Life, Death & Laundry
I hate clutter. Piles of stuff around the house make me feel overwhelmed, out-of-control and claustrophobic, which is somewhat of a problem as I am a naturally untidy person, perfectly capable of turning a room from pristine to pit within seconds.
Putting stuff in cupboards doesn’t really solve my Clutter Fear either; a bit like the hair dye on my roots, it simply masks the reality. You may think I have tidy rooms and dark hair, but I know what is rammed behind the doors just as I know what grey lies beneath the dye. I also know that at some point I have to deal with both these issues.
Even other people’s clutter can have me hyperventilating. I recently had a peek into Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower’s loft; it was packed with stuff. I felt quite ill just looking at it, which was completely irrational because it wasn’t even my stuff. When I was told that there was another loft equally as jammed to the rafters I became quite hysterical and had to hit the sherry bottle to calm down.
Truth be told, I am in danger of becoming a hoarder, though hopefully not in the same league as those who appear on television programmes about extreme hoarding, the sort where someone living in a huge house is confined to the downstairs toilet because they haven’t thrown out any newspapers, soup tins or even kitty litter for two decades. It’s both sad and yet fascinating to watch the Environmental Health team go in and start removing what any ‘normal’ person can see is filth and junk, whilst The Hoarder, anxious and desperate, tries to dive into the skip to retrieve old copies of The Times, now rigid with dried cat urine.
Before my husband died, I used to watch these programmes and wonder how on earth anyone could get themselves into a position where they became emotionally attached to a plastic bag full of till receipts. It was only after JS died that I noticed a link between the hoarders. In each case, the hoarding started after a loss: a parent, a child, a spouse, a home. The hoarding may have escalated unchecked beyond the initial loss, but loss seemed to be the starting gun followed by depression, anxiety and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Hoarders feel trapped by their possessions, yet fear their loss and the safety and comfort they represent.
I now understand this hoarding behaviour in a way I never imagined I would.
When JS drowned, I was convinced that by about the six-month anniversary of his death, everything would be sorted. I don’t mean that my grief would be sorted (if only it could be that easy!), but that JS’s estate and businesses would be wound up, his clothes shipped off to any homeless men that needed Armani suits and Hermès ties, and his golf paraphernalia listed on Freecycle. I had plans to finish the decorating that had been started before he died, clear out and close down the office-storage facility, and get back to writing the book that my publishers were waiting for.
Have I accomplished any of those tasks I set myself in the first six months?
Dear reader, next month it will be two years since JS died, and I haven’t even washed the last sheets he slept in at home; they are still in the laundry basket along with his dirty washing: a golf shirt; a T-shirt; boxer shorts and some mismatched socks. There wasn’t much laundry because it was done before we went on holiday. Speaking of holidays, JS’s suitcase is still unopened. It stands in his study next to his desk. I haven’t even taken the luggage tags off. I read about someone opening their suitcase and finding a colony of lizards inside. When I eventually get round to opening it, perhaps I had better open it in the garden, just in case some scaly beast slithers out.
But I digress.
I wouldn’t want you to think that for two years I have slept between the same unwashed sheets. Grief does weird things to folk, but even for me that would be taking weirdness to a whole new level. I think it was around the three-month post-death point that a friend tried to change the bed, whereupon I flung myself on John Lewis’s finest non-iron bedlinen, clutched it like a Lioness protecting her cub and snarled, “Leave them alone.” The ridiculous thing was that by that point they didn’t smell like JS, they just smelt of my sweat and tears and whatever wildlife excrement The Hound (now sleeping with me) had rolled in. A compromise was reached: the sheets came off, but they were put into the washing basket on top of JS’s laundry, all to be washed another day, a day which two years down the line has yet to arrive.
Nothing has moved, nothing has been cleared, nothing has been thrown away other than a couple of golf videos, a tube of Deep Heat and some fish oil capsules, and only then because the latter two began to ooze smelly gunk.
