The night my husband, Willem, died I stayed up weeping and ironing his shirts, in the room that had been his office, a room where we occasionally made love and the room where he finally died. As I sobbed, my tears fell, moistening the cloth. The funeral home had come for his body, and my four-year-old son, Jake, was finally asleep.
Ironing has always comforted me. As a young child, I used to watch my mother sprinkle water from a Coke bottle with a special rubber stopper to dampen the clothes. As a treat she would let me iron handkerchiefs. A month before Willem’s death, while he was having brain surgery I fled home to do a load of laundry. I had been cleaning throughout his illness, and in many ways, although it did not save him, it is what allowed me to survive. I’ve often thought, in the years since his death, of opening a Mourners’ Cleaning Service. I know I am not the only woman who cleans as she sobs in the night.
During the long months when Willem was ill, cleaning was just about the only thing I could focus on, besides taking care of my son. Willem was from Holland, land of the clean people, and when he was well he cleaned as much as I do now. When Willem forgot the word for “paper clip,” I knew he was sick. When I came home from teaching one night and there were dirty dishes still in the sink, I knew he was seriously ill.
Willem, the son of a Mennonite minister, was an academic. He researched his dissertation so thoroughly that we called him Dr. Footnote. He became an archivist and would bring order to collections of photographs of displaced people in camps after World War II.
The day after Willem died, I threw away his old slippers, preferring to remember him by his marathon running shoes. But when Jake saw the slippers now dripping in egg yolk in the garbage, he yanked them out and said, in all his four-year-old wisdom, “Don’t throw away anything of daddy’s, ever.”
My son does the opposite of cleaning. He is a pack rat. When I take clothes out of the dryer, Jake’s child pockets are full of dried-up ticket stubs and baseball cards. When I remember to check his pockets before I put them in the washing machine, I salvage coins and leaves and broken crayons. His room resembles his pockets. My son is a collector and an athlete and he watches WWE wrestling on TV.
“Mom, there are three main kinds of wrestling, Raw, Smack Down, and ECW,” my now ten-year-old son explained patiently.
Last night I was in the kitchen, wiping an already clean counter, listening to NPR on the kitchen radio as Jake was sprawled on the couch, watching his heroes.
“Each kind of wrestling has different wrestlers,” continued Jake. “Raw has Umaga, Kane, and Triple H. Smack Down has The Great Kali—he’s 7’2”—Mark Henry, and Bobby Lashly. The ECW has Big Show (that’s a man), Kurt Angle, and Sabu.”
Last night I washed the dishes and listened to Mozart’s Flute Concerto no. 2 in D Major, a piece my husband used to love. I do not have a dishwasher. I moved into my apartment twenty-five years ago, as a single woman, never knowing I would marry ten years later or that my marriage would telescope and I would be a widow there at forty-six. When my husband moved in, we used to wash the dishes together, he with his Mennonite methodical style by my side. Actually, I washed and he dried. We had been given three kinds of kitchen towels from Dutch relatives for our marriage—one set for dishes, one set for silverware, and one set for pots and pans. Now I wash and dry dishes alone, trying to order my world and to soothe my messy soul.
At 9:15 last night I decided to make a bold move. I put down my sponge and left my station in the kitchen of eternal cleaning. I joined Jake on the couch and watched Friday night wrestling with him. I had my first dose of watching frightening men crash chairs on one another’s greased bodies, fighting and fighting, good over evil, not dying of cancer, fighting until they were exhausted.
I reached out for Jake’s hand and he let me hold it just for a moment before he pulled away. “Just because I see this stuff, doesn’t mean I’m going to do it,” he said quietly, staring at the screen. “Somebody always wins. And just because you love classical music, doesn’t mean you do that, either.”
A woman raising a boy to be a man is not an uncommon occurrence in America today. Whether we’re single mothers by choice and have never shared the task, or by death or divorce and we’re stumbling through life a bit stunned, it doesn’t matter.
And then last night, at ten o’clock, when WWE wrestling was over, my son made an unexpected move. He got up from the couch. He went into the kitchen, grabbed the mop, filled a bucket of water, and began to mop the floor, mopping with frenzy, a fierce mopping to save his soul. We are all wrestling. We are all cleaning. We are doing the best we can.
—By Patty Dann
Patty Dann is the author of the novels Mermaids, which was made into a movie starring Cher and Winona Ryder, and Sweet and Crazy and two memoirs: The Baby Boat: A Memoir of Adoption and The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (and Learning to Tell the Truth about It). She lives in New York City. This essay was previously published in the anthology Dirt: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House (Seal Press, 2009).