The Birthday

January 19, 2012

I have never seen such a mountain of  filth in my life.

“Holy…?” I say under my breath, reaching behind my back to shut the door. The door of my sister’s apartment. The apartment I have a key to and never use, but today I have a surprise birthday present in my arms.

The living room is blanketed with ash. Bowls of cigarette butts overflow onto tables, couches, area rugs. Candles lay weeping in their own waxy juices, spilling onto end tables and shelves. Candles everywhere–what the Hell? Who does my sister think she is? Sting?

There’s discarded dirty underwear on the floor.

Niiice. I kick it into a corner.

Glasses. Cheap cocktail glasses–the ones I helped her pick out from Tuesday Morning–pepper the room, abandoned in various stages of consumption.  Smeared with lipstick and grease and nicotine and God knows what else, those glasses wink in the late day sun.

I drop the gift in a corner and yank open windows. How long has it been since fresh oxygen has seen this apartment? How long has she been marinating in here, in this shitty little box, with the yellowed linoleum and the dessicated carpet and the kitchen the size of a closet?

I walk into the kitchen. The stove has been broken for months, but C. doesn’t care. The girl can’t cook, won’t cook, thinks cooking is “boring.”  My sister is single and fierce and will not fry up that bacon in the pan, that’s for sure.

She eats, though.

That’s pretty evident from the wasteland of plates, forks and bowls encrusted with vestiges of cheese, lettuce, stuff. I’m looking at days upon days, weeks of days of dishes.

She hasn’t bothered to rinse anything. Her dishes are a Rorschach of past meals–salsa, vivid orange pools of Kraft French dressing, errant smears of mustard. Jesus.

She doesn’t own a dishwasher, but that’s a moot point. Looking at the edible inkblots, I know this isn’t party wreckage I’m staring at. Every stain on every dish smacks of C.–the salads she makes when she’s barely able to bring the fork to her mouth, swimming in French dressing, full of cheese and questionable lettuce.  The toast she makes and dips in mustard, when there’s nothing else in the house to eat.  In the sink, her signature is everywhere.

I open the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. A large bottle of McCormick’s vodka and a few stray Otter Pops.

A girl’s gotta have priorities.

I think about opening the refrigerator but I reconsider. My vision has already been overloaded–do I really want to engage the olfactory, too?  I don’t want to stomach whatever science experiment is festering in that thing.

Surely, I’ve seen the worst of it. There’s no way the bedroom can be fouler ground than that kitchen. I put my hand on the bedroom door, which is open just a sliver, and I pause.  I feel kind of dirty looking in my sister’s bedroom. I mean, isn’t the bedroom the most private and sacred of places?  Would this take my (already) borderline violation of privacy to a level that’s just flat-out terrible?

Then again, she did give me a key.

If you give a sister a key, will she use it? If she uses it, will she walk in the door at unexpected moments?  If she walks in unexpectedly, will she stay to inspect? If she stays to inspect, will she stumble into a wasp’s nest?

I enter the bedroom and throw the windows open.  It reeks of stale air and dirty clothes, but I stalk past, shutting the door behind me. A girl, any girl, deserves her secrets.

I walk back into the living room, flip the stereo on, scan the cd shelf, decide on the Gin Blossoms. I crank the volume, tuck my hair into a ponytail, and walk into the bathroom. Sleeves rolled, I locate the canister of Dow Scrubbing Bubbles and glaze the bathtub with a heavy white layer.

As the bubbles work magic, I grab two large garbage bags and go to work on the living room. She’s got an incense stand on top of the television. When did she start burning incense?  I think about the cigarettes and the candles and the incense and decide I’m glad she doesn’t cook. This place is kindling.

Bottles, empty Cheetos bags, butts, old magazines, near-empty nail polish containers, socks beyond saving. Trash.

I dampen a few paper towels and swipe across the tv screen.

“Dang,” I mutter. “How do you even see anything through this?”

I find a table knife and excavate candle wax, layer by layer, singing along with the Gin Blossoms.

All last summer as if you don’t recall
I was yours and you were mine forget it all
Is there a line that I could write
Sad enough to make you cry
All the lines you wrote to me were lies

I scrub the bathtub with the only stiff thing I can find, an un-used back-scrubber from a Bed, Bath and Beyond gift basket I gave her for Christmas last year. I force the brush back and forth, focused on the hard brown ring in the center of the bathtub and the mildewed faucet. I run scalding water over and apply another coat of bubbles.

