By my third visit to a new client’s house, her health had started to visibly plummet. “The cancer doesn’t give me much time,” she’d drop into our conversation, her shoulders slumping. No response ever felt right, so I mirrored her sage nods, agreeing with her in a grievous way. Yet her shirts were still starched.
I’d been working as a maid for six months by then, scrambling to support myself and my daughter, Mia, who was about to turn 3. My schedule was sparse, but varied, and one I’d accepted gratefully after handing out countless résumés in the small Skagit Valley farming community where we lived, north of Seattle.
The job paid $9 an hour, and the service I worked for required us to get down on our knees and scrub toilets by hand. No toilet brushes, just powdered cleaner, gloves and a rag. This was not the work I had envisioned myself doing at age 32. I had plans to drift off to college, maybe become a writer. But it was work I could do, that I could be paid to do, that let me fill the gas tank, barely pay our $550-a-month rent, and survive off the $200 or so a month in food stamps we received to pay for our groceries.
Usually my clients weren’t home while I was working. But I liked it when they were, and when they made eye contact. That made me feel as though I wasn’t some ghost drifting into their lives to polish them up and make them perfect before going home to the small studio apartment I could barely afford to keep.
This new client’s house was so clean by the time I arrived that I was confused about why she paid to have me work there. Sometimes, after I finished cleaning the kitchen, she made me lunch, insisting that I sit with her at the dining room table. We’d tell stories about our children while we ate tuna sandwiches on white bread, cut into triangles, with carrot sticks on the side. She served instant coffee that we’d sip out of teacups, with cream and sugar packets, and a silver spoon for stirring. It felt like tea parties I’d pretended to have with my grandma when I was a child, and I told her so. She smiled, then waved her hand to brush it off. “It’s good to use the fancy teacups while you still can,” she said.
Her house was, compared with my others, easy. I wiped down the counters, cupboards and floor; dusted and vacuumed; and cleaned the half-bathroom downstairs. Despite her illness, she insisted on doing the one upstairs herself.
One afternoon, we got to talking and she motioned for me to follow her upstairs, past the mechanical seat she used on her “bad days,” as she called them. I hadn’t been upstairs, except once or twice to vacuum the stairs. When she opened the door to the guest bedroom, light flooded into the hallway.
Dozens of shoe boxes, plastic containers and rubber bins lined the walls. There were more containers balanced in stacks on top of the bed. She sighed.
“I’ve been trying to sort things into piles of what goes where,” she said. “Because of the cancer.” I nodded and looked at everything she had been doing. “Most of the things for my son are in the garage — the tools and all of that. But my nieces and nephews and their children will want a lot of this.” I admired her as she pointed to the piles, telling me what would be given to whom. In my time working as a maid, I’d seen various decluttering projects — garages parceled out in preparation for yard sales or downsizing. But this wasn’t the same kind of project. This was an afterlife project.
I’m not sure whether this woman knew how much time she had left to live, but if she did, she never told me. She hired me to do extra work, beyond what she had contracted with the cleaning service, during July. That was how Mia and I survived some unexpected moving expenses and a $300 car repair that would otherwise have sent me spiraling. I picked her weeds, sorted piles and deep-cleaned areas of her house to save her family from having to do it all after her death.
She couldn’t have known how much I needed the additional income and that by hiring me to help end her life she gave me a way to survive mine. My work schedule was so unpredictable that I couldn’t apply for a second job, even though I badly needed more income. I had to scramble for ways to supplement it on my own.
After I did extra work for the woman who was ill, I started asking a few other clients if they needed some, too, noticing unkempt areas of their house or yards that weren’t on my list. Some offered to pay me for additional work during those months, and there was steady interest in an ad that I’d posted on Craigslist:
I work 25 hours a week as a professional cleaner, but it’s not enough to pay the bills.
Most of the other housecleaning ads seemed to be husband-and-wife teams who had trucks for clearing out clutter to take to the dump. A few were full-fledged businesses: licensed and insured, and with employees to juggle bigger jobs. I didn’t think my ad would stand out, but I got a half-dozen calls every time I posted a new variation.
One woman hired me to clean out her rental property before the next tenant moved in. The apartment was grimy but not horrible, and during the walk-through she admitted that she’d never hired a cleaner before. She wanted me to clean out the oven and fridge but not the blinds. I tried to estimate how long it would take me, but I had come to the walk-through with Mia balanced on my hip, and it was hard to get a good look at the space.
“Four or five hours?” I guessed.
“Oh, I just figured I’d give you a hundred dollars,” she said as we stood in the hallway. Then she handed me a wad of cash. I looked at her for a second, unsure of what to do. It was more than I had been paid for any individual cleaning job. She motioned for me to take the money. “I liked your ad,” she said. “I remember what it’s like, to struggle when you have someone who depends on you.” She looked at Mia, who, growing timid from the eye contact, pressed her head into my shoulder.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to suppress the feeling that I was getting away with something. “You won’t be disappointed.”
After I strapped Mia into her car seat, I sat behind the wheel, staring at the dashboard. I’m doing it, I thought to myself. I’m really doing it! I turned around to look at my daughter. It had been a long time since she’d had a special dinner. “Do you want a Happy Meal?” I asked. The wad of cash bulged in my pocket. Pride swelled in my chest. Mia’s face lit up, and she threw up her arms. “Yay!” she yelled from the back seat. I laughed, blinking back a few tears, and yelled out for joy, too.
Stephanie Land (@stepville) is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Maid,” from which this essay was adapted.