Over the years, I’ve done a bunch of demolition on old houses, owned and squatted. I’ve learned a thing or two in the process.
For instance, there are always surprises within every wall — a postcard inserted into long-hidden studs when the home was first built in 1885, as a marker of its birth; a signature etched by a worker in about 1860 into plaster long buried behind lathe, as pride of craft; accidentally misplaced tools, sealed-off windows, layers of wallpaper, or faded photos of smiling faces, as mementos of past lives. Other surprises aren’t so pleasant: ancient newspapers, probably the stuff of makeshift insulation, with headlines screaming “WAR DECLARED!”; carcasses of mice who thought they’d found a safe abode; or costly additional renovations now revealed, like having to reinforce joists or redo electric wiring.
Smashing down walls with crowbars is thus a gleeful and sobering task, filled with ups and downs — not to mention exhaustion after a long day.
Another lesson concerns just how hard it is to undo what was constructed over months and years, by many hands, no matter how dilapidated it looks. I remember the effort of ripping down an almost three-story open and enclosed porch, already leaning precariously off the back of a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Italianate house that I and others called home in Vermont. We enlisted the participation of friends and neighbors, attached strong rope to the top, and had this plan to pull together on the count of “three” — at a healthy distance — and watch the ramshackle monstrosity easily tumble. We’d then kick back to drink some beers in our large yard. But it took lots more rope and many more people; pry bars and hammers and elbow grease aplenty. That on-its-last-legs porch stood its ground for hours.
This past nine months since my dad contracted severe West Nile Virus and hasn’t moved from a bed or life support, but especially these past four days since his ventilator was turned off at the most calming, caring, and gorgeous of hospices, the two simple yet startling lessons of demolition projects seem apropos to this dying process, this deathwatch.
For all intents and purposes, my mom, dad, and two sisters have moved into this residential-hospice room with a view, redecorating it, living in it, making it our own. We didn’t bring along a crowbar, and all the walls are still intact — fortunately, because I’ve fast become a huge fan of hospice in general and this hospice-home in particular. Yet family photos and grandkids’ (biological and not) drawings as well as potted spring flowers mingle with borrowed blankets from the hospice, leftovers from takeout meals, and small piles of dirty clothes. When we first arrived, I moved several bird feeders in front of our window and filled them with a delicious-looking blend of eats, and one of the feeders especially has attracted a constant traffic of birds of all feathers and sizes, an acrobatic squirrel, and last evening at dusk, a deer, who stood silently outside our glass “porch” door and stared in at us — just at the moment when we all thought, yet again, that my dad was about to die.
But time and again, minute after minute again, he has decided to hang on. Or rather, to die at a leisurely pace, since at long last, after almost nine months of a life not worth living, he’s finally in a place that feels like home, living with my mom — a singular wish he’s begged me to fulfill for months now. So no matter how close to death he looks — and is — the final count of “three” has been held at abeyance. Or as the hospice folks keep saying, my dad, like so many others here who have found respite to die with dignity in their own way: he is holding death at abeyance for a while longer.
Those extra minutes and hours have revealed “surprises within every wall,” such as stories and laughter we haven’t shared before; nice moments that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, like all listening to Irish music via “The Thistle and Shamrock” — my dad’s favorite radio show — to the accompaniment of my father’s slow, erratic breathing inside the room and a gentle sunset outside it, or watching my parents hold hands — my mom, I should say, taking his hand in hers — as she fell asleep next to him last night; changes we’ve never witnessed personally before that take place on a dying person’s body, along with the peaceful roller coaster of my dad’s process — near to death one second, and then a bit further away the next, but always moving toward it; and emotions of every kind that we’ve never felt, even if the range and depth is bewildering. For these surprises aren’t all pleasant. This morning, for example, we all felt agitated and weary from the strain of this waiting and watching and not-knowing-when. We realized that we need to tell him, gently, with empathy, that it’s OK to go. Because like the old multilevel porch of mine, at some point soon, my father won’t be able to stay in this place, nor will we.
Another lesson of demolition is how it opens up space for reconstruction, renewal.
Using bartered labor with a neighbor in Vermont, we collectively built a big, solid, vernacular porch off the kitchen at our late-nineteenth-century home, and in return, and our neighbor got lots of help from us on his own hundred-plus-year-old fixer-upper a block away. Torn-down walls allow for reconfigured rooms that make much more sense for present and future living, for making other memories. I can’t think past the five or sometimes-seven breathes per minute, and twenty or twenty-five seconds of apnea per minute, that I hear in the background from my dad as I type these words in this home-away-from-home hospice. We’re still fully immersed in the labor of undoing.
I do know, though, that these hours and days here — extra ones, that my father seems determined to fight for — are good ones for my dad. They are filled with things he adores, things he deserves after so many months of agony, made far worse because of the naked inhumanity of a capitalist-driven “health care” system. Here there is softness. Respite. Tenderness. Classical music is playing in the background; the wife he has loved from the first and never stopped loving is near him, along with us “kids.” And spectacular spring scenery and wildlife makes its way though the cycles of life, including death, right outside his window.
I’m glad he’s taking his own good time to die, even if it’s hard work for the rest of us.
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photo by Cindy Milstein, Stoneleigh Hospice, Lansing, Michigan, 2013)