When I met my partner’s mother for the first time, three years ago, she could still speak a little. “You’re so pretty,” she said with a grin, welcoming me into her apartment. It’s the sort of compliment I think Helen would still give to anybody if dementia hadn’t stolen her words — she’s welcoming and effusively kind. She laughs easily, even now that speaking has become too difficult. Sometimes she seems to be laughing at her own forgetfulness; other times she’s laughing at me for reminding her of something so obvious, as if to say, How could I forget that?
Helen’s one-bedroom apartment in an assisted-living facility overflowed with paintings of flowers, chintzy floral dishes, and little spiral notebooks with poppies on the cover. Her aesthetic is capital-P Pretty — if she saw something in the thrift store that looked Pretty, she bought it, covering the kitchen counters and walls with bric-a-brac. One of her prized possessions, a gilded Japanese screen with cranes carved into it, was propped up behind two floral armchairs, its hinges loose.
My partner, Andy, had told me that Helen was a hoarder, but I didn’t see any signs of it then, save the liter bottles of diet soda stuffed under the furniture. (I've changed both of their names here, for privacy). Helen showed me a few of the newer vases she’d added to her collection, each with “99¢” still scrawled on it with a waxy red crayon. I could hear hot air gushing out of the vents, cranked up much too high for the Bay Area’s autumn weather, and felt sweat prickle on my neck. I was anxious to make a good first impression, but despite the heat and the nerves, Helen instantly felt like a friend.
She has curly hair, like me. We both like diet soda and romantic stories and taking care of other people. We each had shitty upbringings with scary dads, so we clawed our way out and set about building our own versions of home as fast as we could. I worked odd jobs and saved money obsessively so I could move away and start fresh in California; she enrolled in college when she was 17 and avoided marriage until later in life, a slightly unusual choice for a co-ed in the early 1960s. She met her husband at a volleyball game and they raised Andy in a sprawling white house with a heavy wooden door, set atop a hill in an industrial town across the bay from San Francisco.
Dementia had already limited Helen’s speech by the time we met, and now we communicate in a mix of pantomime and touch. She chirps and gurgles like a newborn, and, while her sounds are thick with intention, I can’t decipher what she means. Dehoarding her homes — first her apartment, as she moved from one assisted-living facility to another, and then the house where she raised my partner — has allowed me to learn things about her that she no longer has the ability to tell me. I mostly get to know her through her possessions, as Andy and I cram them into extra-large trash bags and throw them away.
On TV, hoarders are desperate and sad-eyed, with the carcasses of dead pets lurking under piles of newspaper. But Helen has always been preoccupied with beauty — if she’d been rich, she might’ve collected nicer china or clothing and been celebrated for it — and I feel guilty when I throw away her possessions. Of course, not everything Andy and I cart out of her home has sentimental value; I once opened her kitchen cabinet to discover stacks of plates covered in molding scrambled eggs and had to race outside for fresh air. Used insulin needles are strewn everywhere (always with the caps on; Helen is meticulous).
But within the mess are clues about who she was, who she still is. I discover her romantic side as I peruse the covers of her vast collection of romance novels, before piling them into the trash along with her leopard-print nightgowns. I find unfinished sudoku puzzles and recipe books, Andy’s baby pictures, her journals, her mother’s wallet with her driver’s license and keys still tucked inside.
She saved it all, and I want to save everything too, because I imagine doing so might protect her memory. What if I show her this hotel bill in her name and she suddenly remembers the vacation she was on? I find a road map of Nebraska nearby and unfold it, tracing the outline of the lake where my family camped every summer. Did she ever visit?
But the house is buried in memories, and Andy is determined to dig it out, to make it the childhood home he wanted it to be. Beneath the piles of trash are surprises that raise my eyebrows even when I’m too sweaty and tired to feel excitement. Andy shows me a built-in cabinet in the breakfast nook that I didn’t know existed. I find out the walls in the downstairs bedroom, finally revealed, are painted a dark, dusky blue. Andy painted them in high school, when he stayed up late at night teaching himself to make beats. He’s discovering the house too — although he grew up in it, he’s never seen it clean.
At first I thought of dehoarding as a challenge I could muscle through. Pick up trash, add to garbage bag, haul to dumpster, repeat. It was exciting to get filthy with Andy, to hunt for a smile in his eyes when his mouth was hidden behind a dust mask. I learned to like the thrill of hurling tchotchkes into the dumpster and hearing them shatter. The sweat on the back of Andy’s neck made his hair clump together and jut out like little porcupine quills, and I’d pull off my work gloves to touch it. We made plans for how we’d paint and decorate once the whole house was clean, scrapped them, and planned again.
