The woman she was, and the fate she didn’t deserve.
Looking back, I guess I always knew my mother was a hoarder. I remember growing up in apartments and houses that were hopelessly messy with piles of stuff everywhere I turned. My parents sold our mobile home when I was five, and I remember people coming to see it and going into my room. Everything appeared fine on the surface until they opened my closet, which was packed to the ceiling with toys and books and other assorted items. Many of those things belonged to my mother, but I felt ashamed anyway as she scolded me for the mess in front of the prospective buyers. It was just the way we lived, and I never thought to question it.
I also remember being a teenager and having my own room in the apartment I shared with my mother after my parents split up. Half of the small area was covered with my mom’s things piled so high they were taller than me and looked ready to topple at any second.
“Can’t you just get rid of that junk?” I whined as I envisioned having a bedroom like the girls in Seventeen magazine.
“No,” my mother answered. There was no discussion, no acknowledgment of the room being a mess, just a flat-out rejection and that was it. The look on her face told me it would be unwise to ask her again, so I threw blankets over her things stacked in the corners and only selectively invited friends over who wouldn’t judge.
When I left my mother’s apartment at age 17, I became somewhat obsessive about my place being as clean and organized as possible. On my own, I could get rid of any junk I wanted and clean to my heart’s content. When I got married a few years later, I remember my husband making jokes about my constant cleaning. He was afraid to leave his stuff anywhere in case I might think it was unnecessary and throw it away. Our house was forever spotless. Several years later, when my job became demanding, we hired a cleaning service who complained of having nothing to do when they came to clean.
My mother moved to Missouri after my marriage where I noticed her hoarding continued based on the pictures she sent me of where she lived. We were barely speaking then, having done enough damage to each other’s feelings to last a lifetime.
I told myself I was setting boundaries as I ignored her phone calls and letters. My own mother gave me anxiety through the roof just from hearing her voice, so I kept contact to a minimum. I didn’t visit her in Missouri until many years had passed. In the meantime, I had my own children and family to care for. It didn’t occur to me that my mother needed care, too.
As my mom got older, her hoarding became more serious. It wasn’t just her personal keepsake items anymore. Her apartment in Missouri was packed with impulse buys from QVC with the boxes never opened. She had papers strewn everywhere, some just blank pages and some containing important documents that she forgot about or couldn’t cope with. She had a cat who wreaked havoc on the rest of her place, ripping and chewing things, coughing up hairballs and leaving little “presents” everywhere he went. She told me on the phone one day that she let the cat run away and hoped it never came back home; however, it didn’t solve the hoarding problem.
I visited her about five years ago in that same apartment. She waited to tell me until I got there that her landlord was threatening to evict her if she didn’t get things cleaned up. I spent most of the weekend on my hands and knees, picking up half-eaten cans of food and used paper towels and trying to find the sink underneath a giant pile of dishes and silverware. My mother sat on her couch, and I avoided looking directly at her because I knew she was embarrassed. I didn’t want to make her feel worse, and we weren’t close enough to talk about the problem.
“Don’t worry about the bathroom in the hallway. I’ll do that” she called after me just as I was heading that way.
Grateful for her excuse, I instead walked as close to her bedroom as I could get, unable to see the carpet in there because of all my mother’s things. If I had gone into that spare bathroom, I would have seen just how alarming her condition had become. I wish I would have ignored her order not to go in there. If I had, she might still be here today. The idea that I wouldn’t have done something urgent to help her is not easy to live with, but it’s a question still in my mind. I’d spent most of my life avoiding our toxic relationship.
Before I left Missouri, I handed her all the cash I had in my purse, about two-hundred dollars. I apologized that I’d run out of time to help her with the mess, but I thought maybe she could use the money to pay for a cleaning service to finish the job. She never did.
I don’t like to think about the night my mother died because the mental image I’ve pieced together is too painful. The details were told to me by a Missouri police officer over the phone. My mother cut her foot on the blade of an unassembled blender from QVC lying on her living room floor. Apparently, the cut was so deep it went all the way to the bone. Two days passed before her neighbors called 911 worried and saying they hadn’t seen her.
The police found her slumped over on her couch with her phone lying right next to her, yet she hadn’t called for help after wounding herself so severely. The officer told me he didn’t understand why, but I understood as soon as I flew up to Missouri to handle my mother’s affairs.
Going into her apartment for the first time without her there, I cried when I saw the conditions she was living in. Her apartment was ten-thousand times worse than I’d ever seen it, and I found an eviction notice from her landlord sitting on her kitchen counter among the mess.
The horror of what happened to her hit me full force. I realized she cut herself on that blender and didn’t call for help because she didn’t want anyone to see her apartment, not the police and especially not her landlord. Instead, she sat down on her couch with a bleeding foot and waited until she went into shock and was dead. My heart broke for her and the way she must have suffered.
Over the next few days, my mother’s friends offered to help, and together we cleaned as much of the apartment as we could. I found family heirlooms that I knew she treasured mixed together with trash. When one of my mom’s friends went in to clean the hallway bathroom, she shooed me away and told me not to look. I was too much of a coward to disobey, not wanting to see the way the mother who brought me into the world had lived. The friend must have thought I couldn’t handle it, and she was right about that.
I cleaned up the kitchen like a robot until the other women told me to stop. They took me to lunch at my mother’s favorite Chinese restaurant and told me stories about her and how much they loved her. They told me that all she ever talked about were me and my children. They told sweet and funny stories of times they shared with my mom. I felt like an imposter with nothing to relate to and nothing to share. If the women suspected my incredible shame, they didn’t let on and instead tried to make me feel better.
There are so many things I wish I could change. Maybe I could have tried harder to forge some type of relationship with my mom. I was wrong to think she was okay to live by herself and wrong in so many other ways. My whole life, I always thought there would be more time for us to make things right.
The few visits I made to Missouri later in her life, each for only a couple of days, were more time than I’d spent with her in two decades. We never really got to know each other as mother and daughter. Things became a mess whenever we tried. I’ve carried so much guilt over the way she died and the way she lived, always thinking I could have done more.
My mother always told me it was important to be kind. She was not always kind to me, but she always stressed its importance. It was an excellent lesson. Today, I tell my teenage daughter the same thing and think of my mother when I say it. I may not be able to bring my mom back, but I can ensure that my daughter and I carry out her legacy. Her friends told me she was the kindest woman they ever knew, and I hope some of it rubbed off on me. That includes being kind to myself, which I’m still working on.
Someday I will let all the sadness go, but it won’t be today.