TW: Cancer, death.
Last May, my partner found out that his mother, a strong, loving, incredible woman who he was extremely close to, had cancer. Within a month, she was gone.
The day after my partner’s mom died, I called 911 frantically: my mom was acting weird and couldn’t form complete sentences. That night at the hospital, we found out she had a brain tumor.
For a few days, I had some hope. My Mom was strong. Lots of people get cancer and are survivors. While waiting for surgery, my mom kept saying things like, They’ll fix me, right? It is time for my surgery yet? I’m ready for them to fix my brain. I can’t think right.
The surgery didn’t go well. Afterwards she had aphasia. The first few days after, she kept repeating, Mom, it itches. She wasn’t able to form the right words.
We had a couple of weeks when she was better–she was able to walk and talk (even if she didn’t always make sense to us), and we were even able to go out to eat a few times. She wanted to get out of the house. She’s always been one of those people who is constantly busy, working, traveling, enjoying life. During a good spell, she said, I’m not going back to work again, I want to retire, and asked, can we go skiing when I get better?
Within a month of the initial incident though, the tumor had grown again, so much that the doctors said there was nothing they could do for her, that radiation and chemo were no longer an option. So much that the pressure on her brain meant she couldn’t function on her own, that the only option was hospice care. So we moved her home. For a few months, she was mostly unable to speak or get out of bed. She was constantly on pain and anxiety medication. Then one day, she was gone.
For me, a good chunk of last year was driving back and forth between Houston and Austin as I cried uncontrollably. It was a stream of hand sanitizer and hospital visits and lying in bed wondering if tomorrow is my last because life seems so fragile. My mom is only 55. I thought she’d be bossing me around, taking me out to eat, and going hiking with me until she was an old lady. I thought she’d be able to see my sister, who is 13, grow up, and maybe even be a grandma someday.
I’ve dealt with grief before–I lost one of my good friends at 19, my cousin at 21, my grandma, my grandpa. But this time was harder than ever before. And my partner was going through the same thing, at the same time, so neither of us were really able to be strong for the other. But somehow, it brought us even closer.
You’re probably wondering, where does tidying fit into this?
I heard about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up through a self care books video that Rhian (a vegan lifestyle vlogger I follow) posted, and I was reading it the weekend we found out my mom was sick–I actually told her about it during lunch at Chipotle the day before it happened.
And that weekend, when I couldn’t sleep, I kept reading it.
I couldn’t actually start tidying yet–I was in another city, and obviously preoccupied, but as soon as things settled down a bit with my mom and I was able to travel back to Austin for a few days to see my partner, I tidied.
Like the book instructs, I started with clothes, then books, papers, then kimono (miscellaneous items) and finally, sentimental items. I piled all of the clothing I owned on my bed, in piles by category, and held each piece up, deciding if it sparks joy. I did the same with my books, old journals, office stuff, everything. I donated bags of clothes, sold some books, and shredded and recycled so many unnecessary papers.
Going through my belongings helped me cope with what was going on with my mom. It felt like facing my past, it felt like being honest. I bought the author’s next book, which goes even more in depth on how to tidy, and I made tea and read it slowly.
After I finished, I told my partner about the process–we both like things neat and organized, and after seeing how it helped me, he tidied all of his things as well. I helped him fold all of his clothes. Then together we tidied the kitchen, the living room, all of our shared spaces. When we were done, our apartment had a completely different feel. Our lives were chaotic, but at least our rooms felt somewhat peaceful.
I wasn’t in a place where I could focus on work, or exercise, or even spending time with friends, but I got it into my head that I wanted to tidy, and I did. I could do something that didn’t involve much thinking: tidying is about feeling, about trusting your instincts. I’ve always been a bit indecisive, and when I was done tidying, I felt a little more confident, more sure that I could get through it all. I couldn’t control what was happening to my mom, but I could control my space.
When I wasn’t driving back and forth, with my family, or crying, I tidied.
When my family was broken, and I needed a distraction, I tidied my parents’ fridge and pantry, wiping away the slime and making room for food people brought us.
I learned how to fold, and on the many trips back and forth, I filled my suitcase with neatly folded clothes.
While tidying my sentimental items, I found a letter my mom wrote me last year, it said, Know that I love you eternally, a mother’s love never dies. After I tidied my apartment, I started on digital clutter, on my documents. I deleted things I don’t want to remember, old resumes I don’t need. And I found old stories, old essays. I found poems I wrote for my mom, and I read them to her.
Tidying didn’t take away our pain. It didn’t prevent me from having days when I could barely leave the house because I was so sad and anxious. It couldn’t fill the holes left after we both lost our moms. It didn’t help when I sobbed uncontrollably as I realized I could never have a conversation with my mom again. But it helped us get through the summer. It gave us something to accomplish, some control, some joy when we needed it. You could definitely say it was life changing.
I wish I could tell my partner’s mom about our tidying obsession because she’d get a kick out of it, especially the part where you thank every object before you get rid of it. I wish I could’ve helped my mom tidy her closet–she’d mentioned it a few times, but we’d never gotten around to it.
After I finished tidying my document files, I started going through the thousands of digital photos on my hard-drive. The whole concept of tidying is that it allows you to get rid of things that don’t spark joy, so you can actually find and cherish the things that do.
I haven’t finished my photos, but as I was going through them, I found some of my favorites of my mom, like us at our family reunion, her with my newborn baby sister, our family in front of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, and that one of us in matching purple shirts with iron-on hearts that we made together, smiling at the beach.