Saturday, February 23, 2013

A poem, a case of Scotch and a sledgehammer

What will you leave behind when you’re gone? A loving family? A life of good works? Don’t forget your dirty socks. Mean letters to the phone company. Pens that don’t work. I’ve spent a week cleaning out an old man’s closets, so I’ve had some time to think about this stuff.

As you may remember, we became the unofficial caretakers for our neighbor Andy, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and finally moved to an assisted-living facility. His house, sitting empty, needs to be sold. The friend who holds Andy’s power of attorney is elderly himself, so Graeme and I are tasked with putting the house on the market. First, we have to clean it out.

The place is only 15 years old, but Andy’s life as a bachelor, compounded by his mental decline, took its toll—grimy walls, stained carpet, long-term leaks. He was a tinkerer, so when his memory started to go, and something started to beep, he took it apart. The smoke alarms and dimmer switches are in pieces. There’s nothing left of the security system but a hole in the wall.

As with any man who wasn’t a monk, Andy’s house is full of stuff. Every scrap meant something to him once, but nobody else sees much of any value here. How should we dispose of his worldly goods? A garage sale? Goodwill? The dump? A family member ought to be here, making these decisions. I shouldn’t be the one going through his underwear drawer. God help me.

Andy was an intensely private man. He never invited us into his home (or his life) until he got sick. From the bottles in his medicine cabinet, I learn about his aches and pains. From his books, I find that he struggled with depression, just like me. Also like me, he started many a journal, only to lose interest after a couple of days. The notebooks are perfectly good, once you rip out the first few pages. I hope someone does the same for me one day.

If Andy’s thoughtful side surprised me, so does his fondness for the poem “Desiderata.” He kept copies in every room of the house. For someone who couldn’t resist an argument, Andy must have needed a reminder to “go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

Along with this poem, I also found multiple copies of Andy’s favorite cartoon, a man in an office, peeing on a desk. The caption: “I quit!” That’s more like the man I knew.

If we were family, I’d sit and go through his photo albums. We’d set up the slide carousels and watch a show. But we don’t know any of these faces. Neither does Andy. In the end, he forgot his own wife, the love of his life, who died 25 years ago. I found her picture in a drawer. Andy’s sister, who is still alive, told me over the phone that she’ll take any family photos without Andy in them. Apparently, she and her brother weren’t close.

The other night, my sister and her kids helped me empty Andy’s office. My niece, a budding photographer, found a dusty 35mm camera. (You know, “the old kind, with film.”) I loved the idea of passing on a piece of Andy’s history, his passion, to the next generation, so it went home with Callie, the start of her antique camera collection.

My nephew unearthed a strongbox. It was heavy, and it rattled when we shook it. What treasures did Andy keep locked inside? (FYI, if you don’t have a key, try the little ones that came with your luggage.) Inside the box were home movies. Reels and reels of them. Maybe they’re X-rated. Maybe they’re better angles on the Zapruder film. We’ll never know, because the movie projector is lost, and so is the director.

In another closet, we found a suitcase and a filing cabinet, also locked. I understand how Geraldo must have felt, opening Al Capone’s safe—Andy’s secrets were his Playboy collection and dozens of bottles of booze. I thought he only drank beer, so why did he keep old Vermouth and Kahlua and Seagram’s in a drawer, gathering dust? Hoping for one last party?

So many mysteries in this house. What’s the giant pot of dirt doing in the middle of the bathroom floor? When did the closet racks fall off the wall? (And how long did Andy keep hanging his shirts on the floor?) How did he sleep with so many weapons under his pillow? In the sheets, I found a hunting knife, a hammer, a monkey wrench and a crowbar. Under the bed were three more knives, an axe, a sledgehammer and a set of hedge clippers. (We took away the rifles after Andy shot the mattress.)

It breaks my heart to think of a tough guy like Andy, huddled in the dark with his wrench. “Do not distress yourself with imaginings,” his favorite poem said. “Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.”

Andy always told me he only wanted to be left alone. He got his wish.

Thanks to him, I’ve gone back and reread “Desiderata” several times. This is the part I want to remember:

Whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be careful. Strive to be happy.