I’m not sure how to deal with the ash on the furniture and carpet. I decide to vacuum first–yes, she does own a vacuum, in impeccable condition–and then study the tables and shelves. I decide to wet a big bath towel and plunder as much ash as I can for the money.  I riffle through towels in the closet. My hands fall on an empty bottle and one half-full one stashed in between the terrycloth.

Who you hiding these from, Ponyboy?

I rinse the soiled towel in the bathtub, pressing down hard until water runs clean. I wipe the bathtub again, smears of bubble and ammonia-scented air. I bash the plug into the drain, turn the water hot as I can get it, and fill.

I grab a bottle of Dawn dish soap from the kitchen and pour it into the tub, almost emptying the sucker. Bubble, bubble.

I collect the dishes, plates, silverware, glasses, bowls, cups from the kitchen and living room and place them in the bathtub until water threatens to spill onto the floor.  I look around the bathroom and throw a few toothbrushes in, just for good measure.

I’m waiting for the dishes to soak when she walks in, sunglasses on, cigarette and paper sack in hand.

“Duuude!” she squeals, grinning. “What’s up?”

She scans the room.

“This is…just…wow!”

“So okay, but your dishes are soaking in the bathtub. There were too many to deal with, so I decided to wash them in there.”

She laughs and gives me a hard, quick hug. “Hey, what can I say? Remember that book we had when were little?  The Man Who Would Not Wash His Dishes? That book was awesome.”

I don’t remember. She shuts the apartment door and tosses her purse on the couch.  She takes the bag into the kitchen. “You want a drink? I’ve got fresh tonic.”

“A drink is a capital idea.”  I go into the bathroom, pluck two glasses from the bathtub, rinse them in hot water, and bring them to her. “Strong.”

“As if there’s any other way. Lime?”


She brings me my drink, takes a sip, then hands me her glass. “Wait. Hold on.”

She runs on tiptoes into her bedroom and emerges with an armful of  dirty dishes. “There’s mooore!” she says in a singsong voice, laughing.  She clanks them into the bathtub.

I set the drinks down. Present under my arm, I wander to the stereo and re-start the cd. Delighted, she tears into wrapping paper and ribbon. I pick up my drink, swallow and feel the burn.

    The months roll past the love that you struck dead
    Did you love me only in my head?
    The things you did and said to me
    Seemed to come so easily
    The love I thought I’d won you give for free

    *Lyrics from the Gin Blossoms’ “Found Out About You,” from New Miserable Experience

{ 66 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy January 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm

You must be an angel.


Samantha Angela January 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I’m kinda disgusted by your sister’s living condition to be honest. I would want so badly to clean the place if only for my own satisfaction. But I would feel like I were offending someone if I did that because that’s happened to me before.


TKW January 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm


I was definitely going for disgusting. That’s why I had to clean it, no matter what.


C @ Kid Things January 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm

You are the best sister ever.


Pamela January 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Wow this must be so hard. I can’t even imagine how you deal with it much less writ so beautifully about it.


TKW January 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm


I haven’t seen her in eleven years.


Contemporary Troubadour January 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I’ve done the cleaning-up-after-your-grown-sister thing (though not in this degree) and I know the misgivings that come with deciding whether it is okay to invade and improve at the expense of someone else’s privacy. That line is never easy to see when it’s smeared with stuff you’d never let someone you love live in.



TKW January 19, 2012 at 5:07 pm


Dammit. I need another doll. ;) xo


Camille Brightsmith January 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Hello Kitch, you got me again with this one. Its all so imperfect and ugly sometimes in this world and you capture that just right, but without leaving me feeling hopeless.


TKW January 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm


My soulful friend. I think we’ve learned (through hard labor) to find the sweet in the bitter. I think you have to, if you want to make it to shore. I love you.


Katybeth January 19, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Sounds like Joe’s apartment when I met him and he only drank recreationally. No fooling. I was the only person who had ever seen it–and it was right before he moved to MY apartment. I did not open the fridge or walk into the bathroom–I could smell it. I told him to leave it and we would hire Mighty men to clean it once so we could pack up and again after he moved so the landlord would refund his deposit. How he ever came out of that apartment looking and smelling good–I will never know. I kept it under control while we were married and he did improve–but I never really understood how a person could/would/want/ to live that way. Maybe they don’t. . .
Obviously the richest birthday present was your visit and attempt to bring order back into your sister life–and of-course accepting the drink instead of retorting with righteous indignation.

