By Janet Buttenwieser
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians…for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Whiskey-colored oak floors. Peeling linoleum. Moldy shower. Swirled backsplash tile posing as Italian import, actually imported from China via Home Depot. One dark bedroom for unproductive reproduction, for post-surgical recovery. In the garden, flowers planted by the previous owners, all dead within one year. One camellia bush survived, its pink flowers grasping towards the light.
Here is the spot where grim news soaked in: my tumor re-grown, my barely-started babies’ heartbeats stopped. My dear friend, Beth, developed brain cancer. She sat in our living room before chemo infusions. I lay in bed when she phoned to tell me the cancer had come back.
We waited here. Evenings passed to the soundtrack of Gillian Welch’s alto twang. Wind seeped under door jams, through single-pane windows. I knit a blanket for the child my husband and I wished to adopt while lying under another, trying to generate my own warmth.
At last, the babies arrived. First Caleb, then Helen. Not genetically related, but with eyes the same shade of blue, two sets of red-tinged blonde hair.
We needed room to grow. Architects unspooled scale drawings across our table. We wished for light-filled bedrooms, a window seat, space for a piano. The architects nodded. They drew. We packed.
One morning in June, the telephone rang. Beth was dead. Seven days later, I watched movers carry the leather chair she always sat in, to protect her allergies from our cat. In the rental house, I dug through boxes, unearthed the photo albums. Sliding old pictures out of their sleeves, I fingered images of a healthy, long-haired Beth. I unpacked four outfits to wear to the memorial service. Midnights I paced the creaking floorboards, Helen in my arms, willing her to submit to sleep.
We called them The Fixers. Ron arrived first, unlocked the door and fired up the paint-splattered radio. Classic rock, the crossroads of disparate ages and musical influences. Justin positioned himself at the front of the house, the designated ambassador for gawkers. Matt and T.C. demolished the kitchen, then rebuilt it. Ryan choreographed the entire operation: plans, materials, who, what, how. He scheduled the subcontractors: The Husband-and-Wife Drywall Team, The Cantankerous Electrician, The Young Charismatic Plumber, and finally, The Uptight City Inspector. Some weeks, four foreign languages reverberated through the house simultaneously: Vietnamese conversation while laying the floorboards, discussions of the electrical system in Russian, Spanish exchanges between the painters, Czech phrases emanating from behind a veil of sheetrock dust.
Everyone took turns digging, hammering, running the circular saw. They tore the walls down to the studs, jackhammered the sidewalk to make space for an apple tree. They constructed a second story where only air existed before. Sister became a verb as walls arose next to one another. They built aqueducts and hung chains. The rain cascaded to water the plants: salal, swiss chard, wild strawberries.
The front entryway, decayed from the damp climate, required removal. We stood on the sidewalk in the setting winter sun, mouths agape at the pillaged structure. In our open-air dining room, five Fixers measured, cut, sanded. They ate their lunches sitting in a circle on overturned buckets. Items diverted from the waste pile became countertops, built-in dressers. Diseased walnut trees, their tumors removed, stood proudly in their new role as kitchen cabinets.
I watch the sun rise beyond my bedroom window. Past the lavender planted on my roof, I see miles of sky, the stain of pink and orange spreading upward into wind-blown clouds. In the bathroom, I retrieve my hairbrush from the fir cabinet T.C. and Matt constructed out of a beam salvaged from our basement. The stairs made from sustainable wood sustain me as I descend. My family breakfasts at the kitchen table, sitting on benches made from the same tree as the cabinets.
With most of its parts replaced, is this the same house we lived in before? I still grieve in this house. The dead remain dead. But the sadness feels sanded down. The reinforced walls soak up the loss. Beth returned to the house with us. I conjure her standing in our L-shaped kitchen, chopping vegetables on the built-in cutting board. The house re-orients me. It captures new memories.
Here is the floor where Helen sprinkles her Cheerios every morning, the hallway Caleb transforms into a tiger cave. Occasionally we throw temper tantrums, here, here and here. On the fir window seat, in fuzzy, footed pajamas, we read bedtime stories. We seek out stars, gaze at glinting red and white lights creeping across the expanse of freeway. All over the house we sing “Yellow Submarine,” Helen chiming in with the words she knows: we all live. We turn the music up loud and in the living room, we dance.
Copyright Buttenwieser 2012