Elephant in the (Dying) Room.

The biggest single thing that I grapple with on a daily basis is the death of my father less than two years. Since that occaision I have tried to access my memories of him and attempted to access how I feel about his passing and the not-so-functional relationship we had.

Space is a big part of this. He passed away in my childhood home which until then he had been living alone in. Whatismore, he expired on my bed, where he relocated to at some point in the preceding months. His body was not found until an estimated 72 hours later. It was my mother that found him.

There is a lot in all of that to unpack and to come to turns with. In the intervening months I have packed up and cleaned out the house, sold off a lot of what he had hoarded, set fire to a lot more.

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First published on Domain.com.au 2/6/15:

Hoarders are selfish people.

Whilst they may think they are contributing to the good in the world – filing away every semi-interesting newspaper article to ensure we don’t forget important things, salvaging every potentially re-purposeable anything – in reality they’re just making a whole lot of mess that they ultimately don’t plan on sticking around to help clean up.

I’ve spent the best part of this month cleaning, clearing, evaluating and pondering one such mess. It happened to be my father’s.

This was not my first attempt at the gargantuan task of tackling his earthly belongings. After his death in August of last year I decamped to the old guy’s house – my childhood home – in country New South Wales for a fortnight. I had grand plans of cleaning out the bush domicile entirely, reclaiming it from the glacial tide of decay and accumulation that he had allowed to absorb it since building it back in the mid-1980’s.

I got nowhere.

I dilly-dallied around the periphery. I avoided difficult decisions. I avoided simple decisions. I found that in packing up a house it’s always easier to go for the books first. They fit nice and neatly into boxes, taking up a decent amount of space, making you feel as if you’ve achieved something once they’re all away. Seventy boxes of books constituted the tip of this iceberg of personal effects, the low hanging fruit. Little emotional involvement involved.

I returned interstate feeling deflated and wrung-out. I’d enjoyed the tranquility of the bush (as had my father) and the smell at dusk of the cooling surrounds, in repose after a day of dry, baking October heat but ultimately I’d just postponed the process.

In my father’s case clutter took the form of both nostalgia pieces and anti-waste sequestration. But that was only the beginning. In essence his hoarding had progressed to the meta-status of constituting a collection of collections (yes, a more stylish common noun beckons). As he got older he added collections of things he’d previously not even shown interest in. The advent of ebay didn’t help.

Antique tools (numbering in the hundreds), Dinky toys, postcards (addressed and blank), spoons (remember when people bought souvenir teaspoons?), posters, bubble wrap, beer bottles, beer coasters, beer glasses (there’s a representative pattern here), pretty rocks, bird’s nests, wasp’s nests, animal skulls and various other classes of specimens from the natural world, books, alarm clocks, mobile phones (each subsequent one purchased because the previous ‘didn’t work’, nothing at all to do with old people and technology), slides, off-cuts of any type of building material, novelty coffee cups, paddle pop sticks (used), and on.

Now, I love a good collection myself, but I also hate being fettered by commodities. Half of the joy of frequent travel is for me the disconnection from my stuff. All that stuff. My father travelled constantly in his mind but little in reality. As he got older his social and physical sphere narrowed markedly until finally he had his house to himself, free from pesky visitors, given over to house the museum of a life.

Truth is, I had used the house since my departure years prior for university as a holding pen for all the collections I had shed post-childhood but couldn’t quite let go of. Stamps, basketball cards (so many Dennis Rodmans) and every Hit Parader issue to ever feature Pearl Jam. So this account of my late father’s effects also turned out to be a sifting through of my own childhood. A perfect recipe for overwhelming emotional upheaval.

I returned to the house on a second occasion and steeled myself for big decisions. It was time to get ruthless, if only for mental self-preservation. I surrounded myself with a crew – my sweetheart, my sister and my children. Together we scoured through the trove, stopping along the way to compare findings. We traced my father’s mental and physical decline through copies of personal correspondence. We cried together learning tragic, long-hidden and hitherto unknown admissions of my father. Most importantly we were reminded of his gentle kindness and of his love of the simple beauty of the world.

On the last night we dug a huge fire pit. We had amassed far more reams of paper than we could fit in a large recycling bin. Hundreds of newspaper clippings spanning decades, tourist maps, receipts, emails printed out in quadruplicate for some unknown reason. Surrounded by red river gums, the birds calling each other in for the evening and the stars shining vividly as they only do in the bush we gradually gave this accumulated history of my father over to the pyre. It made sense. These ashes were in turn joined by, and in that giver of heat, comingled with, the ashes of my father. It burnt all night and into the morning. My children slept out under the stars by the fire that last night, warmed by that distillation of a life. The fire took and the fire gave.

Few of us get to a point in our lives where we comprehensively shed accouterments. I vowed during this task to leave my children with no such mess but I now know it’s a vow I’ll never be able to keep. Still, there was in all of that stuff the story of a man who I only partially knew whilst alive. How could I regret that mixed privilege of discovery and pain? It is said that we are not our things. This is of course true. But the life of a loved one can in many ways be reconstructed through a study of their belongings. They are the aides memoire of an existence. Thanks for the hoarding Dad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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