Roughly six weeks after my husband’s death, my house cleared its throat and got my attention. I was standing at the kitchen sink, trying to get the right-hand cabinet door to stay shut again (it took the lightest touch and usually several tries) when the thought occurred to me that it might be a good idea to finally call a plumber about the leak we’d never gotten around to fixing.
Compost: How I Lost My Husband and Regained a Home
Maybe you have had a leak like ours. It goes something like this:
Me, yelling into the other room: The sink’s leaking again.
My husband: Okay.
Me, yelling into the other room: Are you going to fix it??
My husband, getting up wearily: I’m coming.
What followed was another round of him patching the cheap plastic pipe and the resultant swamp mitigation within the cabinet, which as usual would eventually be followed by more leaking, and more yelling, with promises to call a plumber, followed by not calling the plumber, and more yelling, more arguing, and so on.
For ten fucking years.
When my husband got sick, the leak, like everything else that needed attention in our circa 1867 house, went to the back of the line. During his illness, the struggle around the leak became something different. It was the thing I didn’t mention. Up against gastric cancer, it seemed pretty trivial. I shuttled it mentally to the list of things to deal with later. On really bad days during his treatment, it would become the straw that broke the camel’s back. Finally, when he was dying, the leak would propel me outside to the backyard sobbing. I was so afraid that it, like everything and everyone else that was broken in our house, was never going to get better. His body and his mind, were shutting down.
The bill for the sink came to $377.10. It took two hours to fix, never to leak again.
And then because there was no more leak, I felt suddenly so light and so free, but also empty and rudderless, veering away from the usual circular paths my thinking would take to try and solve the problem. I wondered sadly, why on earth had we mortgaged our peace of mind for such a paltry amount? How had we become so devoted to bad plumbing? From start to finish, in one weekI’d gotten a referral, called a good plumber, and had it fixed.
But all along I’d been focused on the wrong leak.
What I’d failed to see was that there was no way my husband would have ever called a plumber. Because that would have meant discussing money and spending it, triggering an emotional trip wire. Extreme financial insecurity, one among so many childhood wounds, caused him to avoid the issue at all costs. In his mind, the second we stopped talking about the leak in the sink, the sink stopped leaking. Patch jobs served a very important purpose in this regard. They provided the distraction of activity and busyness, which on the surface seemed to do something about it but never required the tasks that actually would have solved the problem.
His terror, sourced from a thousand or a few suppressed traumas, skillfully beaten into the deepest corners of his consciousness, had been reactivated when he’d been laid off a few years into our marriage. It ravaged him so severely it precipitated a nervous breakdown. I did not understand the crisis for what it was. I thought it was an episode. In reality, it was the overture to twelve years of his struggle with panic attacks and constantly high levels of anxiety that would both cement and reveal his belief that his world was a hostile place.
Pregnant with one child and the other a toddler, I watched the man I saw as my hero crumble.
He was largely unaware of how deeply anxious he was. Looking at that might have required a level of willingness to feel feelings so long buried, that it violated the protective orders which had governed his inner life for decades. That they clamored for recognition made no difference. Layer upon layer of conditioning and “strength” conspired against it: he was a man, an Englishman at that, he was funny, and brilliant, and the first one in his entire family to go to university. Don’t feel, never let it show, and whatever you do, certainly don’t tell anyone about it, meant that in any situation in which he was scared or pissed off or confused, he’d disengage. He knew how to reflexively withdraw at the first sign of turbulence, how to avoid conflict, how to escape the shame attached to sentience. He became an expert in being present without really being there.
The doctors he saw for his cancer of course never attended to any belief in a physical connection between his disease and the grooves his suffering wore into his spirit, but energetically I believe one flowed from the other, and back again. An infinity loop of pain and fear that weakened his mind and his immune system. His treatment, like his coping, was designed to mitigate through suppression.
As his wife, and his caregiver, as an Intuitive, and his friend, as a witness, and mother to our children, it has been the most painful experience of my life so far, to travel the arc made from his nervous breakdown to his death from cancer. A twelve-year span which began with my assumption that the more I tried to help and heal him, the better he would get, but which lead me to a different understanding of my role altogether. As his refusals mounted (to do anything but minimize or ignore his symptoms, to advocate for himself, to participate in his own well-being) the true task before me became clear. I was not helping by investing more and taking on more and more of a burden that was ultimately his to account for. At every juncture in which he found himself required to face himself, he turned away, and so as his mind and his body steadily failed, my and our childrens’ losses grew.
