Illustration by Llew Mejia
A modest brown house sits on a tranquil, tree-lined street in Santa Ana. Though we’d been friends with the owner for more than 12 years and we live nearby in Huntington Beach, he had never invited us in. We didn’t understand until the night we got a phone call.
“I need your help,” said our friend—I’ll call him Joe. “I’ve had a car accident.”
We rushed to the hospital. Despite serious injuries, Joe was remarkably coherent. “I haven’t been living right,” he said, slowly shaking his head, “and I want you to do something for me. I don’t have anybody else I can ask.” Joe had no children or other family. He hesitated, and we could see how difficult it was for him to request a favor.
For years he’d helped us with projects of our own, using his machine-shop expertise. We’d tried to return the favor, offering to help him in any way we could, but he always refused our offers. We chalked it up to pride but soon found out it ran deeper. Finally, Joe reached into his pocket, pulled out a set of keys and asked, “Would you clean up my house?”
Grateful for the chance to repay a long-overdue debt, we immediately agreed. Joe would pay for the costs, and my husband and I would be free labor.
The next day we drove over to survey Joe’s house. The key stuck in the lock, but after some gyrations we opened his front door—or rather, partly opened it because something was blocking it. We squeezed ourselves inside and realized we were in trouble.
The house didn’t need cleaning; it needed excavating. It reminded me of a Joan Rivers comedy bit: “I hate housework. You make the beds, you wash the dishes, and six months later you have to start all over again.” But our friend wasn’t on a six-month cycle. Joe apparently hadn’t cleaned or thrown away anything since his wife died more than 10 years before. And I mean anything.
We spotted empty soda bottles, petrified pizzas, and moldering fast-food containers in the recognizable detritus, which was stacked to the tops of the windows. A canyon snaked through the house, with stacked debris forming the walls. The kitchen was inundated by a landslide of trash. The stove and sink were buried, leaving the top of the refrigerator the only recognizable marker that this was the kitchen. The dust was an inch thick.
My husband and I looked at each other, thinking the same thing: What had we gotten ourselves into?
We knew our friend was still bereft over his wife’s death, but we never expected to walk into the depth of his grief. Maybe he thought cleaning the house would somehow disrespect her memory. Maybe he felt useless without a wife who needed him. “Winnie the Pooh” creator A.A. Milne once said, “One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” But I don’t believe the discoveries he had in mind were a 5-foot-deep pile of eggshells or a refrigerator filled with a troubling green ooze.
We were overwhelmed, but we had made a promise. So while our friend recovered, we rented a 40-cubic-yard-capacity Dumpster and got to work. We filled the container in one day.
Removing the trash felt like an archeological dig because it was piled in geologic strata. The bottom layer was made up of worn out, mismatched tennis shoes, followed by a layer of plastic grocery bags, empty cookie wrappers, and fast food containers. When a layer reached about 2 feet deep, Joe covered it with a blue tarp and continued layering.
As I cleaned, I wondered if we’re all one tragedy away from this kind of chaos, one personal loss away from giving up, from declaring ourselves irrelevant. What keeps us going when the people who need us are gone? If I lost my husband, would I neglect my house and allow the grass to grow so tall that code enforcement would fine me?
Determined to give our friend a fresh start, and since my husband and I are retired, we dove into the cleaning. That task alone took 600 garbage bags, 200 pairs of disposable gloves, 100 cloth shop towels, 60 rolls of paper towels, 48 face masks, 36 abrasive scrubbers, 12 paint scrapers, 10 large sponges, six buckets, four sets of knee pads, three mops, two brooms, and a shopping cart full of cleansers, soap, and bleach.
With the trash, dirt, and dust removed, my husband and I could finally assess the condition of the house. Rusty water trickled from the kitchen faucet when we turned it on. We tried all the appliances, but nothing worked. Many electrical outlets were dead. I started a list: faucet, garbage disposal, stove, refrigerator, washer, dryer, microwave, toaster, kitchen floor, carpet, paint, light fixtures, light switches, replacement windows, an all-new bathroom. It seemed endless. When moving the hot water heater to lay a new kitchen floor, the iron pipe feeding the heater disintegrated at the fitting, sifting to the floor like sand. I added new plumbing to the list. There was so much work that we had to hire contractors to help.
As our friend improved in rehab, we put in about 350 hours each, working 10-hour days, taking only Sundays to recharge and visit him in the hospital. During the next six weeks, we literally rebuilt his house, sharing weekly photo updates with Joe, who said he was thrilled. We were nearly finished when I ran across a pillowcase stuffed with junk mail. That’s when I made one of those exciting discoveries.
Sorting through the contents, I found a stack of poems Joe had written. Good poems, beautiful and touching, filled with love and hope. I couldn’t stop myself from reading them. My favorite, called “A Library,” was on top of the pile. Written on yellowing paper, it was about how building a library was a noble task, but it was even nobler to teach someone to read. It was probably the last poem he’d composed before the dust got too deep to find a pen and paper.
The poems made me realize that the secret of this house was not its piles of trash and dust; the secret was the talent buried beneath the mess. Joe’s poems proved that my friend was capable of working through his grief because, though his wife was gone, he still had something the world needed.
I cleaned out his desk, which contained matches, screwdrivers, and pocketknives, but no writing implements. Then I filled the drawers with pencils, pens, and paper, hoping someday he would write again.