BY SIOBHAN FORD
Heat pooled around us as we walked, seeping into my skin the way water does when I've been in it for too long. Even in my tank top and shorts, sweat trickled over my forehead, a slow drip, stinging my eyes behind my sunglasses. I stared at the houses and apartments we passed, broken-down and faceless structures with peeling paint and desperately cracked foundations overlooking pathetic squares of dirt and gravel that claimed to be front yards. The thought of spending an entire day cleaning out one of these decrepit dwellings put a sour taste in my mouth, and I felt the sick pressure start to build in my stomach as it always did when I was anxious.
I tried to breathe slowly and deeply as I quickened my pace in an effort to keep up with my group. I wondered if everyone else felt the same way I did and realized I had no idea; I didn't know these people at all, despite having been with them all day, every day for the past week. As the boy next to me chattered aimlessly, I suddenly felt ashamed and isolated in my repulsion for the surroundings and for the task ahead of us.
"This is why you signed up for this program, remember?" I said to myself. "You're doing this to save an old lady from eviction, so suck it up and remember that not everyone is as lucky as you are."
But even as I picked up my feet and held my head a little higher, the pain in my stomach reminded me of my enduring disgust.
Upon our arrival at the building, the group leaders met with the man who organized our expedition, and I stood squinting at the second floor windows, wondering which of them belonged to the dreaded apartment. With the sun pricking my shoulders, I shifted uncomfortably, feeling as if it were looking down on me with disapproval. Stuck in my throat was my own lump of shame, and try as I might to swallow that lump, it wouldn't budge. One of my leaders approached us and said Leona, the 83-year-old woman who lived in the apartment, was ready for us to come up.
"But only in small groups first," he said. "You guys need to remember that this is going to be pretty overwhelming for her, letting a bunch of college students come into her home and clean out all of her stuff."
As he led four of us into the apartment building, I couldn't believe I had never thought about what this experience would be like for Leona. After all, she was the one opening up her home and belongings to our prying hands, our uneasy stares, our one-sided judgments.
My profound thoughts didn't stop the stale odor from rushing into my nostrils and down my throat as we reached the open door. Stepping inside, the soggy heat of the apartment intensified the smell, giving it a decaying-in-the-sun kind of flavor that worked its way into my mouth. Just try to swallow it. Swallow and breathe. As we picked our way toward the room we would be cleaning, I gaped open-mouthed, appalled at everything I saw. Heaps upon heaps of visibly dirt-covered clothes scattered in every corner; bags of trash spilling into one another, creating new, miniature piles of filth over the 2-inch thick layer of dust on the moldy and splintered wooden floor; water-stained, cracking walls with cockroaches skittering up and down over them. Immediately I zipped my backpack tight and threw it out the door, where I prayed it would remain safe from those evil bugs.
Leona's daughter's bedroom presented a new adventure entirely. Standing space in the whole room lay in the foot of bare floor extending around the grime-encrusted double mattress that sat pushed against one wall. Alongside another wall sagged an ancient, puce-green sofa, bowed underneath the weight of at least five boxes full to the brim with clothes, papers, knick-knacks, and other unidentifiable objects. How on earth were we supposed to clean out this room in one day when it was so full to the brim with, well, crap?
"I guess we just sorta grab a pile and start tossing," said the girl standing next to me, armed with heavy-duty trash bags.
But as we dug into our respective areas of the room, it became harder and harder for me to just throw everything away. I couldn't help feeling I had no right to decide what belongings should stay and what should be "tossed." While I saw the contents of the room as useless and unsanitary, Leona's daughter Mary saw them as her life, one that we erased with every trash bag we threw out. I even found her diploma from Roxbury Community College among old papers and notebooks, hidden under a pile of moldy, ripped dresses. We all agreed to save it and position it on her bureau once the grime had been cleared from it.
We spent the whole morning toiling without a break, with the temperature ever rising as the clock ticked closer and closer to noon. I wanted to cry and throw up at the same time when I ventured into the bathroom to wet a handkerchief to cool my head. The mildew and utter filth were sickening, and they created a stench so revolting I took breaths through my mouth so not catch the slightest trace of it. Even so, my stomach heaved and several gags escaped my throat when I saw the tub. A layer of dark brown liquid festered on the bottom of it, looking almost thick enough to be a distorted type of JELLO pudding. Tears dulled my vision as I thought about Leona and Mary living under these atrocious conditions, and the shame washed over me once again as I remembered my resistance even to enter the apartment
The entire afternoon I purposely avoided Leona, who remained ensconced on her makeshift bed in the makeshift living room. I didn't even feel I could look at her; I didn't deserve to look at her, my great weakness and shame being equal in magnitude to her courage. As girls in my group fussed around her, asking what could be kept and what could be discarded, I tried to slip away without her seeing me. But as I turned in the doorway, her penetrating gaze hit me dead-on, and I became physically unable to look away; her eyes held mine with hypnotic power. With dirt and sweat streaking my entire body, I stood mesmerized, almost overwhelmed with gratitude and admiration toward this woman who was half my size and twenty times as brave as I.
Her dignity couldn't be matched by any of us. I doubt it ever will.