Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Bittersweet Visit With My Great Uncle

On our way out to Pennsylvania, I opted to take the southern route through Indianapolis as opposed to the northern route through Chicago. In the winter I'm always worried about the "lake effect" blizzards along the northern route and since both ways are identical in mileage and time from where I live, I opted for the southern route. There was also another reason for selecting that route. My great uncle lives in Indianapolis and I have fond memories of him as a kid. He used to play one board or card game after another whenever he visited us and for a kid who usually only played them with his brother, it was great to have "new blood".

My great uncle is just a year shy of turning 90 and made his last hurrah trip to Iowa several years ago. Even then he did it by bus and had us go pick him up at the station. Now he is too advanced in age to make such a trip again and I thought I would visit him instead, something I had never done. I had heard many stories of his house and so I decided that I would see for myself. As it turned out, they were all true but severely understated!

Before I tell you about his house, first let me fill you in about my great uncle. He and his brother, my grandfather, are as far apart from each other as can be. My grandfather is a very mechanical oriented, practical, good with his hands, full of common sense kind of person. My great uncle on the other hand, has no common sense what so ever and doesn't know many of the things in life that most of us take for granted. Some examples:

1. I have had to explain what the square with the wavy lines means in a car. (Defrost)
2. I have had to explain the difference between parking lights and headlights because he drove for years only using parking lights and wondering why people honked at him all the time at night.
3. Doesn't know his right from his left
4. Backed into a mailbox and tore off his passenger side mirror. Believed it when told and paid for a $1400 replacement from some unsavory body shop who saw sucker written on his forehead.
5. Once drove 250 miles the wrong way before realizing his error after pulling off the interstate to get gas.

I could go on and on with the examples but I won't. But to fill you in on the rest of his history, he is a mentally sharp man and I could always spend great periods of time talking to him about this and that, especially World War II that he fought in. He just lacked common sense and everyone just accepted it. So I don't know if what I am about to tell you falls into the mentally sharp description being just an illusion or that his lack of common sense included his house.

We walked through the screened in porch where my great uncle sleeps during the summer. There is an army surplus cot and a very dirty army sleeping bag on it. We ring the doorbell and my great uncle opened the door. My breath was taken out of my mouth and it was all I could do to greet him. Behind him was a room completely filled with heaps upon heaps of magazines, newspapers, books, records, tapes and mail. It was four to five feet deep and went wall to wall with a few exceptions. There was a semicircle area that the door opened into but only inches out of reach and two trails that went to two different rooms out of view. Each trail was only 12 to 18 inches wide (with sides 4 to 5 feet deep) and the floor could only be seen in a few places where mini avalanches of stuff hadn't covered it. It was all we could do for my wife and I to squeeze inside the door with my great uncle who could only stand with the aid of a cane. How he walked down the trails without killing himself by slipping on a magazine I'll never know since for me, it was like walking on ice.

With the door closed, my wife standing in beginning of one of the trails, myself in the other and my great uncle in the now spacious semicircle clearing that the door swung in, there was an uncomfortable pause as we all debated what to do or say next. Finally my great uncle asked my wife to move toward him so he could get by her into the trail she was standing in. She did so and he caned his was a few feet down the trail and sat on a folding metal chair tucked off to one side and the only clear vertical surface that I could see. My wife and I then spent the next hour standing there in the trails and visited with my great uncle as he sat in apparently the only chair in the house. According to family lore, there is one other chair in the living room that is clear and about 18 inches of a bed that he sleeps on during the winter. The rest of his house looks exactly like the room we were standing in which was possibly a dining room once upon a time but all signs of furniture was buried.

As best as I can figure, my great uncle is the king of all collectors. He has a record, 8-track, tape, CD collection that had Billboard's Top 5 albums of the week going back from this week to the late 30's before the war. He is apparently the client of several book of the month clubs judging from the unopened mountains of book boxes and subscribes to a dozen or so magazines and newspapers, none of which he has ever thrown out. It is like a library with no shelving, with the exception of the record collection that occupied shelving built on every wall in sight. I saw a calendar on the wall, out of reach behind a mountain of stuff showing the days of July 1963. There was also another mountain of nothing but mail that had been rubber banded together by the postman when delivered, sat on top of the pile by my great uncle and apparently never opened.

