Cowardice in the Kitchen

I have remarked before that it is a good idea to take lots of pictures as you progress through the hoarding cleanup process. The review of the pictures often shows you that you have done way more than seem evident amidst the ever moving piles. 

A review of past pictures can also reveal more bittersweet, troubling images as in these two photos I took in mid April of last year. May I say, without anyone feeling the need to reassure me, that these photographs highlight the reality of hoarding. Not just the clutter and danger, but the failure to confront. The avoidance of confrontation, which will surely cause anger, hurt feelings and worse…my cowardice. 

At the point I took these photo’s and the others of the kitchen I sometimes show, my mom had been dead for 11 months. We had been ‘caring’ for my aunt for a year already. Caring being that very challenged word in this instance.

Obviously, I took the photographs because even then I knew this was unacceptable for safety reasons and just the daunting challenge to ever get anywhere, even after gaining access into the home and gaining some of my aunt’s trust. The free burner was some kind of accomplishment, although we could not get her to maintain a free space in front of the stove nor to the side of the hot burner. The hood lamp (out of view) above the stove was always on. At 4’11” my aunt could barely reach past the first burner to the utensils and controls. The toaster was our addition, so she wouldn’t make toast by laying the piece of bread on the hot burner. 

Given that she had already had a fire in the house ten years earlier and that a year earlier a heating pad had caught fire scorching the couch and her fingers, what the hell was I thinking with this so obvious a fire danger before me in these pictures?

I was thinking, ‘I am afraid to confront her’. Afraid to create that firestorm I created with my mom. Because I saw such a confrontation forcing an issue that seemed unique. I was not her son, but a nephew. At this point, I had not, even after a year, solidified my place in her heart. To force the issue would have most certainly, in my cowardly mind, slammed the door to any further admittance.

I was rationalizing over and over. I always had this sick feeling inside about that stove, about that clutter, about a forgotten burner, a fire. In the end, dead animals outside beneath the piles of stuff on the driveway were my vehicle to change her mind. The smell, the stench got her attention and the means to start the outside cleanup. Not the inside cleanup. That I avoided…the greatest risk, I avoided.

Of course, two months later she fell and that was that. She never came home to see the clean kitchen. I showed her a picture of the clean kitchen….a blunder. She freaked. She was driven to get home. Her further injuries were from efforts to escape her care, her restraints.

No great advice here. There is, in truth, a point at which you have to make the decisions that will force the issue. They can maybe be finessed. Maybe not…a hoarder is a very suspicious person. I ultimately made decisions that she was not going home, but even there I spent months dancing around it as she healed from her bone breaks….hoping she might like her new living condition. No way in hell!

Only at the very end, did she give in. Broken neck, broken hip…she gave in. Frankly, these two pictures that simply show clutter, show danger…show me what a coward I was.  


6 thoughts on “Cowardice in the Kitchen

  1. I don’t have to tell you that there are no good answers for really hard life situations. All of this is so outside the realm of most of our expertise. Few could have done all of this well without losing their sanity or second guessing themselves, at best.

    I second Mel V’s comment that it’s your unending compassion that makes your blog uplifting.

  2. You had to decide between having limited access and oversight of your aunt’s living conditions versus having none, in all likelihood, if you pressed the issue of the dangerous kitchen. I feel that her reaction to the photos of the clean kitchen just shows that if you had forced the kitchen cleanup while she was at home, she would have never let you in again. You did what you could so that you could still be someone she regarded with trust, and I am sure that saved her from dying alone. From my experience with my MIL, mental illness/mental decline makes it very difficult to have those rational conversations.

  3. Dee

    I’ve been reading this for a while, and I remember thinking the exact opposite: that you were tremendously brave to even begin trying to help her. Precisely for the reason you mention: she was your aunt, instead of your mom, and you had barely begun to make an impression in the instinctive mistrust that seems to characterize all hoarders, where their hoards are concerned. That’s a daunting idea. Most people would’ve walked away from it, perhaps with only a few ‘My Crazy Relative’ stories to add to a family gathering, and left her to a much more grim fate. For many people, it may have seemed like it was too much to ask that they try to help at all. So I still think you were, and are, very brave.

    1. It is indeed humbling to receive the generous, supportive comments here. My actions seem noble. And, as with life, my inner thoughts and doubts, my inner battle, sometimes resurrects. Nothing is perfect is it? Regrets abound. Thank you all for such kind support. Means a lot.


  4. Ruth

    If you had pushed too hard and your Aunt shut you out of her home, instead of dying peacefully with family by her side she could have died in that horrible mess. You were her guardian angel in the flesh but she obviously had one more powerful than even you. I know how hard it is to look at my own faults and failings, so I see where you are coming from, but in the big picture I believe you did the right thing to be gentle and patient. You’ve heard the expression “The operation was a success but the patient died”? You were walking a delicate tightrope in working to make her home safer while keeping and nurturing your relationship with her.

    I do not believe you are in any way a coward.

    Praying for you to make peace with yourself about this.


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