The (Swedish) Art of Death Cleaning

anxiety, booze, drugs, sex

I grew up in a house full of books. My dad is a historian. We had bookshelves everywhere that were filled with large hardback volumes of dense text. There were plenty of more easily digestible literary works around too, but the library was filled with big, heavy tomes.

Now his shelves all barren, which is strange and disenchanting to me. My dad has been making donations to purge his collection with a specific purpose: so that nobody else has to do it after he’s gone. He’s practical to a fault.

The Swedish word for this behavior is döstädning, which translates pretty much literally to “death tidying.” A translation of Margareta Magnusson’s book on the subject to English a couple of years ago was apparently popular enough for Dictionary.com to add the term death cleaning to American English recently. The Swedes are a sensible sort.

I’m not sure what they’d think of Pittsburgh’s Randyland, but they’d probably approve of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. A lot of Americans seem to enjoy the image of urban detritus that could suggest the fall of empire. But I’m not sure remnants of bygone technology qualifies as more than items too heavy and expensive to relocate easily. Besides, re-purposing is a lot more attractive these days.

That might also be a healthy way to manage dead relationships: clean up before it’s too late. Obviously, we’re not always lucky enough to have the foresight to do this well.

When Hickory started making noise about moving into my apartment, I should have recognized it as a sign of impending doom. But I did not. Things were good. What had begun as a friendly shag was somehow now a year on at this point. In retrospect, that’s when I should have ended it. On high and fine. She wanted to cohabitate and I arrogantly thought I could talk her out of that for a while.

Hickory was already divorced by 21, which was three years before I met her. I assumed (wrongly, as usual) that this might mean she’d learned something, say along the lines of not rushing into another entanglement. However, her method of remedying her unfortunate marital status — she did not like being a young divorcée, though the rest of us in her circle thought it was alluring — was to repeatedly make the same mistakes as often as possible.

When I thought I talked some sense to her about this I’d really just pissed her off. She spent the next eight months or so stewing about it, drinking too much, dosed on anti-depressants, an awful combination that left her slurried and unpleasant to be around. When I finally realized she was also auditioning new suitors, I classified the relationship as terminal and told her as much. But she didn’t want to be dumped either, I guess.

Since Hickory had keys to my apartment, she announced she’d be looking in on my things while I was away for a few days. Getting the spare set of keys had been a big deal for her, which I should have also seen as a sign – or maybe an omen – of a storm on the horizon. I said this was unnecessary, but she insisted.

When I returned, I found she’d left some items she’d borrowed from me, mostly books, in plain sight. More than anything, I was offended that she hadn’t bothered to read some of the books before giving them back. It’s not like there was some gruesome hatred between us. She could have slipped them through the mail slot at her leisure.

There was no accompanying note or follow-up text message. I was sad to lose a lover, but I also was ready to move on and explore other possibilities. And maybe I’d been mentally preparing myself for this eventuality for a while, doing the emotional death cleansing of the Swedes, if one could put it that way.

I changed the locks and listened to some Leonard Cohen and went on my way. Hickory did send me a message a few days later, asking if we were through. I responded that it seemed she’d dictated as much pretty effectively. She asked when she should bring by the keys. I told her not to bother and this seemed to confuse her.

“I can toss them through your mail slot if you want,” she offered.

“That’s really not necessary,” I replied.

Maybe two weeks later, our mutual friend, Teak, stayed the night at my place. She needed somewhere to crash. The next morning, Teak and I walked to Bart together and rode it downtown, where we both worked.

When we arrived at the Powell Street station, we saw Hickory behind us on the escalator. When she saw Teak and I had seen her, she acted very cagey. Hickory and I lived in the same neighborhood, and she later confessed to having followed us from the street down into Bart at 24th Street, watching us on the train to Powell, and then out at the station there. The ride was about ten minutes long.

Teak and I did not do anything controversial during that time, because we were not acquainted like that. But Hickory, watching us through a stalker’s lens, feared she’d been replaced quickly, and by someone I might consider prettier than her, maybe sexier, but certainly someone I would be more excited about spending time with, about being intimate with, at present.

I don’t understand this competitive impulse, although I have felt it at times. Still, they are completely different people, far from interchangeable. But if you reduce yourself to thinking that you are just the body in someone else’s bed, and then somebody else occupies that space because you’ve been uninvited, maybe it’s hard to find your value. At least in that context.

Of course, I’m sure Hickory had designs on sleeping with someone else herself, if she hadn’t already begun to do that by then. But I know this is separate from the narcissistic jackpot of thinking I’d have been left alone to ponder my losses, too ruined by my affection for her to ever find another. Or conversely, as is more common, that she’d be faced so suddenly with a truth to the contrary.

The catch that confused me about the whole situation was that Hickory was the one who’d created these circumstances as they were. Not that she was entirely calculating about it the way, I assumed. She was not getting wasted and sloppy and blowing me off in a direct effort to get me to break up with her. More likely, she was engaging in substance abuse as a way of managing her emotions, which were conflicting and difficult to sort through.

And so it came as a revelation to me when Hickory explained later that, just because she’d got what she wanted, she did not have to be happy about it. She was still entitled to feeling the grief of loss, maybe more deeply because she knew she’d caused it, and maybe this gave her some sense of failure?

It’s impossible to know the emotional status of another person, even one you know well, despite what you think you know about what they’ve been up to. Emotions are complicated. Two contradictory things can both be true. Opposite intentions sometimes have the same results.

I thought it was strange that despite Hickory’s active role in our split, that she had not done any of that Swedish style death cleansing, at least compartmentalizing her feelings better. It was easy to give me back my books, but the rest required more than a bottle and a pill could provide.

Post Script: My dad’s practicalities go beyond material goods. He has already made and paid for funeral and burial plans for my mom. And for himself, he told me when the time comes and he’s found dead, I am to instruct someone to do the following, or to do this myself: remove a certain card from his wallet. Call the phone number on the card and give whomever answers the account number from the card. All arrangements thereafter have also been paid for, which include a transfer of his body to a crematorium and the burning itself. When they call upon completion of the task, I’m to bring a wooden box he’s also already purchased and shown me to collect the remains. Then, he said, I should take the box to the closest toilet, dump the remains down and flush. After that, get rid of the box.

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