Let’s look at this as a comedy of errors…or as a cosmic joke on me. The point of this story is that how we look at the events that cross our paths effects everything about the cosmology we are constantly building (and revising) as we grope along the path through life.
Start here: My friend Dennis, the gentlest of souls, was at my home to fix a small hole under the front door through which mice had come in during the cold of winter. Dennis is a master at these fix-it things, where I have no skill set adequate to the task. He spent one Saturday taking apart the front door to get a good look at the problem. This revealed a significant problem, much larger than anticipated, that would require a truck with a hydraulic lift to pull the concrete steps away from the house—ruining the lawn and gardens—or a jackhammer to chip them apart. We chose the jackhammer approach. When the steps were finally gone and the full extent of the problem clear, instead of the small entry hole for mice we expected, we found a rodent superhighway.
The entire front sill of the house was so badly rotted and decayed that a small project rapidly became a several thousand dollar EVENT. This event
led me to be sitting inside the (now absent) front door on the stairs to my second floor, talking to Dennis about what I was going to do. “It’s really too bad,” Dennis said, shaking his head in disbelief, “because this could have been prevented so easily. It’s a simple error that the builder should have taken care of at the time. Would have taken one extra step or a few extra minutes, and this wouldn’t be here for you to fix now.” He looked around at my cul de sac neighborhood of forty homes, “I bet every house in this neighborhood has the same problem and just doesn’t know it yet.
What a shame!”
Others soon knew. Don wandered over from next door. He too had a mice invasion this winter; he’d already located their point of entry at his house and declared it to be “much worse” than mine. Lauren, his eight year old daughter and my good friend, came to sit with me on the stairs while the men shook their heads in disbelief that someone had built forty homes, surely knowing (according to Dennis) that twenty years later, each one of them would face a major reconstruction that could have been avoided by one careful decision.
Don meandered home; Lauren stayed on, leaning into me as Dennis and I continued the conversation about what to do. We debated the merits and costs of one approach, and then of another. And here a bit of backstory is in order: I’m the single income earner in my household and have been for many years. I’m self-employed, and under this administration, none too securely. Financial decisions like this have always been a major test of faith for me. One possible decision was to close up the rotting sill as if we knew nothing about it, and leave it until after I sold the house for the new unsuspecting buyers to discover. I briefly considered this option.
The lure of it was that the damage was hidden. Unlike a roof that needs replacing, the sill damage wouldn’t be apparent on a home inspection. I could get away with just patching the hole and propping the sill up. But was that what I wanted to do? What my integrity called me to do? What was for the greater good?
Unflappable Dennis didn’t push me one way or another. “Life is all in how you look at it,” was all he said. “You can find the positive, or you can find the negative. Either way, it’s your choice.”
At this point, Lauren spoke up. Apparently, she agreed. “At my school we had a fire alarm one day, and the siren went off and made a really, really scary noise,” she told me, “but then…I just made it into a song.” Oh, the wisdom of children! I just made it into a song!
“Fix the sill,” I told Dennis. “Do it right. Make sure everything is the way it should be. Some day soon, a young family is going to fall in love with this house, and I want everything to be right for them to start their lives here. I want to leave it knowing I did everything I could do to hand it over in its best condition. Let’s get it done!”
Think the lesson was learned? Not yet!
Days later, the plumbers finally arrived to replace my small double bowl kitchen sink, utterly useless, with a larger cast iron sink. It took months to find the right sink, get it delivered, and schedule the plumbers for an installation. I climbed into the cabinet under the sink and took out all the cleaning supplies stored there, found a temporary home for them, made it all nice for the plumbers to be able to walk right in and do the job. By then end of the day, I would have a new sink! I was thrilled at this small self-indulgence.
The plumbers arrived right on time and cheerfully dismantled the pipes connecting the old sink. “Uh oh,” one said, and my heart sank.
“This isn’t piped correctly. It’s piped so that the dishwasher and sink are all using the same set of pipes. If the sewer line backed up, it would back up into your dishwasher. That’s against the law.”
“Can you fix it?” I asked, a little too whispery for my own liking. “Think so, but this never should have happened,” he answered. Another cost-cutting effort, another small step overlooked to build too many houses too fast? I was beside myself with worry about what might happen next.
First “next thing” was that the new sink was the wrong size and couldn’t be made to fit. Could not install. Second thing was that the wrong faucet set accompanied it; even if the sink was the right size, the faucet wasn’t. Could not install. Everything would have to be re-ordered and scheduled again for some unforeseen future time. I took all this news with my usual calm demeanor. Practiced by now, I scarcely curled my lip.
The plumbers went to work replacing my original—did I say uttterly useless?— kitchen sink. “Uh oh,” I heard…and I was pretty sure there were a few words said under the breath as well. Could my heart sink any further? Oh, but yes indeed.
The pipes had just come apart in the plumber’s hands. As he worked, things disintegrated and further disintegrated after his “Uh oh!” alerted me. In the end, he had to re-plumb a good deal of the piping under the sink just to get it back to the place we had started an hour before. That bill isn’t yet in my hands or I might be in the loony bin by now.
Back to the decision laid out by Dennis. “You can find the positive, or you can find the negative. It’s your decision.”
Twenty years ago, a person I will never know made certain decisions with little concern for the time when the bill would come due. It’s coming due now: in my time, in my life, and in the families who live around me in this neighborhood. I am left with the mess left in that individual’s wake.
This presents me with an interesting dilemma. I could pass forward the same kind of situation, where I leave the decay hidden under the sill or under the kitchen sink for someone else to fix at a later time. That’s an option some would take.
Or I can put my money where my mouth is, and clean the messes up for the single purpose of knowing that, when challenged, I stepped up to the plate. Except for you, readers, no one will ever know the door sill will be sturdy for many years into the future, or that the dishwasher won’t ever back up with raw sewage. Even though this wasn’t a problem I created, even if it’s a financial stretch for me to fix these problems, it’s just the right thing to do.
And not done as a victim of circumstances or as a martyr. No “poor me” here. I’m cognizant enough—one hopes to be at age sixty—to know that my choices in the here and now effect those who follow me whether I know them or not, or they know me. In moving through this world at my pace and in my particular style, I leave a wake. It’s up to me to be aware of what’s in that wake. My wake. My choice. My responsibility. My life. In my everyday actions, I am the architect of either a positive or a negative legacy.
And what was this comedy of errors all about? Don’t know yet. Maybe just an opportunity to make something really, really scary into a song.