Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cleaning Dad's Apartment: On Staying, Going and Family

First, there are the ashtrays: several in every room, all overflowing with Parliament Lights, clouds of fine grey ash rising from them as if from tiny cancerous volcanos. Then there are beer cans: plastic grocery bags on every doorknob stuffed with aluminum Miller High Lifes, and dozens more in boxes stacked on the floor, not neatly, in one place, but scattered across the apartment. Just when I think I've corralled them all together, I find one more 12-pack in the pantry, or under the kitchen table, or behind the couch. There seem to me to be extraordinary quantities of these things. There are also hundreds of the orange plastic bags that the newspaper comes in, and an equal number of bags from Cumberland Farms, the convenience store where my dad buys nearly all of his groceries. He subsists on Cheez-Its and Hostess Doughnuts and pistachio nuts -- and Miller High Life and Parliament Lights.

The cat's litterbox is overflowing, and the cat hides under the bed, hissing at me when I get within five feet of it. I tell it that if it tries to attack my ankles I will kick it to kingdom come. I am in no mood today.

Outside, it's one of those days in early spring when the grass is still matted and brown but the temperature suddenly soars and the purple tips of crocus push through last year's leaves and people drive with the windows down for the first time in months. It's one of those days where I want nothing more than to lace up a pair of boots and make my way to the nearest mountaintop, but instead I'm cleaning my dad's apartment. He's 63. I'm 27. The first time I left home, six years ago, he was strong and healthy. When I came back a year later, he wasn't.

I cannot open the windows in his apartment – they're still covered with plastic – and if I leave the door open the cat will run out. So I plunge my hands into a sink full of dishes and set them one by one to dry in the broken dishwasher, watching through the yellowed blinds as the sun slants ever more sharply, signaling its final arc through the sky. Across town, at Cozy Oaks, my dad sits at his usual barstool nursing a draft, playing his numbers and rocking slightly back and forth to ease the constant pain in his back, the pain that cannot be cured but only numbed, slowly, each afternoon.

Last night after work I drove down here from my apartment in rural New Hampshire. As usual, my headlights were among the few pointing south. Most cars head north for the weekend, up to the woods and the lakes. I go south to Massachusetts, leaving behind the stars for the yellow glow of streetlights, abandoning the clear mountains for a broad valley lit so brightly it blots out the stars, turning the night sky a pinkish gray. This is where I grew up, but coming back leaves me unsettled.

In a few weeks I'm leaving again, this time for Alaska, and this time, I hope, for longer. I need to carve out my own space in the world, find a place that feels like home. Will it be here, or will it be there? There is a part of my soul that yearns for dark skies and open spaces, for the wild places where my heart soars. But every time I leave, it's harder. There is so much that wants to hold me here.

I'm certainly not alone. It seems more and more people build their lives far from home these days, far from the places where they grew up. It isn't always easy. Do we pursue our own happiness at the cost of the families we leave behind? What does this say about our values? We've created a culture in which we're no longer obligated to care for our aging parents, and yet we haven't built a system to take our place when we leave.

I assuage my guilt through cleaning. After the dishes there is dusting, sweeping, sorting through stacks of unopened mail, taking out the trash, vacuuming, scrubbing the counters. Who will do this when I'm gone? I hang his baseball caps on a row of hooks: U.S. Navy Veteran, Boston Red Sox, Titleist. Each hat bears the little gold pins that I bring back for him from the places I've lived.

I wash my hands, wipe them on my jeans and stand back to survey my work. Not immaculate, but an improvement. I vow that tomorrow I will call a cleaning service and arrange for them to come once a month. I rehearse my half of the conversation in my head, telling the woman on the other end of the line that my dad is disabled and just needs someone to keep the house up. He has no one else. I do not tell her the details.

I wonder, while I'm at it, if I should call and make some doctors' appointments for him too, but I know its futile. The doctors at the VA hospital are stretched too thin to provide the kind of care he needs, and the staff are inept, he says, using less tactful words. I used to cry at night thinking of him, once standing waist-deep in a stream, tanned in the evening sun as he fought a legendary rainbow on a hook – and now stumbling through his days in a fog of pain. Lately, he told me, he's been getting a pain in his kidney. Of course he tells me, not a doctor. I have no brothers or sisters, so I keep it to myself.

At the liquor store, I have to make three trips from my car to bring all the cans of Miller High Life from his apartment to the redemption counter. “Someone's sure been living the High Life,” I quip to the guy behind the counter, so he doesn't think the cans are all mine. Like most people who work in liquor stores, he looks like he's seen better days. The evening air is warm and smells like stale beer. Dust particles dance above cardboard boxes of wine. The guy proffers a dry laugh, and I tell him this is my payment for cleaning out my dad's apartment. He tells me he redeems his uncle's cans every few months too – “but they're mostly soda,” he says, and suddenly, I am embarrassed. Even among liquor store employees, the load I hauled in is a big one. As I'm handing the woman at the cash register the slips of paper that have my return totals tallied on them, the guy peers over her shoulder and whistles between his teeth. “Wow,” he says, glancing at the $30 the woman hands me back. “You made out even better than I thought. Congratulations.”

Congratulations, I think as I walk back to my car.

By the time I'm done, it's too late to go for a hike. I stand in the shower and let the water pour over me, washing away the cigarette smoke and the car hair, the layer of dust, the grime I feel in my pores. I tilt my head into the water and think of fresh, clean trout streams high in the mountains, ice-cold turquoise glacier water pooling between rocks, the fat salmon that my dad would have loved to catch. And then I get out, dry myself off and join my father at the bar. I do not tell him how frustrated I was. I do not nag him to take better care of himself. I give him a hug and tell him I love him, and then I order a beer and begin to tell him about my new job in Alaska.


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  2. We read this article in the Valley News and work at the VA in Bedford, MA. We would like to help ensure that your Dad gets the care that he is entitled to as a Veteran. If you are interested, please have him contact the Patient Advocate, Whitney Creager, at the Bedford VA Medical Center at 781-687-2612 if he needs assistance. I am not sure where he lives - he may live in another Medical Center's catchment area, but Whitney will be able to further assist him to get the care he deserves. If you or he is not successful, please call me, Maureen Heard, at 781-687-4742, and I will personally ensure that he is taken care of appropriately. From one Veteran to another, I would be honored to thank him for his service.

    Maureen Heard
    Chief Communications Officer
    VA New England Healthcare System

  3. First of all before you start taking house cleaning jobs in your neighborhood or other places, you need to learn how to clean houses professionally in order for the homeowners to be satisfied in your work. House Cleaning

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