On the night before my mother died in December, I was down on my knees, scrubbing her pale beige living room carpet. She was in the next room, tethered to oxygen, drifting in and out of consciousness.
For days, then weeks, my world - and hers - had been her one-bedroom apartment. I had come to know every inch of that limited space, every shadow that fell as the light changed, every accessory and photograph in her contained world.
As my mother spun out of control medically - as her vital signs became greater and greater indicators of her impending death - only the spots and stains on that beige carpet seemed capable of being ground into submission.
So I had rummaged in the utility closet of my mother's apartment, looking for a bucket. The one I found was filled with rags, and seemed long unused. No wonder. At 97, why would my dying mother need or use a bucket?
Once, Mom had been what they call in Yiddish a balabusta, literally a "woman of the house," the kind who can sweep, bake and tend to children without ever losing her focus or her way.
So I wondered whether the soil in that wall-to-wall living room carpet had bothered Mom. It was too late to ask. But not to set things right.
That night, when the only sound in the apartment was the constant hum of the oxygen tank in my mother's bedroom, I lined up my ammunition: scrub bucket, brush, liquid detergent, rags fashioned from Mom's old flannel nightgowns, and a touch of ammonia.
I rolled up the legs of my jeans and got to work. I scrubbed with the foamy bubbles from that bucket in ever-widening circles, not sticking to a pattern, but working almost randomly, until my forearms ached. Then I would pause, look at the promising results, and scrub some more.
In the end, it wasn't just the spots I was after. Somehow, this scrubbing had taken on a ferocity that felt almost primal.
As long as I scrubbed, I could control something. As those spots rubbed out, and the living room began smelling of lemons and ammonia, the terrible sadness lifted and life seemed almost normal - if normal included stopping to feed my mother pudding from a spoon and checking that her emaciated body was comfortable in her rented hospital bed.
In the face of the surreal, the real becomes the Holy Grail. And cleaning is about as real as it gets.
On the same night I scrubbed the carpet, I also began a cleaning binge that would have appeared demonic to an eyewitness. I flung open the kitchen cabinets and began sorting out the contents. Old cereal boxes went, along with outdated canisters of bread crumbs and the pretzels that Mom once loved but that had grown mealy and stale.
I worked in a certain frenzied rhythm in the silent apartment, where no TV offered that familiar white-noise background and no phones rang anymore. Friends had stopped calling to ask solicitously, "How is she today?" and that suited me. I was weary of saying, "No change. She's very weak."
I worked until I was bone tired. I sorted and wiped and polished and dusted. I even cleaned the TV screen with a mix of ammonia and water, only to find I'd made it streaky. The defeat felt so monumental that I wept.
But I'd learned, through the process of my mother's dying, that tears spill out for reasons other than the apparent ones, like poorly crafted alibis. I wasn't crying over streaks on the TV screen. I was crying over what had happened, in a few short months, to the woman in the hospital bed in her yellow bedroom. It was a room once filled with light and life that was now a dispensary for pill bottles and potions, jumbles of notes, logs and those inserts that come with medicines and outline the potential dire consequences of swallowing them.
I wanted to sweep it all - all the bottles and tubes and papers - off my mother's dresser and night table. I wanted the simple pleasure of tossing every last disturbance in the field into some vast chute. But that would come later.
The last thing I did the night before my mother died was to clean out the hall closet. Closet purges have always been the closest thing to redemption I know. Arranging the hangers, organizing the hats and scarves that Mom would not be wearing ever again, seemed a touchstone to her once-orderly life.
My mother died as the sun was setting the next day. Outside, the world went on. Horns blared, sirens screamed, and on the sidewalk 25 stories down people were leaving work and heading home.
So was my mother, the balabusta. And her house was in order.