sisu, gravity, momentum: what came next

When death happens it’s almost an offense that everything else keeps going. You want it to stop and take notice of your loss. You want to be justified in feeling like the world has gone irretrievably wrong.

That’s not how it works, of course; you don’t get to have time off. Everything you had to do before, you still have to do. The world spins, the chores pile up, gravity keeps tugging.

That last was the one that got me.

It was, I think, about two or three weeks after the failed surgery day that we had to call in a repairman to look at my confounded air conditioner. The thing had gone very wrong, and there was a dripping crack in the ceiling. I had a sad line of coffee cans along the floor, to catch the dripping water, with wads of paper towel stuffed into each one to muffle the noise. Plunk. Plink. Thonk. Thwap.

If I had been caring more about anything, I might have noticed and acted sooner, but I didn’t. That happens. You get distracted, when everything hurts like a blow to the head, when you’ve been shredded by sudden and permanent absence. Waking up was the worst, because I’d forget, at first, what had happened, and my instinct as soon as I wake is to locate the dog. Oh yeah. Ouch. That was hard.

The repairman came and went, and I made Doctor Who jokes about the ceiling, and then out of nowhere, a bit past one in the morning on Sunday night or Monday morning, the goddamn thing came down. I had a gaping hole in my ceiling, about eight feet by four, replete with bugs and shreds of cellulose insulation and enormous pieces of the ancient 1950s rock plaster that was used for ceilings. It smelled horrible. It would have severely injured anything underneath it. It landed right where Riley’s bed had been — was still, because I couldn’t bear to put it all away yet. Too bad I wasn’t under the goddamned thing, I thought, more than a couple of times.

Gravity. It’s not just a rule, it’s the law.

We’d called for an insurance adjuster to come check on things when it was just a crack; the day he came was two days after things fell in, and I’m not sure he expected what he got, which was me in a determined Not Thinking About Things mood after a horrible sleep on a too-small couch and, god, whatever else. I don’t even know. Me in a machine fog. Lock it all down, get it all done. That’s a place, a thing, I didn’t ever want to be again.

“Ya got good shoes on?” I asked him. I led him through the kitchen and around the back of the house, since the bedroom door was impassable with fallen sheetrock blocking it. I took two of my collection of flashlights from a shelf in the kitchen and handed one to the guy. “You’re going to need this.”

It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that I didn’t care. My dog was dead, too soon. So what if there was a gaping hole in my bedroom ceiling? So what if the insurance guy was baffled by my carelessness when I clomped in motorcycle boots across snapping pieces of sheetrock and plywood? It’s interesting, when you get to the point when you’re fresh out of damns to give. Kind of freeing, though it’s not a freedom you want to have.

Lucky for me, my self-proclaimed handygal friend was all over this: she made plans to come out and repair things and told me what I needed to do or acquire to get things ready. I dropped in at the hardware shop (where they ought to recognize me, at this point) for one thing and another, and ran into the mother of two of the neighborhood kids I’d grown up with. It was interesting to see her, this enormous and intimidating figure from my memory, now with steel-shot hair, shorter than I am, not as loud as I remembered, not scary in the slightest, and delighted to see me though I could not figure out why.

“She was a weird kid, but she turned out all right,” I remember her saying, almost to herself, and I wondered whether she was talking about me or her own daughters. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, really.

Cleaning up all of the mess was easy enough, with the heavy electrician’s leather gloves I use for gardening (along with a machete; yes, this is a Florida thing) and a respirator with barbie-pink filters on the sides, and a kerchief tied over my hair. I filled several heavy contractor trash bags with the stuff, and wound up filling my enormous county-issued trash bin to capacity.

It went easily because I was still numb, because numb was better than the alternative, hurting and bawling my face off until my eyes looked like they’d been modeled after Peter Lorre, because numbness is a relief, at a certain point. Lift all this heavy heavy shit. Throw away the dog things that got caught in the wreckage, the towels and the pee-pads, the little plush pig toy I’d repaired so many times, the knuckle bone that was the last thing she enjoyed before she died, the bed she’d laid on, that funny little ball with feet that smelled of rubber and vanilla: it was all mixed in with plaster and shreds of plywood and rubble and insulation. So it all went.

(I took Riley’s baby tag and put it on a chain along with two other pendants, lucky talismans of a sort, and waited for the first idiot to point out I was wearing a literal dog tag. Hasn’t happened yet.)

