Cleaning my father's house after he died

Amid the clutter and keepsakes, I see reminders of the difficult man my father was and the success he longed to be

Published July 24, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)


Their house was a wreck. Mildew on the walls, dust balls the size of rodents, stacks of unopened mail, and newspapers on every conceivable space — tables, chairs, beds, fireplace — and even under the living room sofa.

The bathroom was worse than any rest stop facility, the toilet and tub black with grime. Weeds obscured the terrace. Wood rot left ragged holes on the outside of the house as if rodents had chewed through it.

For 10 years, I hadn't been to my parents' home for more than a day or two. Then, on a spring day last year while my 94-year-old father was shopping at a local supermarket, he slipped and fell in the parking lot and broke his hip.

He came through surgery, but a week later at the rehabilitation center, problems developed. Stubborn to a fault, my father refused to eat hospital food. His blue polka dot hospital smock began drooping off him like a coat too big for its hanger. Fluid started filling his lungs. His heart and kidneys stopped functioning normally. The antibiotics doctors gave him helped one organ but damaged others, and they recommended a ventilator. I called him the night before he was put on one but did not recognize his voice. He sounded like someone talking underwater. I flew home.

Four days later my father was taken off the ventilator and removed from intensive care. He called my mother to his side and kissed her on the mouth while he was being wheeled down the hall. I was surprised and a little embarrassed. I had never seen them kiss before.

He died a week later.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

My brother and I always thought it would be the other way around.

Our father defied age and continued to drive and shop at the supermarket until the afternoon he broke his hip. While my mother's walk had slowed to a shuffle, his was still quick, like an athlete's. She had curvature of the spine, was blind in one eye, arthritic in a knee and nearly deaf. What was supposed to be a fast trip to the nearby Walgreen's pharmacy now took an hour with her along, so he would leave her at home. No doubt his impatience hid the sadness he felt at seeing his wife of 62 years move with the halting steps of a toddler.

Now that he had died, it was clear to my brother and me that our mother could not live by herself. She refused an "assisted living" facility — fancy speak, she believed, for a nursing home — and living with my brother and his family in the Chicago suburbs would not provide a permanent solution.

That left me.

I was 50, I had lost my job as a reporter in Kansas City, and I barely covered my rent freelancing. I was not married and did not have children.

I moved back home on March 1, 2010.

My first night home I began cleaning the house.

A stale odor permeated the living room, an odor I associated with the old people I had worked with when I was a social worker years before. An odor created from soiled carpets, furnaces left on too long, from air that no longer circulated. I opened windows. A few were swollen shut and all of them were gray with dust.

I started by clearing months-old stacks of papers off the living room table; coupons, newspapers, mail advertisers. We had eaten dinner at that table, my father at the head. I sat to his right.

Once a glass of milk slipped from my 6-year-old hand and began spilling across the table. I waited, cringing, for the eruption of his rage. It began before the glass clattered against the table. He shouted like a football coach, threatening to beat me with his shoe for my carelessness.

"Chuck," my mother said. "Please."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

When I finished with the living room, I moved on to the breakfast nook. It was here my father had attempted to help me with the story problems I consistently failed in grammar-school math.

"Sally has three apples; Jane has four," my father read. "If Jane eats half of her apples and Sally eats one fourth of one of her apples, how many apples are left?"

The answer lay before my father as distinct as a diamond, and he jabbed the math book with his pencil while I bungled one guessed answer after another until the point of his pencil broke off and he no longer could contain himself.

"How many, how many, how many?" he would demand while I quivered beside him.

Finally, he gave me the answer just to be done with it and slammed the math book shut, disgusted with me and, I think now, his own thin patience. I retreated to my bedroom.

"Malcolm ..." he would shout after me.

He opened his mouth, but no words came. After a moment, I continued up the stairs. My father listened to me go. He could not bring himself to apologize, especially when he thought I was not trying. "That's your problem," he would say, "a lack of application." Next time, I imagine him saying to himself, he would control his temper and Malcolm would show effort.

I swept the papers off the breakfast nook table into a tub.

"Sorry, Pop," I said.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I moved on to my father's study, where stacks of unopened mail obscured his desk.

Framed diplomas from the University of Wisconsin and the Harvard Business School hung on the wall above his desk. An adding machine still registered the last figures he had tapped in. The 1946 Remington typewriter he used sat on an end table. He took one computer lesson, but the mouse and the dancing arrow it controlled frustrated him, and he returned to his typewriter. He never changed the ribbon, just banged the keys harder as the type grew fainter and fainter.

I opened a desk drawer and leafed through some envelopes. Bank statements. Canceled checks. Business letters. Each one arranged by date. All of them years old, predating the time when he became overwhelmed by simple tasks.

In another drawer, I found envelopes postmarked 1948. They were addressed in my father's sprawling handwriting to my mother at a New Jersey address where she stayed for a summer with her sister Elvira.


