairs to be made (for several years, they’d had no working shower and both bathroom sinks weren’t functioning). We’d suggested they hire cleaning help and seek an elder law attorney. No such luck. We’d offer to help them do all this; “No thanks.” We tried to convince them that they’d live a more enjoyable life, only to hear our parents retort; “We don’t like to be told what to do!“ Who on Earth was doing that?
These problems surfaced like slime stirred up from a riverbed. You don’t always see slime but when you have to get out of the boat and swim, you find it clinging to you and you just want it to go away. But like algae in a river, these family nuisances must have a purpose. A purpose of which I’m still discovering and from which, I’m struggling to making sense.
Fortunately, a river flows.
Call me the Problem Child. I’ll be telling my story here. I hope it helps me. I hope it helps you. I welcome your thoughts.