IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Cleaned Up My Dad's Hoarder House

Even now, years later, typing "room full of medical waste" seems unreal, but the sight, and the smell, were very real.
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Anna Carrasco Bowling
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Even now, years later, typing "room full of medical waste" seems unreal, but the sight, and the smell, were very real.

My father was a hoarder. 

There. I said it. That wasn't all he was, of course. He was a veteran, an artist, an advertising executive, teacher, librarian, athlete, extrovert, jazz lover, proud Mensan (aka really super smart,) first generation American, twice a husband, several times a fiance, and the man who raised me. 

That's a lot of living, and every bit of it, and more, remained in the house he left when he died.

As an only child, I was the one Dad's neighbor called when the ambulance took him to the hospital after he fell trying to scale the debris piled on the desk in my childhood bedroom. 

No telling what was going through Dad's mind at the time, as Alzheimer's dementia had him firmly in its grip by then, but it became plain that the house was too much. 

I'd wanted to clean things out while Dad was still with us enough to make sense of things, but that wasn't an option. The rest of the family did what we could for him, and when he died, I was the one left with clearing out the house.

I didn't want to. Our family lawyer and I joked about accidentally dropping a match and walking away. There was a certain appeal, in the abstract, because the task was so daunting that gallows humor was the only way to get through. 

Dad had had 30 years to fill three stories with things that had seemed important at the time, and with hoarding, being a child of the Great Depression, and having Alzheimer's, everything was important, so everything stayed. I'm not exaggerating. 

Warning, this is not going to be pretty, and like I did with the physical barricades Dad had erected to keep rooms he'd filled to capacity, I have to tear down some barriers to get the job done.

It’s time to pull back the curtain.

It’s time to pull back the curtain.

First is the shame. 

I refuse to feel any. I grew up with a lot of it. Dirty was bad. Bad had to be kept secret. Always put on a good face. Nobody can see the mess. 

When Dad died, that all changed. Aunt was frantic that "people" would "think bad things" about Dad because the house was "messy." It wasn't messy. It was impassible. 

Out of two stories and a full basement, a few square feet were usable. Paths wound through piles of objects, cardboard boxes stuffed full of everything from jumbles of papers to my old baby clothes. 

A handyman suspected there was something living in the sun porch, and we found more than one snake, on more than one floor. These are facts. I'm done keeping them quiet.

Every box is a minefield.

Every box is a minefield.

The biggest shock was behind the first barricade we took down, in front of the downstairs bedroom where Dad should have been sleeping. 

Even now, years later, typing "room full of medical waste" seems unreal, but the sight, and the smell, were very real. Bags full of the results of his home dialysis were piled to the top of the sofa bed. I called the dialysis center to find out how to dispose of them. They said empty the bags into the toilet and flush. 

I said there were over a hundred of them. They did not believe me. I don't blame them. I wouldn't. Who fills a room four feet high with bags of urine? If Dad could weigh in on it, I'm sure he would say he was going to get to it later.

Once you've emptied a room of four feet of urine, there really isn't much that can shock you anymore. Except for an up-close-and-personal view of your parent's sex life. 

Explicit erotic poetry, in my father's handwriting, describing his sex life with a potential stepmother, was not anything I'd expected to find, especially from a man who railed how the romances I read and wrote were “soft porn,” though he’d never read any, but there it was. 

Since I am violently allergic to lanolin, I had to summon a friend to dispose of the sheepskin condoms stuffed (in their packets) in the shaving kit in an old overnight bag. I'm not even going to think about why there was a sanitary napkin, unwrapped and rolled in tissue. 

Doesn't matter, because the envelope with a cousin's first name written on the outside needed my attention more. I'd learned, after finding Dad's discharge papers from the Army, paper-clipped to a sheaf of Burger King receipts, that I really did have to examine every single piece of paper myself, so checking the contents of the envelope was in order.

I should mention that said cousin had an extremely common first name, and the handwriting was not my dad's. It took me a few lines to realize it was potential stepmother's handwriting, and the person in question wasn't my cousin at all, and it definitely cleared up any questions about why this engagement had fizzled out. 

I thought about contacting her and giving her the letter back, but figured best to leave that alone. It had been in my dad's overnight bag, after all, and not in the hands of the recipient. Had he stolen it? Intercepted? I'm not going to know. Accepting that some questions are forever going to go unanswered is part of the deal.

Gems among the dross. My grandfather painted this the year my dad was born.

Gems among the dross. My grandfather painted this the year my dad was born.

So, too, is finding some gems among the dross. Once we had four feet of pee bags out of the bedroom, and the floorboards warped from those bags that had leaked torn up, I had the task of emptying out the desk I'd coveted as a child, and it gave me my favorite memory of the whole ordeal. 

I opened the left hand drawer and found, atop the jumble of papers, a handgun and a bottle of pills. I checked the label on the bottle and read it aloud. Viagra. This of course, was the exact second my dear, sweet, elderly aunt who idolized her big brother came up behind me, curious. 

"What's Viagra?" she asked, and then, "Is it the drug that helps men have sex? Why would your father have that?"

The only thing more awkward than getting a glimpse into your parent's sex life is having to explain it to their sibling. I showed her that yes, it was my father's name on the label, and the date corresponded with the time he was engaged to aforementioned potential stepmother, who was closer in age to me than she was to him. 

He wanted to make sure she was happy? I told my aunt that was probably it, and then phoned the police to let them know I'd found Dad's (licensed) handgun and needed to know how to proceed from there. No, I did not know where the bullets were. Yes, I would like it removed from the house. 

Just like that, back to business, because that’s how it went. No matter how tragic or shocking or funny a discovery was, we couldn’t dwell on it, because there was something else that needed attention.

What’s left behind…

What’s left behind…

There were mice living in the desk a family friend had wanted until she saw the mice. The rusty hinge on the paint can I hauled out to put with the other toxic items that needed special disposal turned out to be, in the words of the sanitation worker on hand, “a very aggressive snake,” but I did discover how quickly I could move when needed. 

I found the only picture of my dad’s first wife he hadn’t destroyed, family photographs dating back to the late nineteenth century, junk mail addressed to my mother’s maiden name, moldy office supplies, and instructions for appliances obsolete decades before. 

I wanted to keep his drafting table, but there wasn’t room for it in the apartment where my husband and I lived, so we had to let that, and other pieces of Dad’s life, go. 

I know he’d have been embarrassed and angry to have all those strangers see and touch and take what he’d worked that hard to hide, but things were things, and it was time to concentrate on the living.

The end came in a quiet moment. Though the house wasn’t empty by any means, Dad’s voice was silent. No five-year-old boy who’d wanted to be a gaucho. No college athlete or cantankerous old man. All that was him had gone somewhere along the way. The things really were only things. 

I phoned the lawyer and told him I was done. I never looked back.