Then Jen came, one bright Sunday, bringing her Finnish determination and an infectious good mood, and I wound up having a lot of fun helping her patch everything. I fetched and carried, retrieved things that fell, kept the music coming, took notes and made lists, while she smoothed the gigantic ceiling hole, determined what needed to be fixed with the air conditioner (as it hadn’t, actually, been repaired in any way) and measured twice because we wouldn’t want to have to cut more than once. I watched her bounce up and down the ladders, into and out of the ceiling, as confident as a squirrel in a tree, and wished I was that good at anything. Maybe I will be, someday.

The interesting part of it all, and the part that made her so proud, was when we put the new piece of sheetrock up. It took two ladders, one next to the other, and each of us holding an end of the enormous patch piece. The first time we tried to fit it in, it wouldn’t go because there was a part of the ceiling that stuck out where it shouldn’t. The second time, I thought about yoga, and when I went up the ladder with a gigantic piece of sheetrock above me I did it barefoot, my monkey toes gripping the rungs carefully. That time was better, I was noticeably steadier, and I held the thing up for an arm-aching time while Jen did the same thing one-handed behind me, bolting it into place with a drill that had a light in the front.

Sisu, she says: sisu is the Finnish word for strength, for gumption, for chutzpah and determination and help-or-get-out-of-the-fucking-way, and I like this concept. We’d toss it back and forth: Sisu! Sisu! Check that sisu you got going there, girl!

Sisu is calling the aircon repair company and determinedly telling the chauvinistic manager that the repair was unacceptable and you refuse to pay, and then sticking to your guns even when you slip up and say “she” when you were carefully saying “my contractor” until that point, because of course a woman knows nothing about machinery men make money repairing unless she is carefully repeating what she’s been told. It was amazing how I was suddenly not taken seriously at all after the “she” slip; before it was agreement and apology, while after was “You know, I wouldn’t send a plumber in to fix a car, if ya know what I mean.”

“What I know,” I pointed out, “is that she fixed it and your repairman did not, and that sixty-year-old sheetrock would have put me in the hospital with multiple skull fractures.”

(If only, I’d think, sometimes.)

Sisu is writing the thank-you letters I’d been stalling on writing, to the Vet Who Scanned A Shark and his incredible big-hearted assistant, late in the night or early in the morning, and then picking up my dog’s ashes (too soon, too goddamn soon, but closure of a sort), only to have the bottom fall off the fucking seventy dollar wooden urn box thing when I tried to put the photo in. It’s finding spare masonry screws in my own toolbox, and repairing the stupid thing, and calling the crematory the next day to let them know what happened, “and some people, you know, might be freaked by that.” It’s trying so hard not to remember how small the bag of ashes was, how lifeless and baffling. That isn’t her, that’s nothing I want, that’s all I have left, that’s priceless because it was her, once.

You keep moving. You have to. There are things to do. You don’t have the luxury of completely falling apart and hiding until you’re ready to face the world again. Sisu: you keep moving.

After a while the numbness gets less necessary, and the pain stops being a suckerpunch and starts being soreness, like an old injury. Something that never healed correctly or competely. Something I get used to carrying with me, and it’s not the first hurt of that sort I’ve got, and sometimes I think I’m held together by baling wire and duct tape and some sort of perverse determination.

My neighbor is – or was, then – a friendly guy who does landscaping. He’s got a pit bull with a head like an anvil and a tail like a whip, brindle and friendly and very very calm. He’d come by to do the yard, and I offered him the last of Riley’s kibble because I needed it out of the house. One amusing day he weed-whacked my jungle while I cleaned the hell out of my whole car, stem to stern, because what Cool Neighbor Guy identified as a mess of pharaoh ants had built Manthattan in the trunk. I fobbed an old CRT monitor off on another neighbor that Cool Neighbor Guy knew; “Think of it like a Godfather thing,” I said, “I’ll ask you for a favor someday.” Likely not. I’d recognize him by sight, but I forgot his name, and now there’s nobody to ask, because Cool Neighbor Guy has moved.

Pain doesn’t stay the same, though sometimes a thing reminds you and rears up and punches you in the jaw, when you didn’t see it coming. Other days I’d find myself thinking that instead of needing my dog back, what I needed was a dog, because things were so thrice-damned horribly quiet around here. It hurt less, or differently; it does get easier to carry. And at one point I knew that I wasn’t ready to get another dog, not that day, but I was ready to start looking. So I looked at websites and I made some calls.

