Adult Children To Parents: Clean Your Own Closets!

12/12/2017 07:03 pm ET

I have a friend who just spent a year not working at his day job but clearing out, fixing up and selling his parents’ home of sixty years. It was a rambling, old, 1910 house with five bedrooms and lots of closets. His mother died some years ago; his father moved to assisted living recently. Not surprisingly, my friend, let’s call him Jack, and his sisters unpacked loads of memories along with a ton of crap.

It was unbelievable; stuff kept coming out of those closets like pus from a pimple, and some of it would end up at my house each week because Jack was either generous (a classic Electrolux vacuum!) or ambivalent (“No, no, not the Williamsburg vases; they can’t go to the Swap Shop.” “Yes, they can.” “No they can’t!”) I tell you, it was like a Roz Chast cartoon.

I have an admittedly heartless point of view about our parents getting on and thinking it’s okay to give up the sorting—just leave it to their kids to do after they’re gone. Is this some kind of horrible joke or cosmic retribution for the mess we imposed on them as toddlers and teens? When and how was it deemed an acceptable practice, that people declutter less over time in inverse proportion to their accumulating years? Who said it was okay for aging humans to shrug and let it be the next generation’s problem, like climate change?

Of course, I’ll never do that. No siree. I’m going to die with my closets Kondo-ized, half-empty and nicely dusted, my photo-prints from the 1990s in proper leather albums with captions and my pantry goods in alphabetical order by month of expiration.

My friend took a well deserved break from the madness of sorting, selling and jettisoning last winter to join me on a trip to the Caribbean. He’d recently emptied two medicine cabinets and, because his father is a retired physician, a file cabinet crammed full of medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and a set of human bones from an anatomy class attended by his great-grandfather passed down through the generations. The bones went to the local police station. Jack was hoping not to be arrested for his fastidiousness—but what else could he do? If he threw the remains in the trash it could launch a murder investigation.

Most of the meds went to the firehouse on drug-collection day. Some, he kept for himself. Personally, I abhor nearly all pharmaceuticals. The only thing I like is propofol for colonoscopy. I’m not a good sleeper, but with propofol, man, I wake up feeling well rested even though someone’s been poking around in my butt. But he didn’t bring any propofol along with the Williamsburg vases; too bad!

Anyway, so we’re on the plane getting ready to take off and because my big and tall friend suffers from claustrophobia on planes—more and more as the seats get ever smaller—he usually takes a minor sedative to settle down for the ride. On this occasion, he took one of his dad’s pills from his shirt pocket, helped himself to a sip from my water bottle, swallowed and said, “Ah, let’s hope that wasn’t my dad’s Viagra.”

See the problem? I mean, where is it written that it’s okay to bequeath one’s messes and disarray like this? My poor friend—can you imagine: a four-hour erection on a three-hour plane ride? That didn’t happen, but it very well could have, and how would you get that through customs?

As with carbon footprints, I submit that this attitude concerning closet-footprints warrants scrutiny. I recognize that not all parents are guilty as charged, but including Jack, I know half a dozen people who in the last few years have done the parental housecleaning. Therefore, I propose that, after we settle the Mueller investigations, tax reform and sexual-harassment cases this year (fingers crossed!), and in so doing accept the long overdue tectonic-shifts in cultural mores, we implement another change: legislation requiring parents to sort their closets before they die or move to assisted living. And join a support group to get help for their problem. If they’re infirm, they can skip the physical therapy session and get some exercise right at home, or else hire help, just like we’d have to after they’re gone because we can’t or in my case won’t do it ourselves.

To be perfectly honest, I’m anxious, because I may be among the worst offenders. I cop to oodles of pus in my closets. Therefore, let me be the first to pledge to do better, not worse, as I grow older and less blonde. And if my mother, 92, is listening: Mom, don’t take this personally, but I’m going to get a dumpster. Actually, my mother showed her impish humor one day last year when she returned home from her errands and showed me her new box of Q-Tips, 250-count, and said, “I normally would get 1,000, but I’m not sure I’ll live that long.” I laughed at her thoughtfulness; then I cried and went out and bought her a box of 1,000. Meanwhile, my friend, in an honest moment of his own, confided that when all was said and chucked, he got something of value besides furniture out of the clearing-out. A stroll down memory lane, a reckoning with his childhood and a communion with the ghosts who hovered in those closets cheering him on at the task.

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