A Sudden Death
Tony’s body is stretched on our living room floor. I hunker over my knees on the stepstool in the kitchen, trying not to see his husk from the corner of my eye. Our small house offers nowhere that could hide his departure, and besides, I need to be here near the floor. Where it’s hard to fall down.
The floor now unites us. I consider slipping down to the cold laminate, curling into myself there. Its chill seems inviting. But I don’t want to make the volunteer paramedics any more uncomfortable.
They’d tried hard. For an hour. After my own 40 minutes of vain CPR. Several now linger until my mom can arrive so I don’t have to wait for the medical examiner alone.
One of those volunteers, a former neighbor, lost his wife to cancer. He’ll have insight, right? While we wait, I ask him for any advice. He’s clearly surviving the loss of his wife.
He offers two words: “Stay busy.”
Finding Comfort is Elusive
I study the bruises my CPR left on my hands. His advice seems idiotic. Chores are supposed to get me through the rest of my life? Why bother?
Over the following months, the pain is constant. Distraction doesn’t exist. Yet the chores, the daily obligations are endless.
Two awful years later, determined to be a trooper, I pull on Tony’s oversized leather work gloves. I have my own that fit better. I prefer slipping on his. This way I can still hold his hand.
The old shovel is mine, like the house we enjoyed together for less than two years before the end of our fairy-tale romance. The septic tank is all mine again, too, along with the knowledge that it ought to be pumped.
The digging commences; first I use the shovel and then hand it off to the pumper-truck’s driver, who is kind enough not to laugh at my efforts but can’t afford to be here all day.
Tony teased me about being too independent. Single for more than a decade before we met, I found dependence unnatural, even annoying. His eyes frequently rolled as he took grocery sacks, luggage, firewood totes off my hands. We developed a lovely separation of powers.
Just as I learned to lean, he departed. A mean trick to play on someone you love.
Home maintenance, however, has no compassion. The septic tank is not where it’s supposed to be. Not per the previous owner’s description and not per the county’s as-built diagram. The missing tank mocks my desperate longing for Tony, deepening my sense of isolation. He would have handled this dilemma—or at least we’d have faced it together.
No Comfort for Homeowners
Nearly an hour of searching and pipe-tracing later, the expert’s conclusion is stark: “The tank is under the building.” He leans the shovel against the offending wall, which belongs to the workshop that matches the house. “Call me back when I can get to the lid.”
Why on earth had my home’s original owner built his shed over the septic tank?
When Tony decided to convert part of our enormous woodshed into a workshop, I’d trusted the as-built, which located the tank between the buildings. Not in one. Tony added a wall, moved cords of wood—and installed joists and flooring in the section he’d claimed. The work enabled his fancier kitchen remodel, and his conversion of “my” home into “ours” pleased us both.
These days, I rattle in its emptiness like never before. Now I have to undo his handiwork, too.
My brother once worked in the septic industry. I text him. In the days after Tony left, I mused that perhaps a lesson buried under my loss was to learn how to lean more on other people.
Maybe not. My brother jokes about renting me a bulldozer but doesn’t offer to help.
So I pull on Tony’s gloves again, drop to my knees, and begin prying up the OSB panels he put down for his workshop floor. The tortured nails squeal.
I’m sorry, sweetheart. My tears drip into the dust. I hate this even more than you would.
Tony believed in doing things right, but far more nails are installed here than squeak-free flooring requires. These brass nails share a secret: Some big kid enjoyed the nail gun he’d bought for this project. I hear its echoes: Bam! Bam! Where he hammered, I pry; my kneecaps grow sore but my grief lifts a bit. You had fun with that new toy, huh?
I’m forced to cut panels that vanish, like the septic pipe, under a wall. Taking a deep breath, I grip Tony’s circular saw. It’s heavy, not made for my much-smaller hands. Help me steady this thing and cut halfway straight, will you?
Some Comfort in Memory
The saw smokes and whines about my technique, but the sense of Tony’s arms around mine keep it cutting—more wavy than straight, but without the kick-back I dread.
Eventually my shovel clanks on the tank, a hollow sound like a graverobber striking a coffin. No theft this time; I feel more like I’ve had fragments of something stolen returned, broken but still recognizable, welcome. I’ve heard Tony’s voice, felt his arms, been inhabited by him.
Once the tank has been pumped, I spend another full day in my love’s leather gloves, replacing his floor. I enjoy this time with his ghost even more, kneeling in the same spots and building what he built, instead of undoing his work. His noisy nail gun is gone, claimed by his son, but for this part of the job I use his favorite tool, a yellow drill-driver, and long screws that fasten him more firmly to me.
At last I understand the advice to “stay busy”—or have unearthed an interpretation that works better for me. Grief has too much in common with a septic tank.
Few people want to acknowledge it, let alone get hands-on. But hands-on is my only way to stumble forward. The deck addition we planned, the new closet doors, the coffee table Tony promised to make: These new projects we expected to tackle together offer my surest chance to still feel his love, embodied in his handiwork, his tools, and his gloves.
I take his penchant for home improvement into my hands. Comfort can be buried in unexpected places.
Excerpted from Feeling Fate: A Memoir of Love, Intuition, and Spirit (April 2022). Joni Sensel is an author and certified grief educator. Learn more at https://jonisensel.com.
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