People talk to me, and I don’t know why — Cool Neighbor Guy came over one evening and asked to use my phone, then wound up telling me damn near his whole life story. It’s not a new story, not exactly, and not mine to tell here either. It was his and it was real and he was hurting, and sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger who isn’t going to judge you than to a friend or a relative who already has ideas about who or what you should be. I know how that works, and I know that sometimes people need to talk. I know that a lot of the time they wind up needing to talk at me, because, as I said then, cheerfully, “I’m a good vent!” He told me his story, and I listened, and did not in any way say or suggest that those things made him a bad person (some would, I’m sure) — instead, I was genuinely impressed that he’d noticed these problems in his life and figured out what needed to be done to fix them. I told him that, and offered similar stories from my life, or the lives of people I knew. I sat listening to him, in my pajamas, in a rocking chair with the fifteen year old Boneless Cat in my lap, wishing so badly that I could help and annoyed, again, at the world: people are hurting all over the place and mostly there isn’t a goddamn thing that can be done about any of it. Sisu. Keep moving. Laugh when you can.

I called one shelter and spent an hour talking to their adoption person about the dogs: this was a no-kill place where they could be selective and they knew their animals. I checked the website of another, which was a high-kill last resort shelter, which took dropoffs and all strays. I made lists and talked to friends. I had an idea of what I wanted in a Next Dog, and didn’t know when I would find it or what it would look like. I wanted a temperament, I wanted a solid dependable smart dog: the kind of dog who jumps when you say jump, because it doesn’t occur to them to do otherwise. All I knew for sure was that Next Dog couldn’t look like Riley. Not even close. It could not, in any way other than being a dog, resemble Riley. I wouldn’t be able to handle that.

(Do something for me, Riley-girl. You go find this dog. You make sure I get the right one.)

I spent an afternoon visiting at the no-kill shelter, filling out paperwork, wondering why everyone was so impressed at my fifteen year old cat (it’s not like that’s any accomplishment of mine: she keeps being alive and I keep feeding her!) and visiting with dogs who were, none of them, Next Dog.

I spent another afternoon at the high-kill shelter, not expecting to find My Next Dog, because I wasn’t ready in a thousand different ways, but then I stumbled across him anyway. It was flashing neon signs and being whacked upside the head with too many coincidences: there are some woo things I believe in that I don’t talk about – everybody got their something – that have me half convinced Something was At Work Here.

I recognized this dog, is all. I didn’t fall in love at first sight. I just looked at him and felt, inside: Oh. There you are. I filled out the paperwork before the place closed, got myself approved, and waited.

The last-minute scramble to get things ready took exhausting days, and somewhere in the middle of it the heat broke at long fucking last. Somehow I’d held onto a healthy not-numbed Lack of Damns, a peculiar sense of determination that is the absence of the anxiety that’s plagued me my whole life — this isn’t permanent, but I caught a few glimpses of what that life could be before it flickered away.

Sunday it was sunny and breezy, with the highs in the mid eighties. My Cool Neighbor Dude was moving out, and I said goodbye to him while I stowed things in the car: an old martingale lead, a packet of paperwork, a bottle of water and a mental to-do list.

I had to go see about a dog.

the hole of horror

This is my nemesis, my fear, and part of my wrongly-built house.

It is Florida; it is August. It is too hot for mammals outside. It is one hundred and stupid from sunup to midnight. It is the time when we all lie about like roadkill, stripped as near naked as propriety allows, under ceiling fans set to Blender, shoving our pets off us because they are too damned warm.

It is, of course, the time that the AC starts to malfunction. It’s under a heavy load; it has a lot of work to do. We expect much of it, and the poor thing, slaving in the hot dark attic, is bound to fail at some point. What can one machine do against the sun in Florida in August?

Now. My house, as I’ve probably mentioned, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wrong, after an all-night bender, late in his career when he was well into senility. The original water heater was sandwiched between two load-bearing walls. (That caused the poor plumber no end of consternation when the thing went Tragically Wrong a few years ago.)

The problem with my AC is that, while the heat pump is sensibly on a concrete slab outdoors, the air handler is in the attic. The attic is accessible through the image above: a square of plywood covering a hole in the ceiling, about two and a half feet to a side. The attic access point is inside an alcove too small to be called a hallway, which leads from my bedroom to the bathroom, and just for fun the walls drop down another two and a half feet, or so, from the ceiling.

