The courage of our hearts

On March 9th my husband’s friend/boss was killed by a tree.

About three weeks later, a woman I know — a cleaning client — died after a long, arduous battle with Parkinson’s. I have written a LOT about that one, but haven’t yet had the heart to post anything about it.

So I was already in a contemplative mood when, two weeks ago, I was told that a dear friend of mine has aggressive, stage IV cancer. He has roughly 6-8 weeks.

I come from southern church people — not the deep south kind, but the great plains kind. Hardy work stock. And I’ve shepherded several friends through deaths that “should not have happened,” if you think life is a tidy neat little bundle that should make sense.

So my reaction to this news was not to pine, not to get angry, not to say “why them”.

My reaction was: prepare every vessel that floats.

There is a lot happening every day. Every moment is precious. Anthony and I are mobilized on different fronts, helping different people. We have met up in random neighborhoods while in route to other places to have trench conferences and share intelligence. We duck out every so often for quick decompression — here a weekend camping get away, there an hour for ice cream.

I won’t write much about it hereafter but soon you’ll doubtless start seeing messy ink auto-bio sketches, and that is why. (***EDIT: I am actually going to be posting most of these on a separate tumblr, because it turns out there is a LOT of them, and I would rather see them in chronological order.***)

My personal Facebook account is filled with all sorts of useful tools to help out the key players — very quickly myself and another good friend of theirs became the sort of assistant managers of this crisis. Here, Chez Kumquat, (***actually there, on the tumblr***) is where I will be churning through the more messy aspects; the grief, the things I notice and can never stop noticing because that’s what an illustrator does, and (most importantly) the lighter things that lift the spirits.

Those lighter things are particularly important.


Coming clean

I clean houses for a living. I have been doing it for seven years now and I am (if I do say so myself) pretty good at it. I work for a smallish local company — so the particulars are all taken care of for me; I never have to trawl for more work or scramble to replace broken equipment, it’s all there for me, reliably provided for.

I fall in and out of love with it, for lots of reasons. At worst, it is a tedious, demeaning thing that may well be accelerating the breakdown of my lungs, and certainly made recovering from knee surgery difficult. There are days where I work like a draft horse to appease people who have unrealistic standards, all to collapse at the end of the day winded and sore.

At best, it is an invaluable opportunity to meet people I would NEVER have a chance to meet and get to know in real life. It is incredibly active, which is a boon in our sedentary age. (If anything I am too muscular; I tell people that cleaning professionally is like getting paid to go to the gym). In houses I’m familiar with I can listen to audiobooks or podcasts, just like I do when I paint, and so there’s a tremendous amount of mental continuity and freedom. I picnic lunch in a public park most days, and when I’m done I’m DONE — it is work you truly leave at work, which for an illustrator is invaluable.


Cleaning, like drawing, puts you at a perpendicular to life, rather than a parallel. You intersect with people at very specific points, and in a lot of ways one gets to know someone in a much more intimate way than you’d expect. I have a lot of friends whose houses I’ve never seen — or when I visit them, I only see the living room and maybe a bathroom. The rest of the place is a mystery. Not so with a cleaning client, when my job is to go to every single room and touch every single thing in it. I see stuff only their family members see. Piles of laundry on the floor. Rumpled bedsheets. The non-guest toilet. Workday dishes.

Think about it. Only very, very close friends get to see this version of a person. And, weirdly, housecleaners.

I think this is the biggest reason I tend to give my clients as much space and privacy as they’d like, and don’t press too hard to find out everything about them. I already have so much unearned intimacy that I don’t want to overwhelm someone by pushing for more. And anyway, when you’ve done this as long as I have their things will actually tell you a fairly eloquent story. Consider the difference between two houses: the first is spotless, a bookcase crammed with medical textbooks, a filthy microwave and a lot of dry-cleaning. The second is dotted with children’s toys, colorful furniture torn and covered in stains, with little notes written in crayon all over the place.

In the interest of balance, as I don’t usually try to dig for a more complete picture of a client, I also usually avoid talking about myself and my illustration work. It’s really not relevant to how well I can clean their toilet, and by and large people don’t care about who I am and what I do.

Having said that, I live in a chummy west coast town, so most of the people are friendly and glad to see me. Clients come and go, for myriad reasons, but I always have a handful of dear ones — some new, some I have cleaned for since the beginning. And these I often get to know very well.

One of these was the source of the Fennel Story — a delightful home-schooled child.

We’ve gone through many phases over the years. He followed me around when he was three and four and performed a simultaneous “cleaning” with me. When he was five he would start telling me strange things that had me pausing to jot things down in my notebook — the Fennel Story was simply the most cohesive of these. They have only become more elaborate over time. Recently he has been insisting that my cat is building a rocket ship in an underground laboratory with a team of cat-scientists, and he earnestly asks me to set up motion detection cameras to verify this suspicion.

