Support for Spousal Caregivers

By Ceil Sinnex

Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 27, 2007

The fact that I had not cleaned the house in years brought it all into perspective. Our abode was under siege by the questionable treasures of my husband, John, a Collector with a capital C. One intact but ill-mannered vacuum cleaner stood like an accusation in the kitchen. Parts of other vacuum cleaners hid in the garage, a place of mystery and chaos.

John had a knack for buying used machines and repairing or trading them for a better model. For example, he once converted three ancient junkers into one vintage Mercedes.

But the vacuum-cleaner collection was a work in progress when we learned John has Alzheimer's disease. He is now in a nursing home. I have been left to pick up the pieces. Believe me, those pieces must number in the thousands.

John always has loved a bargain. Garage sales made his heart go pitty-pat. His greatest coup, in his estimation, came in a cardboard box that shook and thumped as he dashed to our car with it. He exulted over his great deal: two chickens, absolutely free. The fighting gamecock and hen soon ruled our roost. Beulah and Brewster have since flown on to their rewards, but most of John's finds are still here.

Thinking to clean the house for the bric-a-brac and me, I tried the bagless horror of a vacuum cleaner stationed in the kitchen. It spewed dust and dug in as I wrestled it across the carpet. And so I turned my attention to our many other problems, such as staying afloat financially with a catastrophic illness in the family.

The dust balls reached critical mass as I tried to troubleshoot our new lives. I stopped inviting most people over. "Don't look at the floor," I warned those who gained admission. A friend offered to lend me his vacuum cleaner. As I zoomed around our three-level house sucking up fluff, I noticed John's collectibles: brass lanterns from his sailing days, belt buckles from his ranching days, a calabash from Hawaii, a ship's wheel, a primitive handmade broom that had reminded him of Hansel and Gretel's cottage.

But the most stunning discoveries were the partial vacuum cleaners, seemingly peering out from every corner. I could swear they giggled in unison. Crevice and upholstery tools from several different devices skulked behind clay pots and other John loot. Behind the stairs lurked a malevolent-looking carcass, R2-D2 with an attitude.

The next day, I cleaned out kitchen drawers to find even more vacuum-cleaner tools. None appears to match the carcass or the bagless horror, or any of the other tools. But perhaps, I tell myself, a whole vacuum, the kind that uses bags, can be constructed from parts already on our premises.

Tinkering with equipment is not my idea of fun, but putting together a usable vacuum cleaner would honor John, a man who knew his vacuum cleaners, having sold them door to door as a teenager way back when. "We'd say, 'This tool will pick up that stuff that falls between the oven and the counter,' " John would recount. " 'Here's one that goes around corners. That one is especially made for antique upholstery. And here's one for toast crumbs. " 'Normally we charge separately for each of these tools. But just for you, I'm offering a great deal -- all of them plus the vacuum cleaner for only $20 down and $15 a month for one year. Or give me $100 now and it's yours."

At least John's spiel sounded something like that to me, and it usually got his friends laughing. The moral of the story, he would say, is that bells and whistles are a waste of money. In retrospect, one of the signs John's disease was advancing was that he threw out a top-of-the-line canister vacuum when its catch broke and one repair shop said it could not be fixed. I am still mourning that vacuum cleaner, which is no longer manufactured.

But now, the vacuum cleaner parts taunt me, along with the two lawnmowers, the bicycle, the ice-cream-parlor table without a top, the conference-table top without legs, and the many uncataloged objects in the garage. I feel I am living in a field hospital for mauled equipment. When Alzheimer's strikes, a family's way of life is swept away. We are left with a jumble of parts that do not fit together. And so the overflow of vacuum cleaner pieces seems an apt metaphor. And yet, there is a ray of hope in this story of dust and despair. In a word, brooms: my new best friends.

From Washington Post August 26, 2007

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