It is terribly sad to see my great uncle living in such conditions but it is his choice and always has been. Several people have offered over the years to "clean" his house or get him to move into an assisted living facility but to no avail. My great uncle has squandered any money he may have had on subscriptions to so many things and now only gets buy on a reverse mortgage of his stately brick home in a well tended neighborhood of Indianapolis. From the outside, you would never know what lurks on the inside. I'm sure he could somehow get out of a reverse mortgage but he doesn't think so and is very stubbornly against it when people volunteer to look into the matter.

My uncle is in declining health and has lost a lot of weight over the last few years. He now survives on leftover food from his church, which feeds the homeless on a daily basis. His once sharp memory and faculties were now in sharp decline from the last time I saw him only a few years ago. I fear he only has a few years left before he dies or his senses leave him unable to take care of himself well enough to survive. It is a terribly sad thing to see and I feel worse knowing that someday he will die and make some local news highlight reel for dieing in a house amongst a mountain of "trash". People will shake their heads and wonder how anyone could live like that or what about his family.

My great uncle cut our meeting short because he needed to drive to his church for a meeting and to pick up any leftovers. We gave him a hug, told him to take care and squeezed out of the trails and out the door. It was definitely a bittersweet moment for me as it will probably be the last time I will ever see him again. I couldn't help but hoping that he loses his senses first so that someone can force him from his home so that he doesn't have to die in there alone in a mountain of stuff. I don't want him to make the evening news.


The Real Mother Hen said...

Incredibly sad story Ed. I'm speechless.

PS: Btw, are you sure we aren't related? I can't tell right from left - if you tell me to go right, I go left - and I don't know what's a parking light! What's that?!

Ed Abbey said...

Mother Hen - It is sad but unfortunately true. I wish I lived closer to be able to help in some way.

Most headlights on the steering column have two positions, parking lights and headlights. The parking lot setting is virtually ignored and are meant for leaving your car running along the side of a road or street at night and provides some lights so that traffic can see you but doesn't necessarily blind them. I drive by a guy every morning on the way to work who liked to warm up his car which faces the babysitters driveway. When I back out, it is hard to see what is coming with headlights shining right at me from forty feet away. If he put them on the parking light option instead of the headlight option, this wouldn't be a problem.

The Real Mother Hen said...

Ah I think I know what you mean, if "side light" = "parking light". Anyway I call them both headlights, one small (one turn), one big (two turns), haha see I'm hopeless!
I made some mistakes in the past by driving on the other side too, so now I look at the like colors very carefully.

Murf said...

The most disturbing part of this whole thing is that he still drives! I bet he has some good stuff in his house. If I were you, I'd get my name on a list of helpers that will be cleaning it out when he's gone.

sage said...

Sorry for your find, Ed. It's a sad story, although few people can live to 90 on their own, which is kind of an accomplishment.

Ed Abbey said...

Mother Hen - I have driven on the WRONG side of the road too. I believe it was England.

Murf - He has sold his record collection three times to people whom will collect it upon his death. All three people have died before him. I think it must be cursed.

Sage - His parents and their parents lived well into their 90's and with the exception of his father, they all took care of themselves up until they died. They have good genes evidently. I suppose that is why he is stubborn about not leaving his house.

Beau said...

I'm sorry about your Great Uncle, that's hard.

I have a sister-in-law with parents who do the same exact thing. My brother says when they visit there is no where to walk- and it includes the yard, the barn and any other place to store things. Not so much magazines as appliances, antiques and... junk.

Now I think I'm going to go throw out a stack of magazines in the living room...

edifice rex said...

I know exactly what you feel on this one Ed. My friend Fred, whom I bought my land from, is the same way although Fred is still very cognizant. we have tried many to to help him clean up some but he can undo hours of hard cleaning in about a day. It disturbs him greatly for his stuff to leave so sometimes we sneak into his house and at least throw the trash out. It's beyond words really but besides forcibly removing someone from their home, there's not much you can do. I am kind of an obsessive cleaner so it really freaks me out to be in his house for long.