It is dark, it is confined, and there is no rolled-up rope ladder or teleportation device to get you up there. You need a ladder, and a flashlight, and then to move very carefully so you do not bash the hell out of your elbows or drop the plywood on your head. After that, you somehow have to move yourself further up the ladder, while again not knocking into walls with limbs or noggin, until you are in the attic. Once you are in, you still have to stay on the ladder: I strongly doubt the ceiling materials can hold the weight of a full-grown homo sapiens, although logic dictates it would have had to, at some point, to get the handler installed. Unless they hired little people to do it. Which is entirely possible.

I have no idea how they got the damn thing in there in the first place, and much like the parentage of my late beloved Chihuahua-Labrador dog, I am constantly asked: how did that even happen? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. A friend of mine who is handily inclined theorizes that they put the handler in through the attic gable. My theory is that it was handed up the attic access hole in pieces, like building a ship in a bottle.

However it got there – and we may never truly know – its odd location offers some interesting problems. Condensation, mostly, and this is all stuff I’ve only just learned, so I’ll retell it as I learned it, with the Small Words For The Liberal Arts Major version. The handler gets damp on the outside, same as a glass full of ice water does, because this is the Swamp of Humidity and water condenses on everything.

(No, really: it is a common Floridian problem to exit an air-conditioned car and have your glasses fog up.)

This condensed water is caught by a magical apparatus and fed into a series of tubes that are not the internet; they terminate in a PVC pipe outside, running vertically down the exterior wall, and ending with a sort of u-bend trap of another bit of PVC attached to the pipe. When all goes well, this drips all summer. Drip, drip, drip. It has a little puddle under it, and interesting fungus grows in the mud, and my late beloved Chihuahua-Labrador mix was fond of licking from it, because he was convinced it was a Dog Fountain.

STOP DRINKING THE AIR CONDITIONER PEE!

The problem is when, due to Florida being Florida and all manner of unholy Lovecraftian flora growing in places it oughtn’t, this vital output pipe gets blocked. There is a catch-pan under the air handler, up in the attic, to catch the extra water. With newer machines, there’s a dead-switch that will shut off the handler before the pan overflows, leading people to panic mightily and call the Sainted AC Repairman, who will demand a mighty tithe before he restores function to the Make It Cold Machine, yea verily, for his is the work that keeps us all functioning and he knows he’s got us by the short ‘n curlies. Eighty bucks just to show up, and in our sweaty panic, we pay it gladly. Death, taxes, AC repair, and tourists from Massachusetts driving forty-five in the left lane: these things are constant.

In old machines, like mine, there is no switch so the pan overflows and leaks everywhere. Since the handler is in the attic, my first sign of trouble is that my walls started to drip.

A short text conversation:

Me: “My walls are dripping.”

My friend: “Should I call a priest?”

Me: “It’s not dripping blood.”

My friend: “Another guy I know has a bug infestation and your walls are crying. It’s the End Times.”

The drips became, not a flood or a deluge, but a drizzle: I had standing water curling my floorboards (this whole damn house is water-damaged, see above re: Faulty Water Heater Between Walls) and creating bizarre fluid-filled pockets between the not-so-drywall and the layers of paint. Many paper towels were deployed. Much profanity was sworn. The injured Beloved Dog, which is another story entirely, was moved, sickbed and all, so that the increasing flood would not affect her.

In my desperation I tried to fix the problem myself, knowing nothing about it. Refer again to the photograph above. I have a ladder, a six-foot aluminum deal which weighs about as much as a good wok and gets the shivers when you think about leaning on it. It’s good for painting walls and hanging photographs. It’s older than I am, by far. It’s all I have.

This, I became convinced, was the perfect setting for a Lifetime Movie about one woman’s sudden affliction with quadriplegia and then, later on, how she tearfully and life-affirmingly found meaning once again. I would be one misstep away from bad daytime television, and possibly a guest appearance with Oprah. None of that was encouraging.

I set the rickety ladder in the puddled alcove, too small to be a hallway, and with trepidation and a flashlight ascended to uncertain shadowy doom. My toes gripped the ends of my flipflops in primate fear.

I don’t know if there is a name for the thing I have about heights. It’s not a fear of heights, exactly, but of edges. If you put me in an airplane or a skyscraper I will be delightedly glued to the window, looking out at everything. I love seeing the world from high places.

I love this. I do this every chance I get.

