I read somewhere that—after death of a child and divorce—having your home burn down is the third worst tragedy a person can experience. This makes me wonder whether I’m actually qualified to do my job.
Sure, I can get on a plane and fly to your burned-down home and count, list and describe whatever I can still recognize of your charred belongings. But I lack formal training in grief counseling, or in identifying the difference between Queen Anne legs and Bun Feet, and have only recently discovered there’s such a thing as a Queen Anne Bun Foot. After three years, I’m nearing competency with the inanimate objects, it’s with the animate ones—the ones who crumple down sobbing onto a pile of the scorched remains of their former lives—that my disaster recovery efforts are seriously substandard.
The easiest way to come through for people is to find, say, their baby book, wipe some soot off it and set it aside in a secure location. They’re always thankful; I’m almost a hero for taking the extra forty seconds to handle something with the slightest bit of care, instead of recording it as “hardcover photo album, 50 pages,” and tossing it into the growing pile behind me.
But I don’t know where to put the people’s emotions, or how to handle them. One woman had her house burn down twice in the same year—the second time, almost a year to the date of her first fire, just a day after she’d moved in all of her new furniture. Another woman’s house burned completely to the ground the same week her husband of forty years left her for a twenty-four year-old. A week later, her son crashed her only car.
The scariest thing I ever found in somebody’s house was a bent-over woman crying hysterically. Her son had died in Afghanistan, and she clutched the remains of his photo, a 5 × 7 frame that was crumbling into charcoal bits in her hands. I stood behind her, I think on what used to be a birdcage or maybe the rack of a toaster oven, and did my best disaster recovery effort, putting my hesitant hand on her back, doing a clockwise swirl, three quick pats and another swirl. Then I softly confirmed that the frame was wood and inquired if it had been on a shelf with other picture frames, and if so, what sizes were those frames?
I’m learning that people need to cry, but they don’t really want to dwell in their tragedy; they want to move on in small ways—like to the next shelf where they don’t recall there being any more frames, just about twenty dollars worth of assorted seashells.
Even if I wanted to start sharing in what could be a cathartic collaborative weep fest with my clients, their emotions always effectively numb me enough to make any sincere gestures on my part seem practiced, company policy. Maybe their emotions threaten to bring out a vulnerability I’d rather keep hidden. Or maybe I really am numb, and know that if I attempt too many consoling efforts, it will be obvious that I really don’t care too much about their loss, that this is the fourth third worst tragedy I’ve walked into this month, and the sooner I get done itemizing it, the sooner I can get back to my hotel, flop down on the bed and read a book.
It feels awful that this might be the case, but it’s probably the truth. Then again, it’s probably also true that no one in the fodder of a third worst tragedy cares or notices that I’m not meeting them tear for tear. Many of them forget my name and call me That Lady Going Through Our House. The job gets done, accompanied by my awkward bromides: I’m sorry, I can’t imagine… This totally sucks, I know. At least you’re OK. It’s only stuff. At least it did for everyone but Mrs. Jones.
When I got assigned to do Mrs. Jones’s house, my grandmother was dying. She wasn’t a grandmother I sent Thank You notes to twice a year; she helped raise me. She taught me the names of birds and how to skip and how to pour beer into a glass. She was now in the late stages of dementia, and many parts of her had already died. I’d said goodbye to our hikes, her Thoreau quotes, our five o’clock Jim Beams. I just wasn’t ready to fly home and say it for good, so I agreed to do Mrs. Jones’s loss. It promised to be a good distraction, as Mrs. Jones had been described as “quite difficult,” and her home was 4,500 square feet.
As I pulled into the Loss Site, my mother called, and I learned that my grandmother had another stroke and could no longer talk or swallow, that she had been in bed for four days with nothing to eat or drink. Her mouth seemed to be stuck open so my mother had been putting water onto her tongue with an eyedropper.
I pulled my hair back into a respectable ponytail and walked toward Mrs. Jones’s driveway, which was dotted with many tiny objects. These objects turned out to be over 3,000 smoky Christmas ornaments. Mrs. Jones, a rich woman in her sixties, living in one of the wealthiest desert suburbs of the United States, was standing in the middle of them screaming into her cell phone.
“NO! NO! NO! That is not what I want! That is not what I want!”
Catching sight of me out of the corner of her eye, she clapped her cell phone shut and proclaimed with exasperation, “Well, you must be the Stephanie who’s here to help me with this awful, horrible mess.”