The leaking sink became the crucible for what he and I both wanted to avoid looking at within ourselves, in our marriage, in the space between us. Or tried to, but ran out of time. The sink was also a symbol of what I had blamed him for in the moments I avoided my own ability to think and act powerfully, with compassion for myself as well as for him, with strength and clarity. All qualities that were accelerated within me upon his cancer diagnosis. I thought it was a circumstance of not knowing what I was made of until I needed to be. But in reality it was an opportunity to release what had always been there within me.
And the truth was, I had fallen in love with and built a life with a very fine man, but a man who was in fact not well.
And so I was compelled to fix the sink, and more besides.
The plumber pointed out the water damage to the rather cheaply made cabinetry. Then our contractor pointed out that the countertops were also off-center, too heavy and likely crushing the cabinets, which was why several of the doors wouldn’t close anymore. Never very materialistic, I was nonetheless stunned that it was so obvious. I had never noticed any of these details — poor installation, the thrice off-centered lines of the sink and the counter, the shabby materials, the extensive damage.
Fascinated, I led him on a tour of the entire property, inside and out. What else would he see? I asked about everything that had ever concerned or bothered me: what had never worked, was supposed to be fixed but had languished, what had been fixed but had fallen apart again. It was a catalog of neglect. Our contractor, later renamed the VP of Looks Fing Awesome, thoroughly explained why I was seeing what I was seeing until it made sense to me from a builder’s perspective. The house had good bones but was suffering from a long history of well-intentioned patch jobs. A common situation in old houses in which winging it is sometimes mistaken for ingenuity, likely by stoic, independent New Englanders who, family by family for almost 150 years, stubbornly did it by themselves.
I barely slept that night. In the morning, I emailed him a list, the first of many. I closed by saying, “I want to actually live in this house….I don’t want to spend one more day walking through it feeling burdened by what is broken or needs replacing”. I was not at all hesitant. I felt energized for the first time in years. I was ready.
“Let’s do this”.
Room by room, for the last nine months, the material of this house has been turned over into something new. And our house, like all houses, has revealed itself to be a living, breathing thing. Capable of healing and renewal.
We tend to think the opposite, that a house is primarily an object. A place in which we stage the business of our living, a place fixed in time by the year it was built, and static. We’re the ones that make it a home, we believe, by carrying on in it through the chapters of our lives. And filling it with our stuff.
But what if our homes live alongside us? Having and holding onto experiences just as we do within them? Radiant with feelings felt, both joyful and traumatic? Brimming with energetic health, or languishing in malaise?
For Intuitives, place is always dimensional. We walk inside buildings and a conversation begins immediately. The here-and-now of living expands to include the moments that are held in memory by the walls, ceilings, wiring, plumbing, foundation pieces, and the land upon which a house was built. Whatever has happened to the people in a house also happens to it.
And there are guides for living in our houses. Not of words, but of spirit. They affectionately attach themselves to us as we find our way within their treasured spaces. They are there to help us. To protect us. They have a lot to say, and a lot of patience since we as a culture handily write them off as the stuff of nonsense and fantasy. But they will wait for us until we are willing to listen.
The first big work began on Veteran’s Day. 11, 13 and I had spent the whole previous evening moving furniture out of the living room where the ceiling would be repaired. I woke up into a dreamy slide show of mental images, what my living room would look like when the current ceiling was ripped out, before the new one was installed. The old beams were exposed leaving it cavernous and rough. My chest instantly tightened.
Then I began to receive a pep talk. “Listen, you can do this. It’s just a ceiling. You have already been through one of the hardest experiences a human being can walk through. That was important. This is secondary. You just keep breathing, stay in the day you’re in, and in a few days you’ll have a beautiful new ceiling in your living room”. And with that, I went forward into the day.
Except I had forgotten one thing. The plan was never to rip out the ceiling. Using thin drywall, a fresh ceiling was supposed to be crafted on top of the one that was already there. I arrived home mid-morning to find the VP of LFA with steam coming out of his ears, frustrated beyond belief. Only then did I remember his original plan. Which now wasn’t going to work. “Whoever put this ceiling in? Did nothing that makes sense! I cannot figure out what the hell they were doing,” he vented, taking off his cap and rubbing his hands over his head in exasperation. “I can’t make any sense out of the lathe,” he lamented, as if I were someone who would understand what lathe is and how it does or doesn’t make sense. He began to explain the measurements that should have fit a standard pattern, if not a reasonable one, one that matched a thought process, but didn’t. Ah. The first uncovered patch job.
“Just rip it out, Pete.”