Dearest Letty —

Hi darling — I love you more and more and miss you much more every day. It seems like you have been gone for months. Please write often and miss me a little too. I am lost without you here.

Love letters.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

My parents met in Puerto Rico at the end of World War II. My father served in the Navy and was stationed there. Born near San Juan but raised in New York City, my mother frequently returned to Puerto Rico to visit friends and family.

He saw her for the first time at a dance. He tapped her dance partner on the shoulder and cut in. He was wearing his white Navy uniform with lieutenant's bars. He had an easy smile, hair slicked and parted to one side. They were near the beach on a patio. A live band played above the soft sound of ocean waves rolling onto the beach and the rhythmic croaking of frogs.

My father put one hand on her waist and led her through a jazz tune. She had no other partners that night. They exchanged phone numbers, and my father called her the next day. By the time she left Puerto Rico three months later, they were engaged.

They married in New York City on a muggy June morning in 1947 and spent their honeymoon in Nantucket. Afterward, they rented an apartment in Chicago, where my father administered a branch of the family cigar business. He would have preferred to strike out on his own, my mother told me, but he withheld his private ambitions to please his father.

The Perfecto Garcia Cigar Company boasted Cuban tobacco until the Cuban embargo in 1962. My father found another tobacco source, but it was not as good, and the company lost revenue. He lay at night worrying, my mother said. During the day I saw that he became more nervous and impatient with the littlest things; dropping change on the floor caused him to cuss like a sailor. When he couldn't find his glasses, he overturned furniture. As I was about to graduate from college, he sold the company at a loss and retired an embittered man.

I came home for a month in the first year of his retirement. I was a social worker. My clients were homeless. Over dinner, I mentioned that only 1 percent of them got off the street. "Any business with those kinds of numbers would close its doors," my father said, and he left the table for the couch, crossed his arms, and stared at me in disgust.

"You're a goddamn idiot," he said.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The last time I saw my father before he broke his hip was in 2007. I was home for a rare visit. I sat across from him in the breakfast nook on a Saturday morning drinking coffee. "I'm going for a walk," I said, and he asked to come with me.

We walked past a man in a suit and tie inspecting flowers in his yard. "My father wore a suit and tie every day, even weekends, just like that guy," my father said. "Why don't you have a photograph of him?" I asked. He didn't answer. We walked about a block further when he told me to stop. "I'm tired," he said. "You can go on." "OK," I said. I watched him walking back to the house, hunched over, pumping his arms in that little rapid walk of his, and it bothered me seeing him alone. I went back with him.

When we reached the driveway, he said, "I don't know why I don't have a picture of my father. That's a good question."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Nearly a year has passed since my father died, and my two months home have changed everything.

A woman from a home healthcare service takes my mother to church and joins her for breakfast every day before they go out again to the supermarket.

Once a week a cleaning woman dusts, vacuums and mops her way through the house, and painters have been hired, and a gardener mows the yard every Friday. Each evening, I sort the mail and it does not pile up.

I have wondered if my parents were unaware of the deterioration that overtook the house, but I think it was more complicated than that.

Toward the end of his life, my father was tired, his tiredness brought on by a long life, of the human battery winding down, lights shutting off, circuits breaking never to be recharged. I imagine he was too exhausted to bother with maintaining the house. I'll get to it in a minute, he thought.

Slowly papers began stacking up. Dust collected. Mildew flecked the walls. He would get to it. Eventually, tables were completely covered with unopened mail and newspapers. "Don't touch it," I imagine him telling my mother. "I'll get to it." She was losing her sight and her back was giving her problems. "Leave it, Letty. I'll do it later."

The piles got bigger too. He considered the amount of time required to sort through each one but he was tired. He would get to it all, he convinced himself. In a minute. In a minute.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I don't miss my father. I miss not missing him. Sometimes, I reread the love letters he sent my mother and think of the young man who wrote them and with whom my mother fell in love and married.

Wednesday —

There is a gale blowing over this desk at the moment. I have the west window open and its wonderful although a little on the breezy side. I love you and miss you.

Lately, I have begun recalling moments with him when I was very young.

I am in a pool with my father at a Bermuda hotel. Rain pours down on us. We duck under the water together and look up. The rain pellets the surface. We come up for air, and my father says, "You saw the footsteps of hundreds of elves running across the water." I laugh. My mother shouts from a window. She worries about lightning. My father grins. "We are risk takers," he tells me.

My father would be pleased that I moved home to look after my mother. Her well-being would have meant more to him than his displeasure at the money I've spent fixing the house.

I try not to think about that, to engage in an argument that will never occur between us. Instead, at night, when my mother has gone to bed, I sit in his study across from his typewriter and focus on his approval, a first step, I think, toward missing him.

J. Malcolm Garcia’s writing has been anthologized in "Best American Travel Writing" and "Best American Nonrequired Reading."

By J. Malcolm Garcia

J. Malcolm Garcia is a freelance journalist and the author of "The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul" and "What Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and the Forgotten." He is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism. His work has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Essays, and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

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