This past Saturday, I went with a group of hospital employees way out into the country to help a man clean up his house. He lived with his two brothers who have recently been moved to a nursing home, which contacted SOURCE to help out with this third brother. After an assessment, it was decided that things needed to be a little more tidy to be able to send in an aide to help this man.
Now, he's not a hoarder, but you couldn't tell by looking at his house. It was an old farm house, with a porch that wrapped around half of it and built up on pegs to keep it off the ground. The porch, which one of my legs fell through at one point (don't worry mom, I'm fine), was filled with random crap - chairs, wood, tires, heating units, tools, buckets - you name it, and it covered the whole porch. The yard was no better - more tires, old mattresses, doors, lawn mowers, and on and on. Now, like I said, this man was not a hoarder - he did not have an illogical attachment to these items. It simply didn't occur to him that he should throw things away, that he should clean up. He didn't know any better. You really felt for the guy. He was probably in his late 60's, the top of his head came up to my shoulder (and I'm not exactly Yao Ming), and he had on a pair of bright blue overalls and a trucker cap. He was a super nice old man, but a simpler sort of man, so that you might understand how his home became the way it did.
We spent a few hours piling up all the things from the yard and porch, including a rotting mattress, a wooden chair that disintegrated when I tried to pick it up, a wasp infested armchair, a blanket which was home to what was identified as a brown recluse - one of the deadliest spiders in the world, a pile of scrap wood overrun with lizards, and a wide array of other random things. There was supposed to be a dumpster at the house to throw everything in, but the company never dropped it off. So I think they were planning on getting a burn permit to just torch everything, but I won't be there for that. One really cool thing I did find were cotton weights, which were attached to a scale and weighed against cotton shipments many years ago. The whole place had a distinct smell which was none too pleasant.
Then, as things were wrapping up outside - we moved to the inside. "Oh goodness gracious..." was all that was going through my head when I walked in. The first thing that hit me was how dark it was. It was the middle of the day and it was unbelievably dark in there. The whole place was lit by a couple of bare light bulbs. There weren't many windows, and the ones that were there were covered up. I was thankful that I couldn't see any better because what I could see wasn't good. Stacks of papers, boxes, clothes, and everything covered with a layer of filth. Mouse droppings lay along the walls. It smelled impossibly wrong. The unmistakable scent of stale urine. I nervously tapped my gloved hands on the sides of my jeans, and I fought the urge to run back outside. I was immediately thankful to know that I would be leaving soon and going back to a nice, clean, non-infested house, but I became very distraught to think that this man lived here. It was his home. Yes, he could have kept it nicer, but a lot of things were out of his control, including his own mental capacity that should have told him that this wasn't healthy. I knew that I had volunteered to help this man do what he could not, and that helped me to do things I never thought I would be able to do. I walked toward the back of the house, down a dark, bare plywood hallway to a room that I quickly discovered was the source of the smell. This was one of the brothers rooms before he went to the nursing home. He stayed in this bed, sitting in a pool of his own urine for days at a time. His bed sat as it was since he left in December. It was our job to get this nastyness out of the house. We brought in a large roll of extra heavy duty trash bags, and one by one, David - who I have an immense amount of respect for - picked up the blankets and placed them into the trash bag I was holding. We all tried not to breathe. One bag filled. Two bags filled. Three bags... There were an impossible amount of blankets on this bed. The old man explained that everytime his brother said he was cold, he threw another blanket over him - they didn't have heat. Now the mattress. It sat there half rotted. I wished I had 80 pairs of gloves on. Out it went. Then the box spring. It smelled like death. Not done yet. We went through boxes that had been sitting long enough for their contents to rot away. Jackets that fell apart when you took them off the hook. I felt like I was in a movie - a part of a scene that would make me squirm if I were watching it from my living room couch. When we had finally finished, I walked outside into the glorious sunlight and the pristine fresh air, thanking God that I didn't have to go back in. The old man thanked us profusely and I watched him sit up on his porch, feeling that no one should have to live in a place like that. It didn't feel like I was in America. It felt like a third world country.
We drove to a nearby church to wash up. I washed my hands. I washed them again. I scrubbed them with disinfectant wipes. I lathered them up with hand sanitizer. I still didn't feel quite right. The church was serving us lunch. I didn't feel like eating. In order to not appear rude, I ate some BBQ pork that was prepared for us - one of my favorite southern meals. It was not satisfying to me in the least. I sat mostly quiet for the long ride home in the 15 passenger van. When we got back to the hospital parking lot we left from, I hopped in my car and drove home. I walked to my room and straight to the shower. My community asked how it went, and I didn't know where to start. My immediate reaction was to tell them, "Be glad you didn't go." But, I think in some way, I am glad I did go. I was exposed to a situation I couldn't have imagined, disturbing on many levels - yet it was someone's home. Eye-opening? Very. Sights and smells that I will never forget. I don't have any pictures to share of Saturday's adventure, and you're probably thankful for it.
I spent most of Sunday cleaning my own room and bathroom. Just suffice it to say I was inspired to clean just about everything I owned. My sheets, clothes, towels, blankets and anything else I could find. I opened the blinds and threw open the windows. I couldn't get enough sunlight and fresh air.
A year ago, I was on spring break in Puerto Rico directing retreats, something I never imagined I'd be doing, especially at no cost to me - thanks ND. (Shout out to Javier, Laura, Molly, Meg, Maeve, Lee, Ryan, Santi, and Brian). The year before that at the same time, I was traveling through Rome, Munich and Prague with one of the best people I have ever known - also something I never imagined I'd be doing (shout out to Dan with an assist to my Aunt Margaret!). Chalk up this weekends experience to the "Something Mike Never Imagined He'd Be Doing" column (shout out to old man in blue overalls). I wonder what I'll have managed to get myself into a year from now!