Happy Popcorn Day :-)


TKW January 19, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Popcorn Day? Really? I made some–the real stuff–this afternoon.

About the filth–why is it okay if it’s a guy? It is, though…


Christine @ Coffees & Commutes January 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Oh my goodness. My sister. To a T. She did something unforgivable this past fall, and we haven’t spoken since. I think we’re in it (or out of it, as it were) for the long haul. She refuses to get better, and she’s doing her best to take us all down with her. I’ve drawn the line. But this, THIS IS EXACTLY how she lives.


TKW January 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm


Email me your number. I think we should talk. Jesus.


Arnebya January 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm

My house is dirty, not filthy. I imagine having an emergency where neither my husband or I can be in the house for the kids and one of my sisters would have to come in. I’d be so embarrassed. I know nothing of organization. Or how to KEEP shit clean. Every weekend it’s the same: I’m going to stay here and clean. And then, with my lunch, I just need a sip. That sip turns into four drinks and then I just need a short nap. And then I’m pissed when I wake up hours later and the day is gone and still nothing is picked up off the floor, nothing is clean. I would be so embarrassed to see them see it, so why can’t I muster up enough determination to do something about it?


TKW January 19, 2012 at 4:49 pm


Girl, your honesty crackles. Fire up the bathtub, sister. I’ll bring the towels.


Jennifer January 19, 2012 at 2:42 pm

I know this. All of this. You know.


TKW January 19, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Yeah, I do know. I love the cookbook, btw–how can you resist recipes titled “Wishing Well Cake” or “Moo Moo’s Dessert?” Pure Gold, Jennifer. Thank you.


Lana January 19, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I love the pictures you paint with your words, even when they are disgusting. I am glad I am living vicariously through your afternoon:) Mess of those proportions depresses me, even though I am not horribly pedantic about cleanliness. But a stiff vodka drink with your sister will make everything feel better at least:)


Jane January 19, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Oh my goodness. And I thought my sister’s place was bad. Whenever I visit her, I just pretend I’m camping. It’s so bad I would take my boys to my parents house 1 hour away just to bathe them. (Even after I scrubbed her tub I didn’t trust that there weren’t evil germs still lurking.) But you? You have me beat. Double beat. You actually roll up your shirtsleeves and clean. You, my dear, are a saint. xo


TKW January 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Jane, I need to hear more about “pretending to be camping.” That is freaking hilarious (and not). I’m not a saint, just an interloper. And believe me, I never went in there again.


Cheryl @ Mommypants January 19, 2012 at 5:22 pm

It’s been too long since I’ve been over here. I gave up on my google reader so I have subscribed to you by email so I don’t miss anymore.


I am (as always) so blown away by your writing, by all you’ve left unsaid. It is also interesting to read this, based on some of the stuff you’ve written about your sister when you were kids.

It is all so sad, isn’t it?


TKW January 19, 2012 at 6:35 pm


My Google reader is toast, too. I have no idea what the Hell that thing is doing, but it’s making me nuts.

I’m so glad you are here.

Yeah, it’s sad. But there’s so much swirling in the mix. I wonder if I’ll ever navigate my way through it.


SuziCate January 19, 2012 at 5:34 pm

sounds like my sister’s place looked, but I wasn’t as good as you…I was so grossed out I couldn’t handle touching anything.
I remember that book!
Excellent write, Kitch!


TKW January 19, 2012 at 6:36 pm


You remember that book? Geddaheckouttahere! I had to go to the bookstore and search for it after she mentioned it.


Privilege of Parenting January 19, 2012 at 6:02 pm

This is heartbreaking and beautiful. Your love for your sister is like a possum on the road and however many months it’s been since it’s been hit (about a hundred and thirty three I suppose), I see it’s not struck completely dead. Like Wile E. Coyote we can peel it up and get it to the ER by Acme rocket where we can have virtual group writing workshops for all our ragged, torn, poetically, sometimes pathetically, loving hearts. Here’s to bathtub gin blossoms, Dearie.


TKW January 19, 2012 at 7:17 pm


I love the lens that you see things through. No ER by Acme for this heart, though. At least where that’s concerned. That possum is staying on the road.

