By T. Chick McClure
I’ve lost access to my mom behind an ever-expanding tsunami of STUFF. She is a collector of things. But, not for curio cabinets. My mother lives inside a mountain of trash, dogs, cockroaches and filth. She is insulated, befriended, comforted, shut-out, shut-in, imprisoned, and rendered invisible by STUFF. She is unreachable and at times I am devastated by our lack of connection. Because, in some ways, it’s like she’s died already. Like I only get to have conversations with her in my head, imagining how she might laugh in response to something dumb I’d share with her. The way we did before she started accumulating. I miss her. I call her on the phone. She never calls back. Holidays come and she’s not with me. I worry that ONE day, SOMEhow, SOMEone is going to track me down to let me know they found her, lying on a half-inflated air mattress, piled on all sides by worthless STUFF. Her remains, liquid, I imagine, guarded by starving dogs, as she seeps into all that useless STUFF surrounding her.
Something happened. To my mom. That’s clear. Somewhere along the way, she got broken. Broken by STUFF you can’t bear without turning parts of your head off, I think. STUFF you can’t live through if you don’t dismantle your heart and forget completely.
I am the middle child, but I am an only child. Of my mother’s three children, I am the only one who survived. My older brother was born premature and hydrocephalic. She never visited him in the hospital for the six months he lived. She was told the fluid in his brain had made his head so huge that he didn’t look like a child. He looked like a monster. How awful the thought is of my mother arriving home without her baby, going about doing house chores, watching TV, making pot roast for dinner. Pretending, for the first time, that everything is okay. When it isn’t. More awful still, the thought of my brother languishing alone, dependent on strangers for love and care. Never experiencing tenderness from his mother.
My younger brother’s life lasted two hours. He was premature and had a deformity, which left him with no kidneys. No renal system at all. She never got to touch him. She never got to see him. She knew something was wrong even before they rushed him away for his wails were nothing like the cries of healthy babies. His sounded quiet and desperate, like the mewing of a sick kitten.
Somehow, for a while, she was able to navigate living. Or fake it. She seemingly forgot about her sons, as though she had STUFFED the memory of them away, deep within a spare closet of her mind. And she did. In every place we lived she took my brothers’ ashes and tucked them away behind the other STUFF she kept in her closet. She spoke of them by name, but only factually. Without flourishes. No details about what they looked like, what time they were born, what color their hair was, and never any indicator of how she felt about them. Their containers were equally nondescript. Unnamed, put away in a cardboard box of other STUFF. Way, way up on a shelf. She never cried, or seemed anything like sad about them whenever I asked questions.
In hindsight, I recognize these two events of her life as “The Big One”. The earthquake that set off the tsunami’s long, distant wave of STUFF racing to shore that inevitably, one day, rolled in and smashed her life apart.
Over time, my mother stopped being able to have relationships with people, including me. What she couldn’t give to people or accept from people, she gave to and accepted from dogs. She put her Irish Wolfhounds above everyone else. Above her husband. Above me. Above herself. She has sacrificed everything to her dogs. A once average three-bedroom house has deteriorated into a literal doghouse. My mother has few places to sit. The dogs take the rest. It’s a fucking heartbreak. Eventually, my father left, becoming part of the wreckage of forever-expanding STUFF. I was left alone with a woman who couldn’t function. Who was disintegrating right before my eyes. Who couldn’t show her feelings toward the only child she had left. Who never could! She never said it to me. She never said, “I love you”. She put every last drop of pride, affection, love and attention into her dogs. Leaving me in orbit. She cries for the dogs she has lost 30 years ago, but not for her own children. And it is a hard feeling, that to my mother, we are… I am… somehow less important than a dog. And it is hard not to be pissed off. Every day she cooked meals for those dogs. But not for us. Not for me. I was forbidden to eat any of the frozen dinners she had for herself. I had to root around for the least expired food options. Food not contaminated by cockroaches. If I could find any. If I could search for and pick out the roach legs, roach eggs and roach shit out of a box of cereal, that’s what I had. If I could open the box lid and not find one sitting just inside poised to spring out at me, then I could eat. Roach-in-the-Box is a far more terrifying game than Jack-in-the-Box.
My mother’s STUFF is a utility van full of garbage. Her STUFF is a backyard overgrown and stinking of dog piss and shit. Her STUFF is no hot water. Her STUFF is bins full of maggoty dishes. Her STUFF is broken bathrooms. Her STUFF is a swimming pool with trees growing out of it. Her STUFF is fleas living in her own hair. Her STUFF is discarding the living. But most of all my mother’s STUFF is a collection of hurts. Of rage. Of sorrows.
My STUFF. My STUFF is booze, is food, is fear. My STUFF is pain, is rage, is sadness. My STUFF is believing I am unhireable. My STUFF is ruthlessly judging every word I write. My STUFF is believing I have nothing important to say. My STUFF is depression and paralysis and an insatiable longing for love and acceptance. My STUFF is not asking too much of others. My STUFF is lost years with my father. My STUFF is mourning for all the STUFF my mom can’t mourn for. My STUFF is carrying her stuff. My STUFF is an inability to confront my mom to tell her how I feel. My STUFF is being less than a dog. My STUFF is being even less than stuff. Less than garbage.
Here is what I know about the tsunami of STUFF. When you’re with it in the deep ocean, you barely notice as the wave pushes upward and slowly begins to radiate out. The STUFF doesn’t seem dangerous. It doesn’t seem like anything. When it starts. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to consume you. It moves like a lumbering behemoth. It’d be easy to step out of its way, you think. You don’t accurately perceive its velocity. So, the rescue effort you make seems safe. But, it over takes you with the one you’re trying to save. And it is powerful. In small amounts, the STUFF is nothing. But with quantity and slow, unwavering momentum, it crushes you. It pushes into your house, the STUFF does. Inch by inch. It caves in your doors. It fills the hollow spaces of your body. It swallows you whole. It piles up around you on your bed, leaving you only a coffin’s space to sleep in. You’re drowning in the STUFF. You’re sleeping your life away in a tomb of trash.
My brothers are no longer STUFF stored on a shelf in a closet. My father buried them with his grandmother when she died. Without telling my mom. They had discussed it. She had refused it. And when the time came, he did it anyway. Behind her back.
Now, when one of her dogs dies, she drags 150 pounds of Irish Wolfhound, as big as a person, into the backyard and buries them because she can’t bear the losing. So much so, that when they’ve decomposed, she goes back out, digs them up, and brings them back into the house. Their bones scatter my mother’s house. When my brothers are gone, when my father is gone, when her only surviving offspring is gone, what does she have left? Piles of dog bones littering her bed and the most profound loneliness I’ve ever witnessed.
This year, I’m going to Florida to see my mom. It’s been years and I’m afraid of what new STUFF isolation and retirement have allowed to pile up. But, I’m going anyway, if not to handle her STUFF, then to handle mine.
T. Chcik McClure is a writer and director and an alumnus of The Groundlings Theatre Sunday Company. Which is to say she’s a real humor aficionado. She can make you laugh your balls off, but she can rip your heart out, too. And lately, she’s discovered she’s more into hearts than balls anyway. Take a read and see what I mean.”