But months into the process, dehoarding has become a mental puzzle that feels like a nightmare, with the escape route pulling farther away the faster I run toward it. I turn every object over in my hands, wondering if it’s trash or treasure, a window into Helen’s life or an unimportant scrap of paper that she forgot about the moment she set it down. Some days it feels like we’ve made no progress at all and the house will never be empty, but we’re together and working hard and it’s all we can do.
On the day I go to pick Helen up and move her to the new facility, where she’ll receive better care, she’s ready and waiting for me. She’s dressed in a floral muumuu and a red cardigan, her hair still wet from the shower. We drive across the San Francisco Bay Bridge in silence and I steal a peek at her, wondering how long it’s been since she saw the city and what she might think of it now. Maybe she doesn’t remember that skyline, with Coit Tower poking out at one end and the skyscrapers hopscotching over each other on the hills; maybe it’s as if she’s seeing it for the first time? Andy says she remembers, but as she stares out the window, there is nothing in her expression to hint at her thoughts.
When I met Andy, he and I were both messy in the same way. We had piles of unfolded clean laundry on our couches, scraps of paper shuffled across our desks, refrigerators plastered with family photos, greeting cards, and memorabilia. Cleaning was an activity we each did when we had time, a priority that fell behind watching movies or cooking dinner together. I was raw from a recent breakup, and my home was still filled with reminders of someone who made me wonder if I could be loved, if I could ever deserve it. Andy’s apartment was a sanctuary by comparison. It’s where he taught me to make morning coffee in a moka pot and how to mix a Negroni. I watched tentacle-like wisps of cloud wrap around Sutro Tower from his window and smelled the fresh soap scent of his skin, and an inkling of hope unfurled inside me. Maybe I was home.
Andy’s hoarding started as reorganizing (although he objects when I call it hoarding, suggesting the phrase “pathological disorganization” instead). We began emptying the house, and then, one day, his own apartment wasn’t good enough, either. None of the furniture was in the right place, he said, and he’d come up with a new system to store his clothes so they wouldn’t pile up at one end of the couch anymore — in fact, the couch itself needed to be hacked up into pieces and hauled away. The dishes weren’t properly organized in the kitchen cabinets and the books were out of order on the shelves. He began tearing everything out of place and spreading it across the floor to be sorted. New containers and a new couch would need to be ordered, maybe new dishes too, and cleaning supplies and light bulbs and maybe a projector so we could screen movies against the wall.
That was two years ago. The furniture never stays in one place for long, now, and the piles of books and cardboard boxes are precarious, resulting in stubbed toes and bruises. I can’t get close enough to the window to see Sutro Tower, or open the kitchen cabinets to take down the moka pot.
I love Andy’s incorrigible enthusiasm. Whether he’s dancing or taking photos or going an hour out of his way in the rain to bring me orange juice when I’m sick, he’s always excited. But it’s also what makes him hoard — any object holds the power to radically improve his life. His belief in the magic of a new plastic organizer box or shelf system is infectious, and I lose him in the excitement, the possibilities.
“What are you doing?” I ask him.
“Cleaning,” he always responds.
But while the piles shift around the apartment, the floor never emerges. Crucial items go missing, adrift in the mess. I find an article online that says hoarders often die in fires because they can’t get outside fast enough, and afterwards I can’t sleep at Andy’s house anymore. I go back to my apartment and can’t stand even my own modest mess. After throwing Helen’s possessions away all day, I want to get rid of my things, too. I dream about ruthlessly paring down my life’s possessions to just one shirt, one pair of jeans, one dress, one cup, one bowl, one fork.
I wonder how I can share my life with Andy when I cannot share space with him. Those kids Helen always pesters me to have, patting my belly and smiling — I’m afraid of raising them in a home where they can’t walk to the bathroom without stubbing a toe or bashing an elbow on some new pile of stuff.
I stop by Andy’s apartment one night and find him waiting on the stoop for me. I cajole him into letting me upstairs, and when he finally relents and leads me up to his apartment, he struggles to force the door open against a pile of shoes and crumpled cardboard boxes. The sweet-and-sour scent of dirty dishes wafts out to meet me. He starts to cry.
“I’m so sorry,” he tells me, promising he’ll fix it. He’ll clean everything up, he says. Next month, maybe, when we finish dehoarding the house.
And, finally, we do finish the house. We have to give up doing it all by ourselves and hire professionals to help, but it happens. On the last day, Andy buys a cake for one of the dehoarders who is celebrating his birthday. Andy is like Helen — always so kind, even to strangers.
When the last bag of trash has been carted away, I suggest we bring Helen back someday. I imagine her walking in and seeing it so clean and pretty, a homecoming to a house that feels brand-new again.
But Andy shakes his head emphatically. Seeing it empty, he says, would devastate her.