I’ll write about it, though, and drink a glass with you anytime.


Amber January 19, 2012 at 7:17 pm

When you write of your sister, feelings of sadness and disgust well up in my mind. How can our loved ones disappoint yet KNOW that we will be there when they need us?

Love you kitch. Can you be my sister? I won’t make you clean my messy house!


TKW January 19, 2012 at 7:22 pm


I already am your sister, Sassy. Call me and come stay when you have that baby. I promise to make you good things. Truly. I know we’d have so much to talk about…plus, I get to smell fresh baby. Win/Win.


Allison @ Alli 'n Son January 19, 2012 at 7:26 pm

After reading through the comments, this whole thing changed from being gross to being really sad. But still, you are the best sister for cleaning like that.


Maria January 19, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Oh Kitch! Reading this, I was back at my uncle’s house from hell, standing in the living room, eyes filled with tears of rage and disgust and disappointment, wondering where to begin.

How is it that the ones we love are the ones who know how to hurt us the most, sometimes without even trying?

I’ve been away far too long and make a honest pledge to go back and read and make my sad heart light again.

I’ve missed you and your words far too much.


koreen January 19, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Heartbreaking. Really truly heartbreaking. I feel the disappointment and pain for my brother all over again when he was going through his hard times when I read this. I also felt the distance between me and my sister. Even though it’s not similar in any way to the situation you so beautifully (and disgustingly) described, it’s easy to perceive the differences and distance between you two…. I don’t know how to describe it, but it just brings me back to my sister. I need to go now. ***hugs***


Katrina Kenison January 19, 2012 at 9:09 pm

I keep thinking about what Rolf, our yoga teacher at Kripalu over New Years, said: “Love can’t save anybody. It can help, but it can’t save them. And yet, when you don’t know what else to do, do the loving thing.” And that’s just what you did, the loving thing. Which is always the right thing. You are one beautiful woman and the most important gift you gave your sister was the one you didn’t have to wrap.


TKW January 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm


I am going to keep Rolf’s words close. Because so often I have no idea what to do.


Alexandra January 19, 2012 at 9:18 pm

I don’t like leaving comments when the thing I really want to do is sit with you at your kitchen table, and have you tell me this story.

Every word of it.


Tinne from Tantrums and Tomatoes January 20, 2012 at 6:24 am

Oh my, I’m torn between admiration for the fact that you cleaned up and turned misery into poetry and feelings of anger directed towards your sister for creating the mess in the first place.


Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon January 20, 2012 at 6:44 am

I read this yesterday and couldn’t find the words to describe all the thoughts swirling in my head. So I said nothing. Today, I still don’t have the words and the thoughts still swirl.


Kristen @ Motherese January 20, 2012 at 8:56 am

I could feel the back brush bristles scraping the tub in this post. Such a metaphor for this moment and this relationship.

I love you, girl: you and your tough, gentle, big heart. xo


TKW January 20, 2012 at 10:04 am


Love you, too. With all of my little, cold, black heart. ;) I’ve got you fooled.

Kiss that baby for me.


Jenna January 20, 2012 at 9:00 am

Kitch, my heart was clenching as I read this story. And when it ended (though it ended perfectly) I couldn’t stand that there wasn’t more. 11 years? What happened?
I guess a well-written story always hurts when it ends.
And I know it’s not just a story to you, but your life.
So anyway.


TKW January 20, 2012 at 10:08 am


It should have ended far before that. Gah, the shit we put up with.


rebecca @ altared spaces January 20, 2012 at 9:15 am

Is writing a sort of cleaning up? A bathtub full of dishes for our soul?

I think about these people in my life. I don’t think they ever think about me.

Yet here are you and me, writing and washing, years later.

There are some relationships in my life that won’t ever play out the way I want them to, no matter how hard I scrub. And I scrub anyhow.

I wonder why?

This is very thought-provoking for me today.


Suzanne January 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Wow! I could have written this about my own sister, except it was mostly pills with her. After she literally burned down my grandparents house with a candle and crashed her car with my son in it (thankfully he was okay) I had to give up and walk away. My son adored her and could never understand why I wouldn’t let him go with her anymore. Two years ago she was found dead at the age of 32.

I truly hope that my now 14 yr old will someday understand. I won’t say bad things about her to him so he basically just blames me.

I hope that your situation has a much happier ending, but always remember that you did all you could!


