California Casualty publishes a quarterly newsletter called Flashpoint, it is a great resource and a good read for firefighters and everybody interested in Fire/EMS. (That's everybody, isn't it?) They asked if I would like to contribute a story, I did, and here it is. The rest of the newsletter is excellent, follow the link, you will be glad you did.
Everything she owned was in that house-everything she had ever owned. Nearly eighty years is a lot of time to acquire things, magazines stacked from floor to ceiling, boxes stacked on boxes, filled with things she owned. Furniture covered every inch of the three-bedroom place, mostly old, but a few new pieces scattered here and there. Most people consider their space in square feet, Mildred counted hers in cubic feet, and every inch needed to be filled.
The overflow spilled out of the entry door into the vestibule, where more “things” were stacked. From there, a path of stuff led to the driveway, where two mini-vans sat, idle for years, crammed with more things. One of the vans had a three cubic foot space where a driver might be able sit, if she crammed herself in, but visibility would be impossible, except perhaps for straight ahead. I don’t thing there has been much forward sight here, every inch of the premises reeked of life already lived.
She held on to the doorframe, digging her fingers into the greasy wood, refusing to leave. “I can’t leave my babies,” she said, frantic, panic setting into her eyes, eyes that had seen a lot, and had let go of little. Cats prowled through the clutter, seemingly everywhere, then nowhere, and then everywhere again. The stench making our eyes water and stomachs churn, bile rising in our throats as we tried to pry Mildred away from everything she had. Had ever had. There would be dead cats under her things, of that I was certain. The live ones didn’t have long to go either, and would be collected by Animal Control, quarantined, evaluated and most likely euthanised. Then, Mildred’s things would be put into dumpsters by workers dressed in white de-con suits, with artificial respirators to keep the diseased air out of their lungs, the very air that I breathed into mine every second that we lingered in the doorway.
I knew she was ill, and living in absolute squalor and disease, yet I simply could not drag her away from her world, the only one she understood, and take her to the hospital where she would be stripped, and showered, and given clean clothes, and put in a sterile room where air flow and empty space would suffocate her. Intelligence burned brightly in her vivid blue eyes, eyes as clear as my own, and I knew she was far from legally incompetent. She could not, and never would understand how these strangers entered her world and dragged her away, never to see it or her “babies” again.
“Mildred, we have to go. Your neighbors complained about all of the stuff and the cats. We have a court order that says we have to take you to the hospital for an evaluation before you can come back. It will only take a few hours.” She looked me in the eye, and I saw defeat and resignation in hers. “Promise I’ll be home again?” she begged, the loosened her grasp, letting go of the doorframe. I gained her trust only to betray her. It was the only way to get her to leave without physically dragging her, kicking and screaming away from her home.
The crowd grew, and the spectacle grew along with it, so I did my best to restore a sense of normalcy, and made promises that I knew were empty, and took her hand and led her away, past the nosy neighbors, some of whom shook their heads and tsk tsk’d as we marched past them. There were no goodbyes, no see you when you get back, no get well soons, just a little old lady holding a stranger’s hand and walking to an ambulance and into a new, frightening life.
A person needs space to grow, using past experiences as a guide while forging ahead. The weight of decades of living must be shed as the years progress lest the weight of our accumulations make moving forward impossible. We need to let go in order to flourish, make room for new things and experiences, and learn to give up what once held importance, but with time became nothing more than a burden. There is a lot to be said about starting fresh, and getting a new start. Every day is a new beginning, memories that we cherish, lessons we have learned, mistakes made and overcome all take their place in the forging of what that beginning will become. Mildred was lost in the accumulation of what was, never letting go, and never moving forward.
We rode to the Emergency Room quietly, her on the stretcher, lost in a world of her own thoughts, me behind her, writing my report, and trying to be objective with my words. I have faith in most of the people I work with, and the folks at Elderly Affairs do a remarkable job with the limited resources at their disposal, but I couldn’t lose the sinking feeling that Mildred would be lost in the shuffle, and the people who took her “case” would miss the connection to the woman who tried desperately to hold on to the only thing she knew. Perhaps it is better that they did not see the squalor, be immersed in the odors, see the poor little kitty cats as they scurried through the debris. Maybe they would see this as a fresh case, an opportunity to show a woman who needed their help how to let go, and start anew. I certainly hope so.
I heard on the news that there were over forty cats in her home, which had been condemned and scheduled for demolition. Some of them were suitable for adoption. I spent my days off cleaning my basement. It was time to let go of some things, and make room for something new.