Sometimes, especially when I feel down, I like to go back and read things I wrote when I was a teenager. This entry, written in 2004, made me break down in tears. My dad's coffee mug is currently sitting in my living room, watching over me. Did you ever take a second to look at something that is so familiar to you, something you've seen practically everyday since you can remember, and really look at it? For the first time, you actually see its details and realize that maybe things wouldn't be the same if that object were never there to begin with. My dad has always sipped his coffee from the same set of mugs since I was a wee tot. The set consisted of either 4 or 6 mugs that my grandma (my mom's mom) gave to my parents in the late '70s sometime when they were married, but now only one remains (just think crash, bang, boom). It's kind of odd that over all the years I've seen this mug and my dad drink from it, I never really looked at it much, nor consciously acknowledged its details. I looked at it tonight when I was finishing my dinner. It's white and stained. Inside there's dark brown coffee stains that fill in the enamel cracks that have formed over the years. Some of the stains appear in rings with scratch marks from stirring spoons through them, revealing the mug's true color. Outside there's mostly unidentifiable spots; some paint smears, some coffee drips and age is a thin film along the creases of the handle and the rims of the mug. The design is perhaps one of the least masculine there is and some may think it strange that I would associate its image with my father. The only remaining mug has hand-drawn red plums on the front and handwriting on the back. I always see the plum side because my dad is left-handed, therefore the most appealing side is facing away from him. The plums are on a branch with plum blossoms in bloom. The handwriting is in cursive and looks as though a woman wrote it. I've never read what it says, but I know that it's about those depicted red plums. One day I should read it when the mug is lying unused on the counter, next to the coffee machine. Along with my dad's paintings, drawings, and other various artwork, I want that mug to remain when he passes on. I hope to place it on a shelf somewhere, perhaps on a bookcase, and leave it stained and spotted, exactly how it looks today. The one thing that pops into my mind when I think of my father is not paint or abstract art, but that coffee mug. I will probably cry if it is ever broken because it is the one thing that conjures up memories of my father over the whole span of my life, from when I was three up until an hour ago. It's like the timeless object ever-present in my memories of my father. One day, I should seek out those other mugs that were broken sometime along the way and give them as a gift to my father. I think he would enjoy that.
From time to time, a reader will reach out to me via email to share their story and ask me for some advice. I think that sharing my response on the blog while maintaining the reader's anonymity could benefit other readers and perhaps even spark some further advice in the comments. I received the following email from a reader about what to do about her brother who is currently living in the hoard (some details have been omitted):
I am also the daughter of a hoarder. I have been on my own for many years now, but my mom's life choices still seem to come to mind every holiday time, especially when finals are here (I'm sure you can relate). Tonight I felt compelled to stop ignoring the situation and do something. I googled hoarding. It feels strange now, realizing that I've never actually done it. All these years..and I'm just finally trying to find some support, to maybe connect with people that have been there. I came across the COH website, and your self interview.
What has me really thinking was lately realizing all my discarded hobbies and passions, that I've always known stemmed from my childhood. And this gets me thinking about my brothers; my full concern is my 14 year old brother. He lives there with my mom and her husband (along with 3 or 4 cats). The house last I peeped was worse than ever. All I could think about tonight is what he must be going through alone in that house, and how guilty I feel for not trying to do something for him. I know how hopeless I felt at that age. The beginning to the end of your childhood, there is so much pressure to perform and become this amazing individual. Yet being the child of a hoarder, that potential is buried somewhere among the clutter. This is how I see it.
I am terrified of him feeling like I did for those last years. I am terrified of him not living to his fullest potential because of his current environment. It seems like such a waste of a young brilliant kid. I see him struggling when I get a chance to go visit. I see him shutting off and I know he has so much in him but I'm afraid of her killing him (in not such a literal sense). I just need to reach out and find an outlet to help me, to help my family...Hopefully make something change, even just for the sake of this awesome kid.
I really don't know where to begin, or even how to proceed in this situation. I am really just looking for anything, something to start turning things around.
Here was my response:
I'm honored that you felt comfortable enough to share your situation with me, so thank you for reaching out. I understand so very much of what you feel and think about your life and your situation.
Knowing how hard it was for me as a teenage child of a hoarder, my heart simply breaks for your younger brother. I personally do not know a teenager currently living in a hoard, but I have some ideas based on my personal experiences that might help both you and your brother.
I think that it's incredibly important to talk to your brother about the situation, so my suggestion for getting started would be to start a conversation with him. Make sure that he knows that it is absolutely not his fault that the house is in the condition that it's in. Talk to him about how you felt living there and what you did to cope with the situation. It's very important that he does not feel like he is alone and that he knows that someone else has been there. He may not talk much, but I think having him hear what you have to say would be helpful. Let him know that you're there to listen and that he should not be afraid to ask for help.
