After my dad died by suicide, I had to clean his room. Not because there were so many bullets on the floor. Not because I didn’t want anyone else to see the remnants of his last moments. Not because we couldn’t afford to hire a cleaning service. But because I had to clean his room.
As a mom of five kids who have all grown into adults, we’ve had our share of moving days. Every one of my children flew across the country solo before I ever had a chance to take them on a major trip, and those adventurous spirits also meant they all struck out on their own by age 22.
Every time one of my kids leaves home (to start a new life out west, to join the military, to live in England for a year, to their first apartment or college dorm), I return from the airport or the road trip, and I find myself cleaning their bedrooms.
It starts out simple. Pick up the few things they left behind. Sweep up the dust bunnies and candy wrappers exposed by moved furniture. Wipe down the window sills and blinds that they probably never dusted in their lives. Pack away the things that won’t be needed now that they are away.
Depending on the circumstances, I will thoroughly clean at the least and redecorate or completely remodel the space at the most. It’s just what I do. When they leave, I clean.
My youngest child recently started college and moved on campus. He left about a month after his sister moved into her first apartment. They were my last two kids at home, and having them both out of the house full time makes me a kind-of empty nester.
I was in the middle of converting my daughter’s room into a guest room when my son moved to campus, but I started cleaning his room as well.
While I was ironing pillowcases (something I only do for guests apparently) and dusting bookshelves, I thought about how I had cleaned my oldest daughter’s room when she moved to her first apartment: how we had moved the beds around in the girl’s room to accommodate two sisters instead of three.
Then I thought about how we had packed up my second oldest’s stuff when she went to England for a year, how it all ended up in the basement of our new house because we moved while she was gone.
I remembered how I had packed up my oldest son’s things after I dropped him off at the recruiter’s office so they could transport him to basic training, and how no matter how many guitar picks I put in the boxes, I still kept finding more for months (and now years) after he left.
Then I thought about that day, standing in the doorway to my dad’s room, when I just started cleaning and told everyone to leave me alone.
I started by piling up the sheets to cover the bloodstains on the bed. Then I stared at them, and my body felt numb, and I wondered how I was breathing when this was the room where breath had stopped. Then I couldn’t be in there with the bed and the sheets by myself anymore, and my family helped me get them out of the room and into the dumpster.
Once the bed was gone, I started picking up the bullets. There were so many bullets.
The police had taken the handguns, but the bullets and the gun cases and the hunting rifles were still there. I started putting the bullets in one of the gun cases, and they were loud as they hit the plastic bottom. Every one of them marked their presence in the quiet room as they hit the bottom of that case.
I put the cases in the closet next to the rifles and started picking up the items strewn around the room: dirty clothes, towels, an overflowing ashtray, cigarette butts on the floor, shoes that never got worn, coins and random metal parts that my tool and die making father always emptied from his pockets at the end of the night.
I picked up one of the work shirts that was balled up on top of the dresser and held it to my face. It smelled like metal, and motors, and dads. The embroidered logo above the pocket scraped my cheek as I pulled it in closer.
I cleaned everything that day.
By the time I hauled in the vacuum, there was nothing left but an empty dresser and a lone bedside table, both spotless and ready for donating. No more stained sheets. No more dirty clothes. No more dust. No more guns. No more bullets.
I probably cried, but I don’t really remember because I was so focused on cleaning. I was focused on throwing away the bed and picking up the bullets and holding the coins and smelling the shirt. I just needed to clean.
When I finished and prepared to close the door on that room, I was struck by how different it looked. A stranger would never be able to determine what had happened there; but even though there was now light and order, I could still see the bullets. I could still hear them hitting the bottom of the plastic case.
I had cleaned out enough space to breathe that day, but just barely.
When I finished cleaning my son’s room, I stood back and looked at the freshly ironed pillowcases sitting atop a perfectly made bed. I had organized his bookshelves and cleared off the tops of his desk and bedside table. It looked so neat and quiet, not much like the room of a 19-year-old boy. A stranger would never be able to see all the memories that room held for me.
I reflected again on all the rooms I had cleaned, how compelled I was to put space in order after a big change and how that action moved me from the present, pulled me into the past, and then pushed me into the future — whether I wanted to be there or not.
My house currently has a newly decorated guest room, and my son’s room is still so clean it looks like an advertisement for a teenage boy’s bedding set in a JCPenney catalog. He will be home during school breaks to make more memories there, and when he moves out for good, I think I’ll turn it into a library…right after I clean it thoroughly.