Twenty years ago when I was looking to buy my first house, my realtor didn’t understand why I did not like the home she was showing me that seemed to meet all my specifications: price, location, size. She did not understand that just two months before I had worked a cardiac arrest there. I could still see and smell the man and all his bodily fluids in the cluttered living room where he collapsed. If I bought that house I would have to live with his ghost. Not for me.
Home hunting is hard when you are in EMS. You walk in thinking as I always think when I enter a home, how am I going to get the patient out of here? A stretcher will never fit in that bedroom. Spiral staircase, forget it. Even if you didn’t do a cardiac arrest in particular houses, you did arrests or memorable calls in houses with the same design. You remember the mother screaming in the bedroom. You see patients wedged between the toilet and the sink. Blood drips down the stairs. You see all the crap that was in your way that you had to move to get the patient out to the ambulance.
I ended up buying a newer house that was empty with freshly laid carpets and big windows that let in the sun.
Today when I go into houses, I am depressed by hoarders, not just the ceiling to the floor appear on TV show kind, any kind of clutter. It bums me out seriously. Dark apartments with dust particles visible in the air and rooms with dirty carpets and boxes of crap and untidy overflowing shelves — it weakens me. Maybe it is because my own empty house is now more cluttered than I would like. We can only fit one car in our two car garage there is so much stuff in it. Of course I no longer live alone. I share my house with my wife and three daughters, and all their accumulated and still accumulating possessions.
The sun bothers them. Every time I come in the living room I open the shades. Let some light in here. When I am old, I want to live in a spare space with lots of light so when the angels (or the devil) comes for me, I will ready to go. Leave nothing behind but a few heirlooms for the kids and some money in the bank to help them make their own way without me.
I am, hopefully, many years away from that day, but I don’t want to be caught off guard. I want things tidy.
I went to a hoarder’s house once. The neighbor had noticed newspapers piling up at the door and mail overflowing the box. We had to break in. This was a major hoarder. The house had newspapers stacked to the ceiling making rows in what were once big spacious rooms with high ceilings. We went all through the house wandering through the maze until at last I found her. A stack of papers and boxes had collapsed and her legs stuck out from underneath them like the wicked witch’s legs stick out from under that tornado blown house that landed on her in the Wizard of Oz.
I did another presumption recently where the room was dank and filled with boxes. The man sat dead in his chair by the window, the curtain pulled just enough so he could look out. A neighbor in fact had noticed his face in the window, unmoving, mouth open, not responding to the neighbor’s frantic raps on the pane.
I need to sort through my stuff. I have boxes of books, and records and VHS tapes in the garage, but I will buy the book, music or movie again digitally with the tap of a button before I will go down to the garage to look for what I know I already own.
There is a new show on Netflix called Tidying Up. A young Japanese woman helps people declutter their homes. Marie Kondo is the author of the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing that spawned the series. I thought about buying a hard copy of the book, but instead bought it electronically on my Kindle. This weekend, I am ready to put her plan into action.
She advises starting with your clothes. You take every item of clothing you own and put it in a pile in one place, and then you go through it. Rather than deciding what to throw away, you decide what to keep. You hold each item and ask yourself if it sparks joy in you. If it does, you keep it. If it doesn’t you thank it for its faithful service, and then put it in the throw or giveaway pile. I have uniforms from past EMS services I worked for. I will never wear them again. I don’t need them to remind me of the old days. A ti-dye tee-shirt made by my daughter with my name on it and a smiling sun stays. An old torn Bruce Springsteen concert tee-shirt from 1984 goes, after being thanked for years of service.
Next you do your papers. She advises you throw them all away except for those that you are required to keep (wills, birth certificates, tax returns etc.) and those that need attending (bills, correspondence). I will keep my recent CME certificates, which I am required to keep for three years, but I will throw out my handouts from classes taken decades ago, as well as all those old ECG strips I kept. Seen one v-fib, see them all. I don’t need them to remember what it felt like to shock all those people with sick, and often dying hearts. For those rare few, I don’t need the strip of the resulting sinus rhythm to remember the feel of the pulse beneath my fingers or the warmth with which their family hugged me when we later met.
When it comes to books, Marie Kondo says you shouldn’t own more than 30. A book lover, I might dispute that, but the over one thousand I own are mainly in boxes, and the ones on shelves, I rarely take down. Better me sort them now than a grandchild have to haul them off to a tag sale. I will keep a select few (The Iliad and The Odyssey, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and The Sea) as well as a box of my books (Paramedic and Rescue 471) to give out from time to time because that brings me joy.
You work your way through everything you own, finishing with the personal mementos and sentimental objects. I will keep a wooden carved Don Quixote, a small brass Bengal tiger given me by my father when I was five, and a single baseball card of Tony Conigilaro, my childhood hero.
The principle around all of this is stuff takes up space and energy. If you are going to have possessions you should be surrounded only by what brings you joy. I can have a garage filled with boxes or I can have space where my eleven-year-old daughter and I can dribble basketballs on cold snowy nights, working on our crossovers to see who’s is better (hers).
I can’t wait to get started.
When the day comes when the medic calls the time on me, I want him to think what a beautiful clean well-lit room this old gentleman passed away in, the morning sun on his face. And I want him to look at my spare surroundings and see only the things that brought me joy (pictures of my family on the wall), the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” playing on my Amazon Echo, and to think what a life well lived. And as I journey up toward heaven (again, hopefully as I have tried to be kind), I want to look down and feel I have left a good impression and not a cluttered mess.