I would highly encourage him to pursue his hobbies and interests, especially the ones that take him outside of the house. If he can redirect his attention and passion to something constructive and fun, it will make life more bearable for him. Also, it may help build a future for him down the road outside of the home (if he likes basketball, he could work hard at it and get a basketball scholarship to a university so he can leave home, etc.). Having a part-time job would also get him out of the house and start some skill building.
I'm not sure how close you live to your mom's house and, as a working student, I know that you're busy, but if at all possible, it might be good to set a date once a week/month/whatever that can be reserved just for the two of you to spend time together outside of your mom's house. Maybe he could even stay a night or a weekend at your place so he can see that you were able to get past living in a hoard and have a normal life and also so that he can experience being in a normal home. I know I felt like I was in paradise when I got to spend the weekend at my dad's house since it made me feel more normal.
I would highly encourage counseling for anyone. It wasn't until I spiraled downward rapidly that I finally spoke to someone. It truly made all the difference.
I hope my suggestions have at least helped a little bit. I wish the best for your family.
One thing that's been bothering me the most about my dad's untimely death is the fact that he died before he was able to do everything that he wanted to do. Now I know that the chances of anyone being able to live long enough and have the opportunities to be able to accomplish everything they want to accomplish are very slim, but knowing that my dad relied heavily on my often talked about someday thinking makes me incredibly sad.
He talked so much about wanting to retire as soon as he could so he could paint and pursue his myriad of hobbies all day. He hated his day job even though he was very good at it and watched the clock the entire time he was there. He talked about having a house at the beach or a house in his beloved West Virginia mountains. He thought that someday he would be happily retired. Clearly, that someday never came for him. He didn't get to fully enjoy the fruits of his labor. He didn't get to pursue his real passion, art, at his own pacing and timing. He made me promise that I would tie his paintbrush to his hand if he became too frail to hold it himself, often citing other artists who had their family members do the same. He never got to see me fulfill that promise for him.
Seemingly everyday, I've been learning new lessons about living from my father's death. This particular lesson is like a punch in the gut for me. I keep asking myself if I am really living my life in a way that allows me to pursue my true passions for an adequate amount of time. How many hours have I piddled away doing asinine things instead of writing or traveling or pursuing a hobby or doing something that makes me genuinely happy? Is my job really making me happy or does it just feel like a waste of my time? Is the stress I feel from my job and the relationships I have worth it? If I died today, what would I have to show for my time on earth?
Sure, I have to pay the bills somehow. Sitting at home and reading books wouldn't be sustainable. My dad pursued the career he did because it provided a decent living. But wouldn't it be worth it to make my passions more of a priority and to even attempt to make money while doing so? Even if I failed, I would know that I tried and that I spent more time doing what I loved in the process.
At my dad's memorial service, a priest who volunteered to help officiate asked my brother and me two questions so that he could know a little bit more about my dad: what was the best thing about my dad and what was one of the best things he ever did for me? I started crying when he asked us these questions because, really, how the hell does a child answer those about their father? The best thing about him was that he was my dad and that he quite literally gave me life. I was flooded with thoughts and memories and I had to excuse myself instead of give him answers. I've thought about these questions since and I have to say, I think one of the best things he ever did for me was to show me how important it was to pursue the things in life that give you the most happiness. Above all else and no matter what, my dad was an artist. He sketched and painted and breathed art. My dad's creativity lives on in me through writing. I can't not write even if I wanted to stop. I need to write and read and breathe the written word in order to be the happiest and the most fulfilled. There's no sense denying myself and allowing feelings of regret to rob me of the best parts of life.
Sometimes, especially when I feel down, I like to go back and read things I wrote when I was a teenager, like the following entry.
i am a girl, i am controlled by my emotions. as a writer, i am a slave to them. excuse me as i live my life the only way i know how, floating towards happiness and drifting away from loneliness and cold. logic and reason are absent, no where to be found in the recesses of my little mind. i will fight the good fight and abstain from the bad. i am tiny and i am meek, a lone person among the masses. my mind and soul are mine to keep, to cultivate, to mature, and to harvest. my heart, haha, my heart has no leash, has no chain, can not be bound, tied up, or restrained. never once have i contained it, constrained it, burried it deep beneath the residue that life has so cunningly left, thick and grimy, on my inner most of beings. i am but a child, a wee 17 year old. and yet i have seen too much of this world already; maimed, blinded, and deafened by all that society has offered me. the only thing left to do is scream, shout, yell; they can not take my voice, my thoughts, my dreams. only i can halt those, silence them, repress them. but that would equal death, and am i but 17.
Below is the eulogy that I gave at my dad's memorial service (with names removed). I wrote it at 3am the morning of the service with a migraine (I got four migraines over the course of the week following my dad's death which I think gives an accurate indication of what kind of stress I've been under). I somehow managed to deliver it without breaking down or crying a single tear.
Thank you all for attending today. The support we’ve received has been immense and overwhelming. For those of you who have never met me until today, I’m Sarah, [...]’s daughter. But even though you may have never met me previously, I have no doubt that you’ve heard many things about me, as well as my brother [...], because Dad had a tendency to talk to anything with ears about his children.