I started to tell her I was, but she was already putting her hand on my shoulder and escorting me up the first aisle of ornament piles. She stopped suddenly, picked up three Styrofoam balls that had been glued together and asked what I thought it was. My first thought was a penis, because as a child, I envisioned penises to be three stacked balls. As an adult, I knew this to be Santa Claus. So, I said, “It’s Santa Claus.”
“No! No! No!” she said jerking her hand from my shoulder. She dropped to her knees and screeched, “THIS! Is my grandson’s! We made it together when he was six!” Oh, god, I thought, her grandson’s dead, and she’s holding the Styrofoam remnants of their time together in her hand. But Mrs. Jones went on, in great sorrowful but tearless wails about how her grandson, now twelve, is a marvelous young man who is captain of his soccer team and was just voted, “Citizen of the Month” by his school. I looked down at her face-lifted face, which was framed by the remnants of her million and a half dollar home, and squeezed back a watery substance—one I thought I was saving for someone special, someone whose grief seemed familiar, one I’d known all my life. But no. I blew my wad on Mrs. Jones. I cried.
I cried right in front of her, which wasn’t scary and vulnerable because she wasn’t really looking at me. She was screaming at me. Spittle flew out of the corner of her mouth and landed on about six of the nine reindeer pulling a nearby Santa’s sleigh.
“Why?! W-H-H-H-H-H-Y… Stephanie…” she sobbed without producing any actual tears. Her bleach-blond hairline slid up two inches on her forehead, and she yanked it back down, dug a bobby pin out of her jeans pocket and stabbed it into the side of her temple.
“Why. Did. God. Do. This. To. ME!!”
“I don’t know,” I said softly.
Mrs. Jones never left my side. We spent five days together in the embers of her home, and after that first twenty minutes, she and I began a dysfunctional, symbiotic relationship where she would hysterically dry-cry, and proclaim the world to be unfair, and I’d silently provide the tears. Together, we were a whole person. I couldn’t believe this was it for my grandmother, that such a respectable life could have such an undignified end—her dry mouth open like a gash, waiting for little droplets of water. Mrs. Jones couldn’t believe her Special Edition Cabbage Patch Dolls were all sooty! Just totally sooty!
It was when Mrs. Jones and I were on our hands and knees sifting through charred pieces of her fallen roof and clumps of insulation in search of Beanie Baby tags that I realized my luck. Mrs. Jones was so myopic—even by somebody in the middle of life’s third worst tragedy standards—that I was free to totally lose it right in front of her. She handed me tags, turned her head away, claiming to be unable to bear reading them, and I read them into my Dictaphone. Then I let the tears fall and waited for another tag.
I cried for my grandmother. I cried for my mother who’d made a decision to not put my grandmother on a feeding tube. I cried that Mrs. Jones had to wear a cropped bleach blonde wig because things were already so sad, surely she had cancer. I was free to be a real wreck, a wreck in a wreck, and Mrs. Jones never noticed.
When all that was left to inventory was one 30-gallon Sterilite storage bin of Christmas decorations, I wished there were 30 more 30-gallon bins of ornaments that needed their every detail measured, recorded, appreciated. I stared into the bin knowing that finishing it meant I was closer to going home and saying goodbye to my grandmother, or finding out that she died while I was doing some stupid thing like putting gas in my rental car. I tried to stall my efforts. I even considered sniffing each item, as it seemed the bin’s lid had provided a successful smoke barrier, and Mrs. Jones shouldn’t be claiming any of these festive decorations as destroyed.
But Mrs. Jones had no need to linger in her loss. She wanted to move on. She looked at the thing I’d been turning over in my hand and snapped, “It’s a stuffed elf with a yarn beard. Can’t you tell it’s handmade? It’s irreplaceable!”
“I just found out my grandmother’s dying, and she might not make it through the night,” I said, dropping her irreplaceable object back into the bin, where it landed on a plush Santa’s lap. I stared down at it, thinking for sure my grandmother would die before I made anything substantial out of my life. Then I found myself being jerked forward, and I felt the scratchy, unnatural texture of wig hair pressed firmly into my cheek.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry about your grandma,” Mrs. Jones said. She choked and sniffled, and I felt a wetness on my face that wasn’t mine. Mrs. Jones was actually crying. It was even possible she was crying for me. It was equally possible that she was looking over my shoulder at some Hallmark Keepsake Collector’s series ornament.