When my now ex-husband of 28 years was in his first of four rehab stays–during which I’d found out he’d been cheating on me with more women than I cared to count–I started volunteering in the donation closet of a homeless healthcare clinic. I also went to the eye doctor and got a stronger prescription because, apparently, I hadn’t been seeing things very clearly for a long time.
Tucked into a back corner of the clinic, the closet provided a small but essential service for patients who needed clean clothing. No one had volunteered to organize the closet for a while so when I arrived, the shelves were empty and, below them, ripped open bags and boxes of donations were piled on the floor. It was the perfect situation for me. Little to no human contact because I like people but not that much, and it was a chance during a point in my suddenly annihilated life to make order out of chaos.
Each Friday morning, I put on a medical mask and a pair of gloves; flipped my iPod to playlists heavy with Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden as though they were made by a disaffected teenage boy rather than a sad middle-aged mom; and, for several hours, I sorted, folded, and organized. I was a ruthless sorter. I took my cue from the medical director whose motto was, “If you wouldn’t wear it, why would our patients?” So out went the stained underwear, paint-splattered jeans, and threadbare T-shirts. Even though I threw out hundreds of pounds of unusable clothing into the parking lot dumpster during my four years of volunteering, our patients’ needs were nearly always perfectly filled–almost magically–by donations from student, service, and corporate groups as well as individuals. Angels of kindness, all of them, at a time when I felt like everyone was a crappy philanderer and liar.
A few months after I started my volunteer gig, the medical director came to me and said, “I’ve got a beaten up prostitute in one of the exam rooms. She wants to pretty herself up. Can you put something together?” By then I was as familiar with the clothes in the clinic closet as my own at home and I had become something of a secondhand personal shopper. I picked out a peasant-style top, a pair of capris, and sparkly sandals that I placed in a grocery bag along with a small pouch of three sample lipsticks donated by an Avon representative. Because, as my friend Ant once told me, lipstick makes any day better.
“She feels more human again,” the medical director told me later. I hoped to feel more human again sometime too. And I did, eventually. Not right away, not even in a year or two, but over time with the help of friends, a counselor who said, “Shit,” a lot, and that 8×12 closet, which gave me the solitude and space to sort through the mess of my head and my heart.