Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lost in a Maze

One movie that I like a lot, that I'm a bit ashamed of liking, is Labyrinth. I watched it many times growing up, renting it over and over again from the tiny Videoland huddled in the front part of the warehouse down the street. I guess I always had a thing for Jennifer Connelly. I also actually still think David Bowie's a pretty good actor; he played an excellent Andy Warhol in Basquiat.

Part of what makes it a good movie, despite its goofiness (and David Bowie's pants), is its poignant message, some of which goes unstressed. The protagonist, Sarah, having faced a personal tragedy—some barely-glimpsed newspaper clippings reveal her mother to have been an actress, possibly dead(?)—, has retreated into a fantasy world, constructing an elaborate environment (her bedroom) over which she has complete control. Each item is beloved, each in its proper place, and her foray into the labyrinth is in reality a foray into the maze of her own mind. With muppets.

This theme becomes clear when she awakens from the stupor induced by a poisoned fruit to find herself in a vast, nighted junkyard. She's accosted by a creepy old woman-muppet with an enormous pack, a little goblin who reminds me strongly of certain second-hand dealers I've met. Sarah goes through a door into a perfect replica of her bedroom, with all her beloved things in their places. She shuts the door, shutting out the world, and everything is as it should be. Except that soon the old woman bursts in and begins burying her under a pile of stuffed animals and knicknacks. Sarah, entranced at first, rejects it all in the end. The room falls to pieces and caves in, and she climbs out to be reunited with her friends.

That old woman is for me the embodiment of the spirit of hoarding. I've been thinking about it a lot. We just passed the third anniversary of my grandmother's death, who was almost literally smothered by mountains of junk and decay. I lit a votive candle in church for her. That's what people of my bent do when someone we love dies, especially if they were in a bad way.

About fifteen years ago I watched Grampa die. He'd had a stroke but was recovering, when a nurse accidentally put his feeding tube into his lung. And that was that. Watching his brain-dead body gasp for air after we unplugged him was like watching a machine wind down, and when his heart finally stopped his mouth was frozen in a permanent snarl. After that I dreamed about him every few weeks or so. He would come among us again, but I'd know that something was wrong; in the end I'd always remember that he was supposed to be dead.

When I told my father about the "visitation," he advised me to light a candle while I slept. Granny's brother—the alcoholic air-traffic controller after whom I was named—had haunted Grampa in the same way, it seems, and lighting a candle had done the trick. (My grandparents were both from Puerto Rico, and were what we of the anglosphere would call "superstitious.") I never did "light a candle," and the haunting never stopped, either, although it became less frequent with time. In hindsight I suppose the practice comes from the custom of praying for souls in purgatory. So it could be said that I light candles for both my grandparents now.

They were troubled people with a lot of secrets. Some of the secrets came out when Granny died, but probably not all. I won't reveal them. Let what the dead saw fit to bury remain buried. They'd lived in an atmosphere of mutual animosity, but Grampa was Granny's mainstay, too. She was both strong and weak. When the decision was made to let him die she refused to leave the waiting room. The rest of the family had no patience for her, but I remained behind. "Fifty years down the tubes," she kept saying. I told her how wrong she was, and how she'd always regret not having been by his side at his death, and in the end she consented to go, holding my hand all the way like a child. In his room she clasped his hand and wept, whispering mi Dios, mi Dios as his body heaved and groaned. I was nineteen at the time.

It was then that things began coming apart at the seams.

My grandmother, in the sixties.
She'd always had the propensity, I suppose. She lived in a small, sunless house cluttered with exotic bric-a-brac picked up on their travels, with bars and heavy curtains over the windows, and an iron-wrought gate covered with ivy before the front door, and an overgrown, labyrinthine backyard, and about eight yapping dogs that did their thing on newspaper under the dining room table, and cages with the injured birds she took in. She never got rid of anything. One of the bedrooms upstairs had remained exactly the same as when my aunt had lived in it as a girl. Actually, I was twenty-seven or so when I was suffered to go up the stairs for the first time in my life, to use the toilet; and I'd grown up about mile down the road, so it wasn't like I hadn't been there much. Grampa's bedroom, also upstairs, hadn't been altered after his death, either. I should have known that her not letting me into the downstairs bathroom, which lay beyond her bedroom, was a bad sign, but I didn't. Her house was like her mind. There were parts locked away and left alone. The thing is, when you leave something alone, it doesn't just remain the same. Entropy sets in. It begins to decay.

We remained close after Grampa's death. She told me she considered me her spiritual advisor. Sometimes she would confide in me, telling me about how she could feel Grampa's presence in the house, speaking to her. That it might have been dementia didn't occur to me, for her mind was quite sharp in other ways, and she'd always been given to paranoid fancies.

Without Grampa there to check her, the mountains of junk began to grow. During the last year or two of her life you couldn't really get past the living room. She lived in it, watching TV on one of those little sets they used to sell, and sleeping on the couch at night. You could hardly move around even there. A distinct odor of death and decay pervaded the house, and there was always a telltale rustling. I tried to ignore it. Of course we all knew she had a problem, though we didn't realize the extent of it. My parents tried to get her to let them clean the place for her, attempts which were met (finally) with open hostility. To me she admitted that she needed help, but was terrified of the immensity of the task. I ought to have done more, I think. With my place in her life, I might have been able to start cleaning for her. She would have trusted me. But I was wrapped up in my own affairs, with a new baby and a fresh doctorate. Then again, maybe she was too far gone even for my help. Maybe she would have just cut me off as she had my parents.

Her body was a wreck. She was diabetic, took about thirty different medications, lived on bottled oxygen, and had legs that were swollen into thick clubs that wept tears of blood. When the hallucinations started my father and aunt had her committed to the psychiatric ward of a hospital downtown. There was nothing else to do. I visited her there often. If dementia was truly her problem, its onset had accelerated. She would go into strange fugues and talk about how the hospital was built on a cemetery and how "creepy things" would come out of holes in the wall for her. Eventually she was moved to a nursing home, and there died after a matter of weeks. During her last days she spoke often of suicide.

The clean-up started once she'd been committed, and continued well after her death. It was one of the most horrific experiences of my life. Working our way into the kitchen, we discovered that she'd been relieving herself in a bucket on the floor. The cockroaches had colonized virtually every nook and cranny in the house. Nothing was free from their excrement and egg cases. After we bombed the place I found about twenty of them soaking in a coffee pot like shrimps in a boiler. The sink was full of dishes that hadn't been washed in years. When I mined out a corner down near the cabinets I came across rat nests and skeletons. There were piles upon piles of unopened mail-order merchandise: appliances, and clothes, and sheets for the big four-poster bed that she hadn't even seen in who knows how long.

It took months to clean the place out. I helped my parents as much as I could. My father hauled tons—literally, tons—of junk to the dump in a big flatbed trailer. And then they discovered the storage room, which hadn't been opened since well before my grandfather's death. My father calculates that my grandparents spent something like twenty-five thousand dollars on it over the years, for a pile of shit they'd forgotten they even had.

Granny's hoarding was something grown wildly out of control, out of a natural agoraphobia, a habitual desire to control her surroundings, and (I suppose) an irrational fear of the regret of loss. She and I were alike in many ways, and sometimes I see a similar propensity in myself. What if one day it's me who gets lost in the labyrinth?

For Granny, all I can do now is light a candle. I suppose that writing this is a way of lighting a candle, too. I love her, and I miss her, and I hope she is happy.

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