As I don’t tell my cleaning clients about my illustration work, I also try not to talk too much about my day job here, Chez Kumquat, because how I keep afloat need not concern you. (And above all I don’t want to become that cleaner who paints, or that painter who cleans. Cleaning is so NOT my identity, despite what my clients might tell you.) But I have been wrestling with the whole coming clean about day jobs thing for a while now.

So, so many creatives have extracurricular gigs that keep things running, and so, so few of them talk about it, and it paints an incomplete picture. Sets up unrealistic expectations. And, far too often, allows a person to self-sabotage with shame, guilt, and weird ideas about how a person’s art should sustain themselves 100% Or Else They’re Not An Artist. Which is, quite frankly, nonsense.  The only thing that makes you an artist, as David Rakoff says in his delightful rant about the broadway musical RENT, is making art.

(And I say this to you here, because if I do, maybe I’ll start believing it on my bad days, the fingers-sore days when the only thing I draw is a little doodle on my to-do list.)

Furthermore, on a practical level, I don’t talk about my day job because want to protect the privacy of my clients — and in this case I want to protect fantastic mind of this child, whose ideas are his and do not belong to me. I made pictures about the Fennel Story because how could you not, but really the only authorship credit I can take beyond the images were the leading questions — though this cat thing has been closer to a real collaboration, and stems from the (true) notion of my cat loving ping-pong balls.

The perimeters of our imaginative play has changed over time — he once got very angry with me for suggesting wizards might live in the neighborhood. (They have to live somewhere, right?) That is NOT TRUE, he told me. This was just after he had folded himself into the mattress of a futon and laid inert, because he was a taco. (This was when he was six. I wrote in my notebook: “being a taco, yes; wizard neighbors, no.”)

There have been many milestones I have borne witness to. People have children, their children grow. People marry, remarry, get divorced. People go on big once-in-a-lifetime vacations, people travel regularly as a part of life. People remodel parts of their home. People move and take me with them to the new house, and I and the client can deepen our rapport by remembering things about the old place; what is better here, what is missed from there. Our histories become mingled. I have a sort of unearned front row seat at major hinges of life.

A week ago, I hit another one. I went to clean for a client of mine with advanced Parkinson’s. And she never came to the door.

I had to look back at my emails to see how long I’d cleaned for her: five years. In fact I did her very first cleaning for her back in 2011.

It’s a very odd sensation that has settled in. Because in truth I didn’t know her that well, just where our lives intersected.

She was always kind to me, always grateful in an unceremonious way that felt very genuine.

I know she was a bird person but we never really jammed about it; she was never that eager to talk about herself, and I let clients make that call. We talked about film; she was a great connoisseur. I knew things were truly getting bad when she gave me her copy of the PDX Film Festival schedule in February. “I won’t be needing this this year”.

But of course, I also knew from the appearance of the walking stick, the tremors in her voice, the way she’d stagger along with her diagnostic stooping gait. I knew from the in-home help that began to cook for her and leave a mess in the kitchen that she couldn’t clean up after. I knew from the little chair that was placed in the kitchen, for her to sit her reluctant self in when this person came to help. I knew from the little stash of medicinal marijuana that appeared in a little tray behind a few vases on a table against a wall, and the corresponding chart from the dispensary that tried to narrow down what strains can help with what symptoms. (Pain management? Increase appetite? Suppress appetite? Give energy? Reduce energy? Apparently there’s a strain for everything.)

Over time one has a sense of protectiveness over “their” clients — their homes and the things in it, but also their well-being. It pained me to see her in her previous high rise, because it seemed so unsuited to her. Aside from the walkability to all the things she regularly did — volunteering at the library store, attending screenings at the NW Film Center — it was a depressing little box in the heart of the financial district. Somewhat cheaply put together. I didn’t like thinking of her there knowing where she had been before: a fine little historic bungalow in Southeast.

She would complain about her building, which made me even more uneasy. Finally when a large construction project began nearby — and all the potential noise and clatter that would doubtless accompany that — she resolved to move again, and indeed did so so abruptly that she neglected to tell me.

So it wasn’t the first time, this past Friday, that I showed up to a place where she had departed.

Her final home was into a place along a wooded street, overlooking a park, with great big maples out all her windows affording unimpeded views of birds. Some part of me quieted down when she moved in there. It was easier to picture her there, made more sense somehow.

The email we received confirming my suspicions informed us that she went surrounded by her children and her children’s children, which was also a great relief to me. One passion of hers that I knew of — yet knew very little about — was her family. They all visited each other often and for extended visits. I infer she was very close to them.

It was so odd that it happened on April first. I was hired by the company on April 1, 2009, much to the delight of my mother, who still can’t believe the sloppy teenager she raised grew up to clean houses. I kept hoping my client would get back to us so I could tease her for her awful April Fool’s joke.  But I also kind of knew it wasn’t going to happen.

I’ve had only one other elderly client who has died, which is a fairly unlikely track record for seven years, though of course it’s something I always think about. The circumstances were different, my relationship to her was different, and I still clean for her daughter who is about my mother’s age, and helping her through her grief has proved cathartic for me as well.