A quote that has been repeating in my mind this week that has given me comfort is the following from Longfellow: “Dead he is not, but departed, for the artist never dies.”
For me, it is nearly impossible to separate my dad, the man, from my dad, the artist. Almost every memory and association I have of him involves art in some way.
Growing up, on evenings when he wasn’t nestled on the couch with us watching Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Muppet Show, more likely than not, he could be found in his studio on the third floor of our house. Many nights, I would follow him up there so that I could paint and draw too, alongside my daddy. I would climb the steep staircase, seeing light seeping out from the cracks around the studio door. About halfway up, I could hear oldies music playing from his stereo. On the landing outside of the door, I could smell the mixture of menthol cigarettes and oil paint. Pushing the door open and peeping my head in always produced a smile and an invitation to join him.
While in college, I took a creative writing class. One of our writing prompts involved writing a list poem about a childhood memory. I quickly jotted down the following poem about my father’s studio. I think it communicates my feelings and memories in a pithy way that would be difficult to recreate.
The third story window whose view made my favorite climbing tree appear small and obscure. The slanted ceiling that threatened a bumped head. The faded and torn psychedelic poster left over from his college days. The baskets and tins full of crimped and crumpled paint tubes. The canvases finished, half finished, turned to the wall. The stained, cluttered drafting table, always too high. The corner where I joined him in artistic discovery. The cigarette smoke, oldies station, and heavy scent of oil paint floating, mingling through the room. The closet with a child size door, opening to past failures and successes. The paint brushes stained, bristles soaking, handles chipped. The drawer full of his most treasured works: finger paintings and crayon sketches from his two children. The piles of art books, engineering books, antique books. The palate layered, rainbow swirls. The framed masterpiece I pasted together in third grade. The mutual pride and affection for father and daughter.
Being in Dad’s studio again with my brother this week has produced more laughter than tears as we shared our joint memories about the objects we rediscovered. Regardless of the fact that the room was a different one than the one from my childhood, it still smelled exactly the same and is undeniably my father’s space.
If you’ve spoken with my dad for any length of time, you quickly realize that he often used the same couple of quirky phrases and sayings. “It’s all happening at the zoo” was one that I thought for the longest time was just something he had made up. I discovered embarrassingly recently that it is, in fact, a Simon and Garfunkel song. “You’re a pain, but not a window” was directed at my brother and me a lot when we were young and blocked his view of the television while we were playing.
One of the top sayings etched into my memory, however, was one he used exclusively with me and was in the form of a question. He constantly asked me, “Do you know you’re my favorite daughter?” My typical response was a sigh and the comeback, “Dad, I’m your only daughter.” He was always quick to shoot right back, “Yeah, but you’re still my favorite.” As I got a little older, I matched wit for wit and responded instead with, “Well, good, because you’re my favorite dad.”
Now that my brother and sister-in-law have a son, [...], do you know what I find myself saying to him when I play with him and help put him down for naps? “[...], do you know you’re my favorite nephew?”
Thank you for being with us today and sharing your memories with us.
The turn out for the service was amazing. The room was packed. All of my closest friends came from near and far to pay their respects. I have some great people in my life, not least of which is my brother (who literally carried me when I was breaking down), and I am eternally grateful for each and every one of them.
Thank you all for your kind words and understanding while I stepped away from the blog for a little while.
For those of you who have been long time readers or who know me in real life, you understand that losing my father was a huge blow since my mother and I have such a strained relationship. I've stated many times that I feel as though I turned out so "normal" despite my hoarding mother because my dad had been my rock and his immense love and support counteracted the pain my mother has and continues to cause. My rock and my balance is now gone and I have to find new footing in order to navigate having a dysfunctional parent in my life.
My mother took four days to call me after my dad died. Four. I didn't see my phone ring and she left a vague voicemail that ended with her telling me that she was going to call my brother instead. She hasn't bothered to try to contact me again. I don't really have much to say to her and I highly doubt there's anything she can say to make me feel better, so I haven't felt inclined to call her back.
Many of my friends have stated how unfair it is for me to lose my dad since he was my only solid parent. I have to agree. It is unfair and cruel for me to lose such an awesome dad so young. It pains me everyday that I cannot share my life with him anymore.
I don't think there's anything that can prepare you for losing a parent and I don't think there's anyway to accurately describe how this feels. Everyday I have to remind myself that he is really gone. I'm just trying to take one day at a time and to consider that my dad would not want me to be sad and lethargic. All he wanted was for me to be happy. So that's all I want too.
My father passed away unexpectedly last week. People keep asking me how I'm doing. While I usually say, "okay" or "I've been better," I think the only way I can get close to explaining how I'm doing is by explaining that I feel as though someone ripped off my limbs, pushed me into the ocean, and I've been drowning and sinking for days.