Do I go to the washing basket, bury my head in the sheets and underwear and sob? No, I don’t. I open it, get out my washing and then seeing the sheets, aka The Divide of Death, feel depressed, frustrated and angry with myself that I don’t seem to be able to fire up the Bosch and load the bedding into its drum along with a capsule of Persil Bio. I feel the same about JS’s wardrobe, his bedside cabinet, his golf clubs. The list is endless. Others have said that I will know when the time is right, that one day I will wake up and simply fly through the house in a whirlwind of black bin bags and charity sacks. I am not so sure; I have previous form dealing with the possessions of lost loved ones.
It is ten years in March since my friend Karen died. Little did either of us know when she walked out of the office we shared that she would never be coming back. After she died, I guarded her desk in the same way I protected those used sheets. Everything had to remain just as Karen had left it: her hairbrush matted with golden-blonde strands of hair; Post-It notes with scribbled messages stuck around her computer screen; a smudge of pearly pink blusher on her phone handset. At first, it was comforting to come in and see her things left exactly as she left them; it felt as if she had just popped out to M&S for a prawn sandwich. Then things changed. Karen’s abandoned hairbrush was no longer comforting, but a brutal reminder of the gap she left in our lives. I started to dread the emptiness of our office, and yet I couldn’t bear to even move a pencil in her desk-tidy.
It took five years to clear out Karen’s things, and only then because it was forced upon me as we moved offices. Right up until the burly removal men arrived, I longed to have an English Hertitage Blue Plaque on the wall outside the office and her desk listed as a site of historical interest. For once, I’m not joking.
Just before Christmas, I tried to start decluttering JS’s things. Websites advised using the mantra: If it’s not beautiful, useful or sentimental, chuck it. The problem was, I found the most ridiculous things sentimental.
I started with the best of intentions. If I couldn’t clear out JS’s wardrobe, paperwork would be no problem, surely? I bought several recycling sacks from a company that promised (for a fee) to shred paperwork in the street using a shredder on a lorry. I was ecstatic at just how easy it would be, and started to work my way through files of financial information with gusto, tossing letters, receipts and bank and credit card statements into the sack.
But what I have here? The receipt for a meal we had at that lovely restaurant! I’d completely forgotten we’d even been there. Perhaps I’ll just keep it to remind me. And look at this entry on the Amex statement. It’s for that Fawlty Towers-style hotel we stayed in! The one next to the prison where the heating kept us awake and sweating all night and I had a strop because they kept trying to fob me off with a flat champagne cocktail. I couldn’t remember its name, but now I can. What if I forget it again? I’d better keep the statement, just in case.
And so it went on…
Despite constantly being sidetracked, the sacks filled up, but then I thought, What if I’ve missed something? What if there is something important in there? When it’s gone it’s gone. I’ll never get it back!
I sat in front of the television and sifted back through all the rubbish I had thrown out. I found new things I wanted to keep, nothing legally important, just more memory joggers.
A few days later I did exactly the same thing all over again.
The sacks are still in the house.
Forget the ‘big’ things like JS’s clothes, shoes and sporting equipment, I am compelled to keep things I don’t even want to keep: the boarding pass from British Airways for the nightmare flight back to England without my husband; the return train ticket from London to Gatwick when JS joked with the guard that we would be coming back together, “Unless something terrible happens.” We collected hundreds of matchbooks from the days when hotels and restaurants gave them out. I find these matchbooks incredibly painful as each one reminds me of happy times and the sort of life I no longer live, but throwing them away feels as if I am throwing away my old life and I simply can’t do it. I feel trapped by the possessions associated with my past life. I may not be physically confined to the downstairs bathroom with towering piles of junk around me, but mentally I feel trapped. I know others trot out lines about memories being kept in your heart, not your home, but I seem to need proof that my old life existed: We did this! We did that! We went here! We travelled there!
I’m sobbing as I write those last few lines because I realise that the only person I’m trying to convince of my past life is me. Only two years, and yet it all seems so long ago and far away and so utterly alien from the life I live now, it feels as if those twenty-three years of living and working and travelling with JS, half my life, were a figment of my imagination.
JS did exist, he must have done.
I have his bank statements to prove it.