Don't go down to the basement. It's a horror flick fall back but also somehow exists in our collective unconscious as true. Basements hold the boogeyman and his secrets. At least mine does.
Somehow I have become The Keeper Of All The Shit in my family: photo albums, letters, mementos, old books, boxes and boxes of what that we put in my basement after my mom died. This is helpful on a #TBT when I want to find an awkward pic of me in the 7th grade, but not so helpful when I stumbled across my mom's notes that she took during her and my dad's divorce. Opening that box was like opening a crypt of pissed off snakes. Not that I read anything. Just poked around, got bit, then sealed it back up. It's been a week since I found that box, but still I hear it down there like Poe's Tell-Tale (Broken) Heart. Tear up the planks! It is the beating of this hideous heart!
So why don't I just get rid of it? That box? All of the boxes even? Good question.
When my mom was really sick her sister, K, came to visit. My mom and K had not spoken for years, some sort of vicious falling out, but my mom seemed happy to reconcile with K. I mean, it was her death bed, and as dramatic as that sounds, death beds are real. There is no time to rehash old who-did-whats on a death bed.
K was very helpful, spending lots of time with my mom in Hospice, cuddling with her, talking to her. I was beyond grateful, beyond overwhelmed, beyond in disbelief that it was all happening. So when K offered to clean out my mom's San Francisco apartment I said yes. Yes! God, yes, thank you.
Because my mom was a bit of a hoarder. Which might be like saying someone is "a little pregnant." I mean, either you are or you aren't, right? I don't know. I guess I'm not comfortable calling my mom a hoarder but it's important to know what her apartment was like: tiny and stuffed with clothing, books, journals, art supplies, jewelry, nursing binders bloated with cat piss stacked beneath her bed. We're talking hoarder-stuffed with a side of shopping addiction. So yeah. Yes. Please clean out my mom's apartment.
It took K weeks to clean it out; it took my mom weeks to die. Every day I went to Hospice and sat with my mom, and every day K would report on what she had gotten done at the apartment. I did not have the strength to see for myself, to go to my mom's apartment. So I just smiled, thanked K, held my mom's hand, waited.
Let's back up a few months to when the oncologist told us there was nothing else they could do, my mom in a hospital bed, me and my dad sitting on the edge. My mom told us that she had written each of us letters, that they were in her apartment. I cried and we all held hands, every single second surreal.
So when K said she would clean out the apartment, I told her about the letters. Please put aside the letters, I said. She said she would. Simple, right? The act of your mother dying. All of it a strange dance trying to figure out what to tell the landlord about when she will be "moving out." You don't know the steps to the dance, when to cut off electricity, if they will even let you since it's not your name on the account. Falling over your feet, feeling your way through it all with your hands that just so happen to be numb. Did she have a deposit? How the fuck would I know?
There was an afternoon, maybe a week before she died. At this point my mom was unresponsive, though the Hospice pamphlets said she could hear us. K came to say goodbye, the apartment was cleaned out and she was going home. Did you set aside the letters? I asked. K was on the bed with my mom cuddling her. I was in a chair on the other side. We spoke over my mom's body. No, she said. You know, there were so many journals. Stacks of them. Journals that your mom wrote over the years, letters to you, Andy, Allen, your dad. I destroyed them. I figured if she had not mailed them to you then she did not intend for you to read them. Any of it. I lit some of them on fire and took the rest to the dump. I was protecting her.
Of course the conversation didn't go as clean as that, but that was the gist. Sitting by my mom who no longer reflexively blinked, her eyes wet with ointment that the nurses put in, I felt as if she were dying twice. The mom in front of me, and the mom I was supposed to know through her letters and journals.
To say I was angry is an understatement. I felt violated. Robbed. So fucking pissed and crushingly sad. I went out to the back deck of the Hospice and called my dad, sobbing. I knew the letters and journals would not be easy to read. My mom was a complicated person, but she was MY mom, and she wanted me to understand her. I desperately wanted to understand her. K had no right to make that decision for any of us, K who had not spoken to my mom in years.
A few days later I went to the apartment with my dad. There were piles of things that K thought we would like: photos, books, boots (?), nursing binders that had to be destroyed a certain way due to HIPAA law. My dad and I sat on the floor and paged through the nursing binders. My mom was a prolific journal-er, forever full of emotion and opinion. Luckily she had written some personal stuff in those binders, which I saved. And yes, they were hard to read. But I'm glad I did, even if it was just a sliver of what my mom wanted to say.
K was long gone when Allen died a few months later, and that house was tenfold the hoarding nightmare of my mom's apartment. My dad, brother and I saved what we wanted, and hired a professional estate service to do the rest. Now my basement is stacked with boxes of divorce papers and photographs, drawings that my mom did in the margins of everything, and I'm afraid to actually throw anything away.
What if she's still in there somehow? What if there is one piece of paper that will make it all make sense? My mom. My family. I know this is silly. Stupid, even. But I can't let it go. At the same time, I am resentful of those boxes stacked in my basement. Why do I have to be the one carrying it all?
I daydream sometimes of throwing it all away, the photos, letters, newspaper clippings, boxes of shit that meant something to someone at one time. To have a basement clean save for who I am all by myself, my family. But for now I can't. Instead I stare at old photos trying to figure it out. What were we all thinking? When did it start to turn? Because there was a moment in 1987 when we stood together as a family and waited while someone took our picture. A moment when we kind of smiled and said cheese. Boxes and boxes in the basement and the big question remains: Who were we then? And why do I care?