When we watch Hoarders is it not a stark and somewhat darkly gratifying affirmation that our lives are not that bad? That we are somehow different, better, albeit a little cluttered, or momentarily disorganized than these poor souls, many of whom are battling compulsions much more pernicious than goat trails or leaning towers of boxes and laundry baskets?
However dusty our baseboards, dirty our windows, Cheerio-ladened or furry our carpets, there is the unmistakable recognition of televised grief as we watch these people’s families and friends try, often in vain, to help their loved ones let go. It is painful to see someone struggling to stay afloat, someone still clutching random artifacts as if these objects might be the key to their unmet desire and necessary survival.
In a lifetime before this one, I was engaged to another man. I will call him Phil. Phil was a musician who owned a pet rabbit. He tended bar at a pizza joint. He was an affable, gentle soul with a receding hairline and a ponytail. He drove a Subaru with the requisite NPR sticker and had a penchant for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He also took his sweet time getting anything done.
Phil’s mom was a hoarder. Some people carelessly use the term “hoarder” in an attempt at hyperbolic humor. But Phil’s mom was the real deal. We had no idea how bad the problem was until she boarded a plane to Paris with her husband, an anniversary gift from their three sons. They had to deplane before departure.
She said her back hurt terribly; she could not envision making the transatlantic flight. She went to the doctor. He told her she had lymphoma of the spine.
As she fought for her life, we discovered the depths of the basement – the subterranean shelter of all her secrets. Several deep freezers full of expired food, with a couple freezers buried under boxes.
Boxes upon boxes of Beanie babies and unopened packages from home shopping networks. I returned $1,200 worth of merchandise. Afterward, I unearthed a brand-new set of silver Aztec sun earrings with “Hecho en Mexico” stamped on the back. They gleamed, unopened in a tiny plastic bag.
I took these earrings as my payment for packing and mailing all those returns.
Eventually, someone found the motherlode: a mountain of folders containing unfiled taxes, almost a decade’s worth of unpaid state and federal forms. This last, terrible discovery would result in home foreclosure, yet another blow after Phil’s mother had died.
So, when I say my now husband hoards empty boxes in the basement, please know I do not use the verb lightly. I know the heft and weight of the accusation. And while my husband is not to the level nor stage of Phil’s mom, I wonder how we got here, me furtively recycling boxes, bubble-wrap, and random debris when he is not home.
The basement is not the man cave or gaming oasis my husband once dreamed of. To make that happen, we would first have to tackle the northwest corner of the basement, where he has crafted a Rube Goldberg machine of utility cabinets holding plastic bins, unopened board games, a plastic Buddha wearing Mardi Gras beads, an empty plastic Coca-Cola bottle with his first name, and more empty boxes. All we need is a silver marble to set it all off.
When I ask him what the point is of saving the Kate Spade wine decanter box we never use (a wedding gift), he says he is protecting the value of the object. When I gently remind him that the decanter is upstairs in the dining room hutch, safely collecting dust, he shrugs.
In my own mind, where I hoard hope of what may yet be, I envision wiping the tiny particles of earth from the decanter on a night after our toddler daughter finally closes her eyes. I envision pouring a good bottle of red into this crystal vessel, its breath in sync with our sleeping daughter’s.