From the doorway I scan the cluttered, filthy living room of my mother’s apartment, mouth-breathing in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid the smoky stench. Large pieces of mismatched furniture are buried under layers of towels and clothes. The desk is piled Jenga-style with books, papers, plates, cups, ashtrays, and more books, all of it frosted with dust. The only source of light is a small, curtainless window that accentuates the accumulated misery.
All this to take in, and so much more: the kitchen, with its bounty of rotting food, zoetic with crawling and flying critters, and of course, the porcelain jewel in the festering crown: a dump of a dump hole, eco-rich with mold, mildew, and its odors. All of it was mine alone to deal with, and I was already too exhausted to do anything other than stand in the doorway and survey the squalor.
Two days earlier, my brother called with the follow-up news I had been anxiously awaiting for half a day:
“Yeah, I found her.”
“Oh, thank god!” My muscles, taut with hours of tension, deflated with relief. Since his call that morning, I fretted, and frantically did the only thing I could from three states away: informed the nearby hospitals and local police stations that my elderly mother, whose short term memory had been a problem several times before when she ventured out of her house, was now missing. Since this was the only time she hadn’t eventually made it back home, I had never imagined such a phone call, but it was clearly one that those on the other end of the line were accustomed to: they would excuse themselves for a few moments, then let me know in a sympathetic tone that they had no news for me. With each call, my fear and stress climbed. But then my brother called with the uplifting news that she had been found.
“Oh, thank god! Where was she? Is she okay?”
“No, she’s dead.”
And that’s how my brother informed me of our mother’s death. He explained that she hadn’t gone missing; she was on her bed, covered by her quilt, which is why he missed her when he checked her apartment earlier that morning. Because her home was so disgusting, he scanned the area quickly and left, and it wasn’t until nightfall when a savvy cop asked him to check all the rooms again that he found her.
He found her, and dealt with the body, and then called me. And now here I am, staring at the shabby remnants of my mother’s life, and I’ve got the weekend to empty her apartment, because Bro told the landlord it would be ready for painting on Monday. He can’t deal with any more of this right now, and the unspoken but very strong undercurrent that runs through all our discussions is, he not only dealt with her dead body, but he dealt with her alive, which was probably far more devastating, as she had become, by her 77th year on Earth, pretty much an unpleasant pain in the ass that everyone avoided as much as they could.
But he couldn’t: he was her son and she had moved all the way East from California to be with him and his family, who were now treating her like she was a zombie covered in Ebola. I dealt with her when we both lived in LA, when she had come out of a heart attack-induced three day coma with a brain injury that caused an extreme personality change. This is common enough so that there’s been a Lifetime movie of the week about this phenomenon, but when it happened to my mother it was vexing. Very, very vexing, and after I did my time, including acting as her conservator rather than allow her to give her money away, I escaped, and there was enough of a buffer between us so that I only had to tolerate excruciatingly tedious phone calls filled with detailed minutia: “so I got in the car, and saw that I needed gas. I drove over to the Shell station on Connecticut…”
Now I was in her doorway, she was suddenly gone, a fact I could not possibly integrate at the time, and I had less than two days to empty out what remained of her existence, all of which was covered in dirt, dust, crumbs and ashes.