DECLUTTERING MY HEART
For as long as I can remember, my brother and I have had—to put it mildly—a very contentious relationship. We both came out of the womb swinging. Early on, we jockeyed for position for the coveted spot on mom’s lap. We came to blows over toys, candy, TV shows, and even breathing. I was the bratty little sister who antagonized him until he snapped. Then my overly protective father would punish him for fighting and picking on daddy’s little girl. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I relished those moments. And lest you assume he acted with blameless perfection, my brother was the kind of kid who would violently up-end a chair or side table if he lost at chess. Since both our parents worked we were unsupervised for several hours after school each day. I often found myself in the path of his disproportionate rage tornados. I know that all siblings fight, but our relationship seemed particularly stormy.
I would love to say that all the tension, angst, and violent outbursts disappeared when we crossed the threshold of adulthood… Nope. We merely transitioned our heated arguments to weightier topics, like the weather, and sports. God forbid we landed on a more dodgy subject like politics, religion, or how to best care for our aging father. Shocking expletives have been screamed through gritted teeth, phone calls abruptly cut short, doors slammed, holidays ruined, countless tears shed, and sadly, months have gone by with no communication at all.
However, despite our tortured relationship, at my core, I have always loved my brother and in the same way, I’ve always known that he loved me—if in our own twisted, damaged way. We are inextricably linked by our shared DNA, family memories, and tragedy. Amid break-ups, broken-down cars, depression, and the devastation of the sudden death of our mom when I was 22-years-old and he was 23-years-old, our bond remained intact. We managed to shake off the sting of nasty fights to celebrate the other’s accomplishments and triumphs. Our brief periods of detente, though welcome, were as effective at healing our broken relationship as a balm on a deadly infection. We always went back to feuding.
In a desperate attempt to take charge of a situation I could not control, I started keeping track of everything. I kept a detailed tally of all of my “selfless” acts of kindness with the accuracy and scrupulosity of a hard-nosed CPA facing an audit. My reluctant gestures of goodwill always came with strings attached. Any time I offered a hand to help him up, which was pretty darn often, I made a mental note. When he needed me, I grudgingly complied. As his sister, I was duty-bound to help, but come hell or high water, he would pay me back. Needless to say, my brother was amassing a deep debt at the bank of Mary Jo that made the federal government’s seem puny. He responded in kind. At one point, I accused him of wielding favors like Don Corleone. Meanwhile, my ledger also showed that our sibling rivalry continued to skyrocket as the reserves of our friendship were beyond depleted. Strangely, the more I did for him, the more strained our relationship became.
I was desperate for answers. My resurgent Catholic faith didn’t seem to offer any concrete help, or so I thought. I had experienced a grace-filled “reversion” after becoming a mom. Through the gift of my husband and newborn son, my eyes were being opened to the reality of just how much God the Father loved me. The faith of my childhood was beginning to take root. In turn, I was learning how to love God and my neighbor, but this was my hot-headed, unforgiving brother I was dealing with. I prayed for his conversion.
During one of our routine, awkward phone conversations, my brother shared his frustration with all the clutter in his home. He couldn’t seem to get a handle on it. He was feeling overwhelmed and down. I understood the paralysis that can set in with such a daunting task. When confronted with my packed-to-the-gills garage, I longed for a friend who would happily get her hands dirty while keeping me company, urging me on. I completed the task solo. As my brother lamented his situation, I blurted out, “I could help you declutter. I know what it’s like. I can be your accountability partner.” He was a bit suspicious. Rightfully so. I could lord a massive decluttering project over his head for years. Something clicked. “Listen, I’m pretty good at this. I’m willing to help.” He must have been in dire need because—he agreed.
Driving over to his place that first Saturday, I considered turning around—a few times. Being trapped in tight, dusty spaces with my brother for a long stretch would be brutal. I said a prayer that I might be an instrument of the Holy Spirit and managed to keep driving.
For the next few months, we spent hours scrounging through every drawer, closet, and box in every room of his house, even the garage. I put in countless hours. It was hard work, but my brother was so grateful for my expertise, advice, and company. Something between us softened. It was as if our old story was being rewritten. We still bickered, but there was an ease about our relationship that I had never experienced before. At one point when something fell on his foot, he let out a string of offensive words. Normally my disapproving response may have resulted in an escalating fight. Instead of lashing out, I simply explained that the loud cursing made me uncomfortable. From that point, he went out of his way to refrain from four-letter words, comically caching himself in the act, “mother Hubbard!” Our laughter was heartfelt. I left his house with an aching back, covered in grime, and oddly hopeful. That’s when I decided I would never accept any payback for the decluttering. It was a gift, freely given, something I had not given to my brother since… well, forever.
I’ll never forget the day we finished. To celebrate, I suggested we head to the store to grab some storage containers. As we happily perused the organization aisle, oohing and aahing at all the sleek bins, my brother’s tone suddenly changed. “What you’ve done—is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.” He said it with tears in his eyes. That was the beginning of a divine reset for the two of us. Our relationship is not without stops and starts, and we’ve had our share of fights since then—don’t even get me started on the 2016 election, but our friendship has progressed. We are no longer wading through the quicksand of our past. In the process of helping my brother declutter his home, my heart got a make-over too.
I’m not gonna lie, it took everything in me to love my brother in such a practical way without expecting something in return. But I’m beginning to learn that real love requires sacrifice. It is the pouring out of oneself, whether deserved or not. That’s what Christ did on the cross. There was no assessment of cost, only the assurance of immeasurable benefit for the other, for me.
Mary Jo Gerd traded in her media career interviewing celebrity actors and filmmakers for the more rewarding, albeit less glamorous vocation of full-time wife and mother. She hasn’t looked back since. Well, maybe once or twice. She lives in Denver and enjoys blogging about family life and her reversion to the Catholic faith on lateforchurch.blog.