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When my mother calls to tell me she has cancer, my first thought is: My mother is going to die. My second thought? I can finally clean her house. My mother is a compulsive hoarder; she hasn't let me inside her house in years. I've long searched for the perfect combination of begging, conniving, and bribing that would finally compel her to throw out the trash. I'm convinced that if I could just get her to unclutter her house, her mind would follow.
Somewhere under all the filth is a reliable mother, a consistent and compassionate mother. Somewhere under the heaps of moth-eaten sweaters and secondhand winter coats, the cardboard boxes kept because they're just such good quality, the jar after jar of unopened jumbo-size facial scrubs and green clay masks, the plastic forks and dirty paper plates and gum wrappers and dried-out pens and orphaned Popsicle sticks, she's in there. I just have to find her.
I make arrangements to fly home to Minneapolis from New York City, where I've lived for most of the last decade. I already know that I'll spend most of my visit cleaning and at the end of each day only an hour-long soak in a scalding-hot bath at my dad and stepmother's house, where I always stay when I'm in town, will erase the thick coat of grime from my skin.
The first time I can remember being directly affected by my mother's unusual relationship to possessions was when I was 5 years old and in kindergarten. I was enrolled in the morning session but one Monday, as I was getting ready for school, my mother asked me to stay for both the morning and afternoon sessions because she wanted to go thrift-store shopping. "You can take the later school bus," she said.
I didn't like the idea one bit. "Can't you just be home in time?" I pleaded. But she refused. That morning I tried to get up the nerve to tell one of the teachers about my mother's plan, but I was too shy. Instead I rode the noon bus home as always, hoping against hope that my mother would be there.
She wasn't. It was a typical winter day in Minnesota -- in other words, frigid, windy, and snowy. I waited outside. When my mother finally returned, her arms were loaded with shopping bags. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"You were supposed to give me a note," I said, running inside as soon as she unlocked the door. As I began to thaw, I looked around at my mother's new acquisitions -- salt and pepper shakers, sweaters, patterns for clothes she'd never sew -- and couldn't help but think she'd chosen those things over me.
I think about that story on the morning of my first full day in Minneapolis. I'm ringing her doorbell when she steps onto the porch, pulling the door closed behind her. "Jessie, let's get pancakes before you start cleaning," she says. "The house is fine." "Let me see," I say.
She freezes. I push the door open a few inches and steal a look behind her. The hallway is packed with stacks of ignored mail (her phone is always getting shut off because she can't find the bills), ironing boards, mounds of ratty-looking sweaters, boots and coats and snow pants heaped directly underneath an empty metal coat rack, at least one box of marshmallow Peeps, and dozens of unopened white plastic shopping bags with the receipts still stapled to the top. The narrow path in the center of the hallway reminds me of people here who are too lazy to shovel their whole sidewalk in winter.
"Mom, I need to start cleaning." I feel heartless for not trying to spend quality time with her. She does have colon cancer, after all. But if she needs private nurses to come in and care for her after the surgery, they could report her to social services. She could be taken from her house; her house could be taken from her. This gruesome little cottage is all she has.
I spend my first day sorting and hauling, while my mother goes through a shoebox of paperwork. The next day her surgery gets postponed at the last minute, which means I won't even be here when she has it. I give her another box to go through and we spend the rest of the visit repeating this routine over and over.
This cleanup goes better than past ones. She lets me throw out almost everything I want. That worries me: She must think her chances of surviving are poor.
But after I get back to New York she calls to say that her surgery went well and the cancerous polyps have been removed successfully. "I don't even need chemo!" She sounds ecstatic, and I'm thrilled too. As we're getting off the phone, I happen to mention a strange rash that appeared on my leg the day I left Minneapolis.
"Oh, no," my mother says. "You're not going to like this." It's scabies. She has it, too, but was hoping I'd been spared. She thinks she caught it from a used pillow she bought but didn't wash.
I'm mortified at the doctor's office the next day, but what really upsets me is that her hoarding is now affecting my life way across the country. I've always thought that once I stepped on a plane I was at least safe from the physical effects of her disorder.
It takes months to rid myself of the parasites. The rash spreads to my torso and arms, forcing me to wear long sleeves and pants all summer long. With each new round of mostly unsuccessful medications, my fury at my mother and her hoarding grows.
I consider walking away. It's not my house. It's not my problem. I tell my mother that I'm no longer going to nag her about cleaning. For the sake of my mental and physical health, I'm done dealing with her hoarding. She laughs, clearly not believing me.
But during our weekly phone calls I manage to curb my urge to inquire about the house. Instead, I ask about my mother's childhood. She tells me stories I've never heard before -- stories of neglect and loneliness and abuse -- and my heart aches for her.
I also begin to read everything I can about compulsive hoarding. In one study, the brain scans of hoarders show decreased function in areas related to memory, decision making, and spatial relations. While I read this I picture the look on my mother's face as she's wondering where to put something and for a few seconds it's as if I've crawled inside her head.
One day I attempt to do just that. I imagine I've shrunk myself down, so tiny that I'm microscopic, and as this microscopic being I can enter my mother's mind. It's dark, too dark to see. But I can feel what's in there. Her mind is filled with uncertainty and self-doubt. It's filled with chaos and indecision. It's filled with information from newspapers, magazines, and books. It's filled with confusion. Mostly, though, it's filled with fear. This is a scary perspective from which to view the world and the more I ponder that thought, the more compassion I feel for my mother. My frustration at never having a "normal" relationship with her fades.
My mother has been cancer-free for almost six years now and it's been nearly that long since I've been inside her house. She hardly mentions her hoarding anymore, other than occasionally letting little things slip. She calls one day, breathless with excitement about her new car. "The best part," she says, "is that it's big -- big enough for when I go. . ." She stops herself. "Shopping," I say. "It's big enough for when you go shopping." "It's true." She laughs.
At that moment I have a choice: I can remind her of her claims that she's quit her thrift-store habit. I can launch into a lecture. But why? I'm no longer that young girl trying desperately to fix her. She is who she is. And, for the moment at least, we've found a way to navigate our not-quite-typical mother-daughter relationship that satisfies both of us. It's our version of normalcy.
Jessie Sholl and her miniature pinscher-Chihuahua mix, Abraham Lincoln, divide their time between clutter-free apartments in New York City and Minneapolis.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2012.