This is my story of the last year, told in six parts. Paragraphs in italics are my dreams, and the dated snippets come directly from my daily journal. I trust my family to forgive me for all that I've shared, because I can't tell this story without including the heart parts … and some of them are raw, and hard to swallow.
well I got some gold inside me too
Dad showed up the next morning, sans sleep, and put himself back to work on the deck. We all wobbled a good bit. Some of us limped along, some of us worked ourselves ragged, some of us didn't sleep much, some of us slept a lot.
Michael went back to LA and spent two more weeks on his installation job, while the boys and I did a few small things on the house, and spent a long weekend in PA helping surprise a friend for her 50th birthday. It was a lovely sort-of-head-clearing trip, with great conversations and some deep sleep.
Back in Chicago, I struggled with feeling flat, untethered, and invisible. Intimidated by the amount of work to do on the house, and very limited in my energy levels. Limping for sure.
Michael got back from LA very late one Friday night, and at 6:40 the next morning a dumpster was dropped off in the driveway, as we had deck and bathroom demolition debris to get rid of. I wake up to a loud backup BEEP-BEEP-BEEP right outside our bedroom window, realize that the 6:45am alarm I'd set for the 7am drop off I'd been promised was useless, throw a sweatshirt and slippers on over my garish leggings-as-PJs and run out the door, nearly bumping into the side of the delivery truck. I'd had a very short and “yup”-punctuated conversation with a U-Fill-It man to arrange the drop off, and as I walk up to the driver's window, which starts a good 18 inches above the top of my head, I hear a “Well I didn't expect you to come out of there!” delivered in an amused and measured Mr. Rogers-ish drawl. It turns out he is the one I'd spoken to on the phone, and the price is $30 cheaper than I thought I'd heard. After he drops the dumpster right where I want, and scrawls me a receipt on a piece of notebook paper torn out of the same kind of little spiral-bound thing Dad keeps in his pocket, he allows that “Since I got it dropped right on the first try, and you're happy with the price, my day is DONE and I should just go back home right now!” He then tells me to “just call when you want it gone” and pulls out of the driveway, dwarfing Matilda on the way by. As I head back into the camper in the hopes of more sleep, I see that not only is Michael now standing by the garage grinning from ear to ear, but the neighbor next door is also intrigued, though still pretending to take care of his dogs from the front porch. I think we were all equally amused, and was grateful for a humorous start to the day.
We started to find our groove again, though still tired. The deck was finished, the bathroom demolished and started over, and we fit in some lovely meals with friends that hadn't been possible before. Mom's birthday rolled around, and nibbled at our hearts. I filled some of the hole by making time to write letters, which helped me think about things and process some memories and feelings. I still love the exercise of writing long-hand, once I find a pen or pencil that feels just right. My thoughts seem to come out a bit differently that way too.
Dad took a big job off of the schedule by hiring a roofer who was pretty hungry for work, and I was delighted. We were still pretty loosely connected in our family of four, scattered mentally, and running on fumes. As my thoughts started to ramble a bit towards what might happen after we left Chicago … land and building and putting down our own roots … I felt the exhaustion nibble away at the hope that we'd have enough energy to get the whole dream going. “Feeling old. Scared-of-starting-from-scratch old.” We had to let it go, and just focus on finishing well.
In late May, the lists we'd made months ago and then buried were dug out and posted on doors all around the house, and it started to make finishing seem more possible. There were plenty of things to cross off, and it made the place feel more like a work zone and less like my old home. Appliances were serviced, and a few more big checks written. Rooms started to get finished and staged for sale, and more and more things dragged out to the curb for anyone to take, or dropped off at charity.
Dad came over as often as he could, and started arriving at 9am on Saturday mornings in his work clothes, carrying a pair of Venti Starbucks coffees. Bernie spent every free day he had working on painting outside and plumbing and drywall and flooring. He was updating and finishing what he'd started back in 1984, when he designed and helped build the addition that took our small 3 bedroom ranch and turned it into a 4-ish bedroom house with plenty of space for guests and entertaining. His attention to detail made Michael and I feel quite a bit better about how our approach to painting and refinishing had gotten a bit obsessive, while Dad noted our mutual approaches with humor, patience, and ultimately, real appreciation.
