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No matter how well you think you know someone, you don’t really know them till you sort through the desiccating shell shed after their passing. Emptying years of living is like peeling the layers of a shallot. You find dirt and debris; you find the unexpected, the perplexing, and the heartbreaking. And you fight tears.

People living alone during their final years surround themselves with unnecessary—it seems to us—clutter. The accumulation is freighted. There is the desire to keep memories of distant or lost family members present. Christmas cards, birthday, and get well cards, photos of family and pets all land higgledy-piggledy in a heap near the most beloved chair in the house. Personal effects of a deceased partner never leave home, but lie buried amongst underwear or with forgotten jewelry. And tucked amid the panties or the boxers are inexplicable glimpses into youth: parking tickets, divorce decrees, court summons, birth certificates, unexplainable love letters, matchbooks and mementos. One never really knows a person till their past bursts into the present. And then we are left with more questions than we ever knew to ask.

Then there is mobility—or lack thereof. No longer able to spring to their feet at a whim, the elderly accumulate as many necessities within arm’s reach as possible. The phone, pills, bills, books, medical equipment, magazines, munchies tower beside that favorite chair or the bed, or the toilet. Eating at the dining room table, if it were ever a habit, becomes a distant memory. The ever-humming TV channels community for packaged meals and snacks, consumed from the favorite chair. Bits, pieces, and pills slip, unobserved, to the floor, into the crevices, their petrified remains waiting to be discovered.

Besides loneliness and lack of energy, is the ennui inherent with depression, that ubiqitous malady of the aged. The daily mail sparks a moment of hopeful curiosity, but delivers little of value: flyers, wrenching pleas for contributions torescue starving animals and kids in far-flung places, annoying bills, all add to the growing heap of things to deal with later. Later rarely comes, so the piles grow and multiply. Decisions are overwhelming. It is easier to let things lie.

Piles of refuse multiply; paths through the piles narrow. If window blinds were ever opened in the past, it becomes impossible to negotiate past the piles to open them now. Besides, tired and glaucomic eyes rebel at light, so the living space becomes a dungeon; dark and deep. And those filmy eyes fail to see the accretion of dust, dirt, and debris as it piles up on baseboards, in seat cushions, between layers of the threatening heaps. And if there’s a pet present, stacked boxes take on a fascinating coat of fur. And even without the benefits of a pet, mice boldly leave their calling cards.

Scraps of inner life surface unexpectedly in the debris field. A letter written, but never sent. Books and articles about changing one’s life, one’s diet, one’s health. There are so many quick fixes for the problem of the day. One page in each of fifty—otherwise empty—journals and notebooks hints at a new determination, a new focus on health, a new strategy to overcome the difficulties of living. Platitudes about growing old, about slipping away unobserved, about death, suggest a recognition, a determined will to accept all that lurks beyond the horizon.

Growing old is not for the faint of heart. We relative youngsters scoff and presume we will do it all better. But will we?