Cleaning up the Mess

A long time ago, before I met him, M’s roommate committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. When M told me that he and his dad cleaned up the mess together in the days following, I was horrified. How could his dad be so cruel? Who would put their son, who had found his dead friend, through that kind of anguish?

When I asked him about it, M made it seem like it was really not a big deal. He was remarkably calm about it all, even when I asked him pointed questions. I realized at the time that he truly was at peace with the whole series of events, but I never really understood why.

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My father-in-law died six weeks ago. He was a flawed man, but a brilliant one, generous with wisdom. I learned a great deal from him. He gave me a job at a particularly low point in my life many, many years ago. He taught me how to frame a house, pour concrete, use a tile saw. He taught me how to take a joke, how to have a work ethic, and how to do what needs doing without great fuss. He taught me not to take myself so seriously. He judged people just like anyone else, but never in a way that made himself seem superior. He had a great sense of humor. I liked him very much, and I’m very sad that he’s gone. He was more of a father to me than anyone else has ever been.

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Four days after I moved in to my new apartment someone bashed the rear window of my car in and stole…wait for it…toilet paper. That same week it was 103 degrees outside and my A/C went out in my car. People at work were clamoring for attention to projects that I’d let slip for the past month and still couldn’t rightly handle in my current circumstances. I had a job interview; job interviews scare the crap out of me.

All the while I was feeling very untethered, sort of like a balloon on the end of a string looking down at my own life, wondering what the hell happened. The loneliness was daunting. My new life stretched out before me like a desert with no road and no relief in sight. My prospects seemed extremely dim. Bad Things felt like they were piling up, like the universe had decided to have an good chuckle at my expense.

It was enough to make a girl want to chuck it all and move to a beach somewhere. Who needs to eat?

Instead, I took a deep breath, got a grip, and started handling it all one small, tiny, infinitesimal step at a time. First, I got a broom and swept up the glass in the parking lot behind my car. I took my time, I did a good job. Then I made calls and answered e-mails. I made appointments to get my A/C fixed and the window repaired, all the while feeling very grateful that I have the means to take care of those things. I sent e-mails to coworkers discussing the projects I’ve been avoiding and realized that the problems were much bigger in my head. I prepared for the job interview by making handwritten notes and doing some research, while noticing and taking comfort in my professional expertise.

While I was sweeping up the glass, I realized that voluntarily cleaning up the mess was cathartic, like I was healing the tiny violence that had occurred on that spot. I thought about M and his roommate. I thought about M’s stoic curmudgeon of a Dad helping him to clean up blood and brains and bone and the remains of an indescribable pain, and I began to understand why M was at peace with his roommate’s suicide. And I learned yet another lesson from M’s Dad even from beyond the grave: clean up the mess. Doesn’t matter who caused it, doesn’t matter how shitty it is, doesn’t matter how profound or trivial it seems: just clean up the mess. Things can be healed from within by starting from outside and remembering to be grateful along the way.

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