TKW January 21, 2012 at 12:30 pm


What a story. Oh, man. You know, I think your son will understand, and he’s getting of an age that you might have a frank talk with him in the next few years. I don’t think you owe her ghost the courtesy of keeping her secrets. I’m finding that voicing them is incredibly healing.

If you ever need to talk, email me.


Biz January 21, 2012 at 8:13 am

You are such a vivid writer KW – I could imagine myself standing next to you surveying the carnage. You are a great sister – wow, 11 years? I would have had a strong drink too! Hugs!


Naptimewriting January 21, 2012 at 12:16 pm

You’re a better person than I am. I would heave the present into the middle of the couch (or whatever passes as something close to a couch), turn, and walk out.


elizabeth January 21, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I don’t have much else to add that hasn’t been said, except that playing Gin Blossoms was an eerily good choice.



bryan January 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm

I think that my brother and your sister might be cut from the same cloth. Beautifully written my friend.


BigLittleWolf January 21, 2012 at 5:15 pm

You’ll say otherwise, but I think you’re a saint.


The Curious Cat January 22, 2012 at 8:22 am

This is a sweet little story. You are a good sister! It is nice to hear about you hanging out with her. xxx


Liz @ PeaceLoveGuac January 22, 2012 at 12:21 pm

I love Alexandra’s (from GDRP) comment and I feel the same way!

I’ve got a brother (and now sister-in-law) who live a lot like this. So hard to find that line between helping and enabling…I feel like I tiptoe and stumble on it every time we hang out.


Velva January 22, 2012 at 7:50 pm

You reach a whole new level when you are washing a family members dishes in the bathtub. Very clever, I might add.



Barbara January 23, 2012 at 6:43 am

Wow. That was some post. When my kids were little (and I was still married to a perfectionist) things would get out of hand once in a while, but never to that extreme. I’ve been in a few homes during emergencies that were a bit messy, but again, nothing your experience.
I would have been tempted to leave things as they were. You are a good sister, kiddo.


Mary Lee January 23, 2012 at 7:36 am

That surprise birthday present ended up being a lot more than you signed on for. You are one special lady.


Phoo-d January 23, 2012 at 10:42 am

Dearest Kitch- I have been thinking about what to say for a few days and still don’t have any words. I’m so sorry that this sadness and heartbreak is a part of your life. You have a beautiful soul despite (or perhaps because of?) the ugliness you have had to deal with. xoxo


Gale @ Ten Dollar Thoughts January 23, 2012 at 2:03 pm

You know what strikes me most about this? She didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed or ashame. Amazing.

Lovely storytelling, as always.


TKW February 4, 2012 at 11:23 am


Yes, that was the thing. No shame. Just…crazy.


Tiffany January 24, 2012 at 5:02 am

I always, always love your stories.


A Canadian Foodie January 24, 2012 at 10:45 am

Singing and bubbles are the only way to get through this!


Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri January 24, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Your storytelling always cuts to the core. This one in particular is breathing pain and regret and sadness, but you convey it in such a manner that one almost forgets. Almost. xoxo and strength to you.


Salad in a Jar January 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Extremely well written my dear. Family relationships can be so complicated. Love, ya!


Justine January 25, 2012 at 7:28 pm

I am still reeling from this story. You have such a gift. I’m waiting for that book of yours. Just so ya know.

I have to confess, having read a few stories of yours about your sister and you, I often wonder what my girls will turn out to be. Of course as parents we want them to be the best of friends but you just never know do you?


Liz January 27, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Wow, Kitch. Whenever you write about your sister, it always blows me away. It’s amazing how you can tell so much without directly saying it. I guess it’s in the genes…that is certainly where your daughter gets it. (P.S. I have just finished reading your daughter’s guest post for the fourth time in my class!)


Dawn January 29, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Wow. I’d have backed back out and mailed her the birthday surprise. I’m sorry you even had to deal with this…but everyone deals the best they can. But you are an awesome writer. Truly.


Heather January 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Serious flashbacks to college going on here! Roommates doing tub loads of dishes. I recall giving that book to a girl in my dorm. I think she did dishes once a month. She’d just steal cafeteria dishes when she was out. You are one amazing sister to do this for her!


Pam January 16, 2019 at 12:24 pm

Your writing is nothing short of electrifying. Sending hugs. I am so sorry for your loss.


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