The kitchen was left for last, and the soft spot in the floor by the sink had to be addressed. Under a single sheet of vinyl flooring, it was tricky to fix without having to redo the entire floor, or replace more than just the rotted part of the subfloor. They came up with a system, removed a whole bank of cabinets and the sink and dishwasher, peeled back the vinyl and part of the wall … and discovered a deserted mouse condo, complete with a neat row of drained mini cream containers and the ID tag that belonged to Chico, Mom and Dad's last cat who had been dead for a good 10 years at least! It was kind of fun to remove all the previous layers of flooring in that spot, and match the various colors up to the layers of paint that Michael had sanded off of the old back door. I love piecing together old house clues into a story.
The final stretch, the loooong stretch, took up the last few weeks of June, and then slid into July. We'd hoped to leave by July 4th, but there was still a garage to clean out, driveway to refinish, trees to trim, stuff to dispose of, hardware to find and install, carpets to clean, things to label, freezers to empty, paperwork to sort and fill out, prices to set, birthdays to celebrate, last dinners with family, last chats with the neighbors, last trips to drop things off at Park Ave and reStore and BTP (Dad's work) and whatever thrift store happened to still be open.
Somewhere in those last two weeks we also had the camper worked on, the truck worked on, passport applications submitted (just in case), the mountains of stuff we'd put in the house brought back out and sorted, bins bought to store the excess that had been acquired since we last tried to pack it all in, flowers watered one more time, and finally all of our stuff crammed and jammed back into Matilda and the camper. A seemingly endless flurry of lasts and oh-well-that-won't-happens and feelings and memories and hopes and aches and did-you's. Then that long late afternoon wait for the boys, who sat on the porch in the sun while I finally went over every corner of that house and property, taking pictures and inhaling it all for one last time. It felt full of love, lit with memories, and ready for someone else. Another letting go, another good end.
I never expected all the gold. The things I did expect; working with Michael in our usual easy way on the house, helping Dad more than Mom, spending a month or two … none of them turned out anything like I imagined. I had no idea of the depths I'd have to go to to care for Mom, or the strength I'd find in utter dependence on God in order to do it for so long. The nearly crushing weight of the responsibilities I'd be given, and coming to the absolute end of myself in that arena, only to discover that the end result was the healing of a fear that I'd held onto for 40 years … disappointing my Dad. That the relationship I had with my sister-in-law Rene could grow so much deeper and wider, and more transparent and lovely than it ever was.
I never envisioned that Stephen and I would find a shared joy in more than puns and walks and photography battles, discovering a language of the eyebrows and eyes and heart that went well beyond our childhood button-pushing (though it's still alive and well!). That Martha and I would spend months together in the home we grew up in, holding each other up, and burrowing even deeper into the certainty that we are mutually loved, seen, adored, and needed. That the boys would get to spend so much time with their cousins, and get past the bumps of teenage-hood and competitiveness and into the easy enjoyment of each other's company.
Who knew that my Mom, in her completely helpless state, could be so big, loving, delightful, and heart-responsive that I'd fall in love with her so hard and so deep I'd wonder why I ever gave up on that kind of relationship with her years ago. That her shoes would sit next to Grambie's in the doorway of my heart.
That my father, who I've adored as long as I can remember, and canoed with, worked for, spelunked behind, renovated houses with, traveled alongside, learned fearlessness from, given birth in front of, and thought the world of … that he would open up his heart to me, letting me see the vulnerability I thought was in there but was always hidden. That we'd share the sweetest communion we've ever had while walking Mom to the door of heaven. That I would get to hold her right hand, and watch him, as she took her last breath.
I'm thankful from every nook and cranny of my still-tired body for every single bit of the last year, glad to now be looking at it in the rear-view mirror, and working on finding my stride and voice as the next phase comes into view.
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