He kept talking like he hadn’t heard me, in the slightest of kvetching tones, about how it was now going to take more time and more money. But he wasn’t really upset. He was buying time by commiserating, bracing himself for what he assumed would be my anxious reaction to being told that after only three hours we were over budget and off schedule. True, he didn’t actually love ceiling work, but this was a man who worked on old houses all the time, many older than mine. There was always something you couldn’t account for in a project. It was always safe to assume you’d find something puzzling or unexpected. And complicated. That was part of the job, convincing folks it was worth it. But rarely was “rip it out and do it right,” the first response he’d get.
I said it again. I was calm, I was certain. “Pete, I saw the ceiling completely ripped out when I woke up this morning. This is what we are supposed to do”. It was out of my mouth before I could source the urgency I felt or edit what I say when I’m getting information from my “sources”.
Someone was using me as an advocate. Someone was urging me on, with the absolute calmness that comes when everything is aligned and clear.
Then of course I got a look from Pete, a glancing but definite appraisal of my potential battiness. “You saw it?” An internal calculation went on as he wondered just how much of a pain in the ass this job, and the homeowner, was going to be. An extra couple of days was one thing, but how do you factor in the wacko who talks to houses?
Pete and his crew went to lunch to get a plan together, after which the ceiling came down in a thunderous, glorious cloud. They masked themselves against the dust, but the sadness and fear held in by that ceiling billowed out so thickly I could feel it as I drove up the driveway a few hours later.
Ithad been the room my husband retreated into, watching shows and movies on a 10 x 10 screen. It was a jungle of wires and cords and systems both audio and visual, separated by seating and designed to be a haven from the real world. But the supposed elegance of my husband’s home theater had devolved, ironically, into an elephant in the living room.
Where our bedroom had been the venue for enduring panic attacks that took hold and left my husband shivering in bed for hours, the living room was his domain when his anxiety was more managed. Watching shows and movies on the big screen seemed in comparison social, interactive, special. Insidiously, he spent more and more time there, passively and in darkness. After he became ill with cancer, it was the place he spent most of the time he was awake. He spent hours on the couch recovering from surgeries, or when he wasn’t desperately sick from chemotherapy, he’d work from home on his laptop. It was indeed his living room, which was why, when he was dying and people began to stop by, to see him one last time, he could barely stand it. If he couldn’t avoid it altogether, he’d sit almost squirming in discomfort, using his waning strength for politeness. He wasn’t going to die. Right?
It would be unkind to say it was only illusory, the togetherness he felt in that room. What is probably true is that it came at a high price. Screens dominated his time more and more as his anxiousness grew roots, effective distraction that they were. The living room often contained the people he loved, so he didn’t see screens as an escape. They were what he went towards, a tool to help navigate relationships, and bond. As long as he was watching in the same room as others, that disqualified him from intentional isolation.
Towards the end, it became the room where he could be with our children. Sometimes when he appeared to be dozing I could tell he was awake, listening to their voices. Maybe trying not to think about not hearing them someday.
The day after the living room ceiling came down, Peter arrived early as I was leaving for work. He had a curious smile on his face.
“What did you say you did for a living again?” he said.
More ceilings came down. In the next, my office, I predicted an extra four inches of height would be reclaimed, and was redeemed in that. I delighted as well in the exposure of five layers of different antique wallpapers in the margin at the top of the walls that had been smothered by a sagging conglomeration of ugly ceiling tiles. Kerry The VP of Paint and Stuff was there, and we oooed and ahhed and ripped off little swatches, admiring their preservation.
Kerry is an incredibly gifted painter and restorer, a house whisperer of a different sort. She reached in between the beams in the wall where they had been exposed to install light switches and found planing curls left behind in haste or perhaps for some other reason. She was so excited to have something in her hand that hadn’t been touched by another person since 1867, I was a little worried she might eat them. I watched her closely.
When I returned home on that particular day, the energy coming off my office was effervescent, joyful like a bunch of children at the beach for the first time. I walked into the house, and immediately had the thought that perhaps I wouldn’t be sleeping very much that night. (I was right). If a home and its spirit guardians can party, then ecstatic celebrations were already underway.
They were so happy the house was being cared for. Restored.
I went to say hello to Kerry who was painting the front hallway and was immediately aware of how crowded it had suddenly gotten. The Shinnicks had shown up. This time all of them at once.
My house is watched over by, among others, a wonderful group of “the previously embodied”, in this case, Thomas Shinnick, who built our house, and his relatives. They pop in strategically on a regular basis and it is one Shinnick in particular who I believe has been assigned to me as Spiritual Liaison of Remodeling and Renovation.
