It's difficult to describe my shock as my mother opens the front door and ushers me into the house of my youth. She's aged-shrunken, with poorly dyed blond hair and the familiar rigidity in her hands and body. Her once beautifully straight teeth are crooked, and one tooth is missing.
She hugs me—a desperate, clutching hug that I know so well. Her small body vibrates with high blood pressure, badly managed fear, need, and expectation. Her eyes are overbright, and she smells stale through her floral cologne.
Everything in me wants to flee.
I walk through the entryway into the kitchen and feel faint. Every square inch of space—on the floor, counters, and chairs—is covered in boxes, piles of papers, stacks of plastic gadgets, and household items, topped with various thicknesses of dust. My mother navigates the narrow path through the towering madness, as if leading a guest through an unfamiliar garden. The once-white curtains are grey, on their way to charcoal. The kitchen sink drips steadily, and there are water-soaked paper towels stuffed under the refrigerator.
My old room is so full that I can't get in. The bed is stacked with teetering piles of old quilts, pillows, and more boxes, many of which are labeled "United States Purchasing Exchange." When I suggest to my mother that I need to clear the bed so I'll have a place to sleep, she insists on helping me. I drag garbage bags into my brother's old room. His bed is surrounded by piles and boxes, so I have to aim and throw. As a result of her "helping" me, my mother's breathing becomes more labored. By the time I've cleared a path to the bed, she's having a full-blown asthma attack. The wheezing, coughing, and desperate struggle to breathe worsens. She sits on the edge of a dusty box and gasps, "I'm sorry, Honey, but I can't help you right now." My heart sinks. I know this place.