The problem I have with heights is when they are not safely contained. I dislike edges; I dislike flimsy railings; I have an instinctive fear, beginning at the base of my spine and the most inner parts of my guts, of the gaping void. I suppose that it’s not a fear of heights, but a fear of falling – which makes no sense, but I generally don’t, so that’s all right.

I don’t like dark enclosed spaces much either, though I can handle them much better than a potential fall. Combing the two, though, is a nightmare.

I made it up the ladder, and I pushed away the plyboard. It was heavier than I thought. I scooted another step or two up the ladder, finding myself surrounded by drippy plaster walls, a tiny box atop a rickety perch in the darkness, with the dark unknown space of the attic opening above me. I climbed another step, which got my eyes at a level with the ‘floor’ side of the ceiling in the attic, took the flashlight, and at last set eyes on the air handler.

I don’t honestly know how far it was from the access hole. All I can tell you was that, with the certainty that comes from pure monkey-brain fear, I could not get to it. I could not go further up that ladder, into the tiny square of walls, through the hole, and into an attic which probably would crumble under my elbows. I couldn’t get to the machine.

Then I realized I didn’t know how to get down either, and that’s when the fear truly took hold. I’m not sure how I did it, just that I did: gripping for dear life with my toes curled over the edges of my flipflops and digging into the ridged aluminum ladder steps. I made it down somehow, and laid myself down, and had very serious thoughts about going outside and digging a hole to lie in, to reaffirm my connection with the ground.

Somewhere during all of this I realized it had become a full-blown panic attack, which was unexpected because usually I get them as a side-effect of anxiety overload, not from external stimuli. Emotionally I was calm, detached. Instinctively I wanted to get back into my cave and have Zogg the hunter stand at the exit with his club and a couple of our tame wolves. It was an interesting experience.

When the terror had passed, I conceded defeat, squished through the puddle to collect the ladder and put it away, and then knocked the plyboard back into place with the business end of a mop, because fuck going up the ladder into the Dark High Hole again.

It was then that the Most Handy and Capable Friend said to me: girl, all you need is a shopvac. She explained to me the lore of the Condensate Pipe, its workings and needs, and arranged for me to collect a small shopvac from a hardware store, because a waterlogged house and potentially broken AC handler is no laughing matter.

Except: there was a hurricane: Isaac. Its track was far enough away from us that there was more standing water on my bedroom floor than in the street, but there still was a hurricane, and one does not operate electrical appliances outdoors in the rain. Still, the pipe needed to be vacuumed out.

So I waited for the rain bands to pass (as they do, on the fringes of a storm: rain, then shine, then rain, then shine), and I passed the electrical cord through the kitchen window – first prying the screen loose on one side – and standing there in my polka-dotted rain boots and a pirate skull bandana, I flipped the switch that started the shopvac.

It went: HURRR-GLLLRRRRRR-HOOOGA-HOOOGA-HOOOGA-HOOGA-WHRRR-WHRRR-WHRRR.

The vacuum tube shimmied with the weight of whatever Ungodly Gack was being slurped through it. The vacuum itself made all kinds of noises. The condensate pipe responded in kind with moans and gurgles of its own. And then it was done, or so it seemed: the tube stopped shaking, the wet noises ceased.

I disconnected the tube from the pipe, then opened it up to see what was inside. I don’t know what I was expecting: something that looked like organic vomit, perhaps. What I found was red tide, or something like to it – a runny, watery, rust-red cousin to the slime that builds up on the beach during a particularly virulent fish kill.

Ew.

I emptied the vacuum out on a patch of dirt where I am sure nothing will ever grow again. I brought it inside and put it away. I mopped up my floor and waited: it would take a few days, probably, for all the extra water to clear up and evaporate, though I was assured it would do so on its own.

It has, mostly. There aren’t puddles on the floor, though my poor floorboards are a tad ripply from the water and my bedroom door sticks in its frame. There is one spot, one damned Lady Macbeth spot, up on the ceiling: another odd little pocket of latex paint, filled with water, that seemingly only drips when I pass under it. It’ll dry out eventually, I’m sure.

A few days later I helped my Awesome Neighbor suction out his condensate pipe: he was having the same problem. His handler was in the roof, too. Neither of us could figure out what the architects around here had been high on, or for that matter how the confounded things got up there in the first place.

I have been up the ladder; I have faced the unknown voids both above and below, in the Alcove and the Attic. It was House of Leaves fear, on a smaller scale, and I tell you one thing: I am never going up there again.