I have not made my way down to the Exeter Historical Society yet to do my earthly research on the Shinnicks, truthfully because I am a little in awe of (read: afraid of) my friend Barbara Rimkunas who runs the joint. And who is brilliant. I think she knows I would listen to her read the phone book. I think she likes me fine, but I also know she has the patience of a saint when it comes to the dramatic type of ghost hunting psychics who solicit information from her on a regular basis. I have put some serious effort into distinguishing myself from that particular group for her dogged as they are, I mean you do have to admire their commitment and all that equipment. Nevertheless, I have spent many years attempting to convince her that I am not crazy. It didn’t work. Nothing did, until I stopped doing that and started to show her that I was indeed crazy, but the good kind of crazy. I mean, I already know my ghosts, I don’t need any help in that area. I’m just looking for more facts so I can put names with faces.
After a time as it turns out, almost disappointingly, I found out she doesn’t think I’m crazy at all.
The Shinnicks were in fine form that day, clamoring around me, full of suggestions. Something about my office ceiling being ripped out had also removed any restraint on their part. Maybe they were glad I’d kept going.
Touching the wallpaper earlier had made the radiance more intense, I was sure of that. I felt woozy, bombarded.
The Shinnicks had waited long enough though. They wanted to be known. They were ready to tell their stories. One of them suggested that I draw a large family tree on one of the wall since it was going to be painted over anyway, and they all liked that idea tremendously, agreeably talking about it all at once. I walked into the hallway with the research papers I’d pulled from my desk to show Kerry, when I had to stop. “Please!” I said to the group, “I cannot hear what is actually being said when you’re all talking at the same time! And I promise, I really do give you my word! I will get to proper introductions, but we are the ones who are actually living here right now in bodies, and I haven’t had lunch yet so listen up homies I have low blood sugar and you are standing on my last nerve just a little bit! Give me some space please!”
Then I realized something as I was standing there at the bottom of the stairs, talking to a seemingly empty corner by the front door.
I had used my out-loud voice.
I whirled around where Kerry was staring at me, paint brush in mid-air, with an expression that can only be described as somewhere midway between “Well that’s something you don’t see every day,” and “Be cool. just be cool.”
“Whoops.” Now it was my turn to be cool. “I hope that didn’t bother you?”
“Nooo,” she said straight back, not breaking a sweat nor my gaze, then turning and calmly going back to painting my hallway. Shaking her head, possibly to convince herself, she tossed over her shoulder, “Not at all”.
I burst out laughing.
The horrible sagging ceiling in my office was the result of the horrible sagging floor in my bedroom. Pete fixed the floor from below, before putting in the new ceiling.
Upstairs, my bedroom ceiling, sagging even lower than the one in my office, was next. I sort-of-jokingly asked Pete if he wanted to know what he was going to find when it came down. He not-at-all-jokinly said, “No”.
“Well that’s okay, because I actually can’t get a clear read on it,” I told him. “I think it takes a little longer to get clarity because I just don’t know anything about building. I don’t know the words to describe what it is I’m seeing. I can tell you this, though. They say you’re going to be surprised.”
He was already walking away.
Two days later, he emailed me midday. “Your ceiling is safe now,” it read. I sped home, where he showed me the system of huge jacks that had been installed in the empty room to keep the ceiling supported in place until it could be replaced (we had been sleeping in the living room while the work shifted upstairs). “The ceiling wasn’t attached to anything,” was the phrase he used, and after my brain exploded, I heard him explaining in great detail how the ceiling had become separated from the lathe, or something like that — builders use the word “lathe” a lot so it probably popped up in this conversation at some point. Anyway, it was held in place only by the plaster and horrible popcorn ceiling material that covered it. “Basically it could have collapsed any time,” he said. “It was hanging in mid air essentially”. Did I detect he was just the weensiest bit proud? Gleeful, almost? He’d solved the mystery.
I smiled back, grateful.
“Well I guess that is a surprise”.
Myhusband did not die at home. And mercifully for him, he died believing he wasn’t. As the sun was breaking the horizon, light streaming into his hopsital room at dawn on Saturday, August 8th, he was finally free. Rising from the cot placed in there for me, I thought the light had woken me, but my heart was beating so fast I knew he had at last achieved lift off.
The Monday before, he slowly dictated a letter for our children, desolation and bewilderment exhausting him past his last reserves. It was the last and truly the hardest work he did before letting go. He collapsed with exhaustion until his next dose of morphine, and continued on into a deep sleep. Overnight his pain broke through the defenses provided by the many medications he was taking to help him remain calm and comfortable, so dosages were increased, and his sleep deepened again. But Tuesday morning he needed extra morphine to get through the home health aide’s visit. By the time the hospice nurse arrived for her daily visit he was far away, his breathing slowed and irregular in the way of the dying, and we began counting breaths per minute. The nurse said to expect her back that evening.
For the next five days, I became wedded to his ragged, uneven breathing like a strange midwife, counting seconds, listening to it slow down to two breaths per minute, only to pick up again. It seemed I was always counting, always timing it. There was no pattern, no rhyme nor reason.
He was sporadically conscious in a way that defined liminality. Sometimes his eyes were open and he looked at an object or person with intention but no presence. He would rally this way for minutes at a time, even answer a question or acknowledge a visitor, and then fall deeply into the sleep of the drugged. Occasionally in that state he also strangely appeared to be very busy, moving, thrashing, reaching for someone or something in front of him.
He woke up once in the middle of the night urgently asking to speak to his parents and I propped him up to Skype them. “We didn’t expect he’d be able to talk,” I said. He held up a finger and slurred, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”.
He hung on.
On Wednesday, we brought a cake with candles up to our room for 13: the friends who were by then taking shifts at our house around the clock and who had made 13’s favorite dinner. 13’s friends too, joined all of us and together we sang “Happy Birthday” to him. My husband sang as clearly and loudly as he’d ever done, maybe louder, well enough to be heard from his far away place and without opening his eyes. Then he immediately receded back to wherever he was by then, deep within his body and at the same time long past this world in a place even I had not visited in all of my years of speaking with “the beyond”. Where he was, it was beyond the beyond, that I knew.
He wasn’t alone there. I wasn’t allowed to meet who was with him there, but I felt their gentleness. He would occasionally ask me about these attendants (“Who is that by the ceiling?”) as he was coached toward the release of his body.
After our son’s birthday we thought he would go quickly but still he stayed. I watched him. Or I didn’t, going for lots of walks since I knew sometimes people need to be alone to leave. When he needed morphine, his arms and legs would try to push away the pain, but other times just his breathing became active and rapid. His lungs would work like he was panting and the room would be filled with electricity, like the crackle of stunned silence after a shot or when an animal’s cry pierces the air. He looked like a lucid dreamer or a mime, making no sounds but moving in the throws of a potent anguish. After days of watching him do this I realized what I was seeing.
He’d held the line against the reality that he was dying for as long as he could, and had been guided to this last stop. It was a soft place. Before he’d leave this life though, he would reclaim what he’d lost. He wasn’t clinging to life like I’d originally thought, not fighting for more time, not afraid to let go. He was simply lingering. There in that sacred place where there was safety, he was finally free to take some time and feel. To experience the gift of his own sorrow.
My husband, who had never cried once during his entire illness, was sobbing.
Nine months into our renovation and we still have a ways to go. By the time we are finished, new ceilings will be only a fraction of what has changed in this house. Floors will have been sturdied and refinished. One bathroom will be entirely replaced (in that room, the floor was what floated unattached). The kitchen will have followed the example set by the fixed leak, and will have found its highest potential. Closets with crumbling plaster will have been restored with new walls, lights that work, and shelves that stay in place. A gentler color palette will grace the walls throughout. Outside, gutters that don’t leak will replace the bent and clogged ones propped up against the walls, porches will be rebuilt. And finally, the rotting, teetering, half-of-a-barn, whose doors fell off their hinges right after the major work had begun, like a waif waving its hands from the back of a crowd crying out, “Don’t forget about me!”….a new garage.
There is not one square inch of this home that will avoid transformation.
We are ripping it out and setting it right. And as each room is turned over and released from the suffocating layers of patching and worn-out mistakes, the house becomes freer, the energy within lighter. More resonant with possibility. As have we turned over within these rooms. Each task completed extracts a fresh wave of grief from us, but it has also relieved us of emotion that isn’t ours to carry. And the feelings that are in fact entirely ours, that we set aside or neglected, have also been restored to us in these new rooms, rooms that are now safe enough for their full expression.
What I haven’t quite figured out yet is how to explain skylights to the Shinnicks. “Windows in the roof” is perhaps the best way to start with someone from the 19th century. Or maybe I’ll just have the VP of LFA do it. He’s better at explaining the technical stuff anyway. Plus, I think he’s ready, don’t you?