A Tale of Watery Woe

The phone call from the pet-sitter came through on my mobile at eleven p.m. E.S.T, just as we were sitting down to dinner in California. Our vacation thus-far had been terrific: first, Brad’s fiftieth high school reunion in Chicago, where we had the luxury of four days with his family as well as the blast from the past with so many old friends; then onward to the west coast to stay with a couple we’ve been close to for over thirty years, as well as visiting with many other good friends in the area. 

“To begin with,” Christen said across the three-thousand miles, “don’t worry–there’s nothing wrong with the dogs.” Relief coursed through me. “But the water in the house isn’t working,” she went on. “Not even a drip in any of the taps. And the Wi-Fi is out.” Worry flooded in anyway.  Brad suggested her to go down to the finished basement and reboot the modem, while he and I pondered the water issue. Had we forgotten to pay the bill?

Carrying her phone with her, Christen went down the two flights. But when she got halfway across the family room, just beside the enormous model railroad Brad has been building for the last eight months, she hit ankle-deep water. The electricity on that floor had stopped working and in the dark she couldn’t find the main shut-off valve. I phoned the fire department and they came instantaneously. The water stopped. The insanity began.  

We didn’t get to bed that Monday night, but instead spent the early hours pre-dawn on the phone: our insurance agent’s emergency line to find out what to do; the insurance company’s emergency line to start a claim; a restoration service’s emergency line to start the work. By one a.m. the pump out process was underway. 

Over the course of the next two days the house hummed like a hive of worker bees, as many hundreds of gallons of water were pumped down the sewer lines, 1800 square feet of soaked wall-to-wall carpet and padding stripped, yards of baseboard pried off and wall board slashed open, wet insulation hauled off, pipes re-plumbed, water-damaged electrical board rewired. Nothing went untouched except the ceiling.

We thought about flying home early but decided that with Christen’s help we could handle it from the West Coast. Still, I worried that our visits with all the friends we had woven into a complex schedule would now be ruined. We were exhausted and anxious. But we surprised ourselves by telling our tale of woe with a funny twist: humor to salve the savage heart.

Still, dominating both our thoughts–though we weren’t talking about it–was one main puzzle: what would happen to Brad’s railroad display, now so well begun? The train itself had remained dry, elevated on a four-foot-high, painstakingly-built wooden structure with legs; but would this cabinetry have to be demolished and rebuilt in order to get a new carpet laid beneath it all at that end of the long room? We were both too exhausted even to contemplate it. 

Early Thursday morning we boarded our plane and were at last tucked into our seats, with roller suitcases stored in hard-won overhead space, when the pilot announced that there was a mechanical issue which required we deplane and take our luggage with us. Every fifteen to thirty minutes, United claimed that we would momentarily be on our way–which kept us all standing hopefully in the pre-boarding line rather than relaxing in a bar or a restaurant. One man lost his mind over the delay and began to shout at the boarding agents and harass passengers. Manic–and drunk as well–he was eventually dragged off by the police. All of us sagged with relief. In these troubled times, anyone acting out that way is a threat to everyone’s safety. I might have come unglued if I’d had to sit next to him.

On an altogether different plane and some nine hours later, we arrived in Baltimore, where I noted with bitter humor the infuriating “On Time” arrival notice over the baggage carousel. At least they hadn’t lost my checked bag–a sticky-sweet cherry on the top of a sh*t sundae.

When I went downstairs Friday morning to make my coffee, a pungent odor drifted through the kitchen and it wasn’t coming from my Peet’s Espresso Blend. The toilet in the bathroom on the lower level was brimming over with liquid brown sludge. A shout from Brad indicated the source–the sewage pump in the adjacent storage area was overflowing all over the newly cleaned floor. Now I began a new flurry of calls. Roto-Rooter came out but had to special order a new macerator pump that wouldn’t be available till the next day. The smell grew more intense by the hour. We went to bed that night holding our noses.

On Saturday, the Roto-Rooter guy installed the new pump, while we spent the afternoon tearing open soggy cardboard boxes in an attempt to rescue their contents–most especially the Christmas decorations that have been in our families for years. I asked Roto-Rooter to check the regular sump pump as well, because so many gallons of water had been dumped there during the mop up. Yet another blow: this, too, had failed from the strain of too much hard work.

Later that afternoon, the restoration service came back again to clean and re-deodorize. Unfortunately the cement slab had never been sealed and the sewage water had permeated its surface. Multiple treatments would be necessary to get rid of the stink, which would remain for days. I put my head in my hands and gave in at last to a good, long cry. 

 We had tickets for the symphony that night but were too tired even to change our soiled clothes or go out for a bite. Nevertheless, we made ourselves sandwiches and put on festive duds, hoping to cheer up. The program included Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, as well as the special treat of Stewart Goodyear, a consummate young pianist playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F Major. (Many of you probably recognize this music from the movie An American in Paris with Gene Kelley.) His performance electrified the audience, as his ardor seemed to elevate him right up off the piano bench. It was perhaps the finest piano Brad and I have ever heard. We went home soothed, our hearts filled with the beauty of music rather than the chatter of anxiety.

The point of this long story is simple. Sometimes life is hard and gets a lot worse before it takes an upward swing. Often you can improve the situation just by reaching out in a different direction. We didn’t realize that the music would bring us such solace, and yet it gave us all the peace we needed right then. It is possible to find comfort in the most unexpected of places. Another lesson learned. I will try my hardest to remember this one.


P.S. Though I’m usually not one for postscripts, this piece of news seems important enough to add: I’ve just heard from the insurance company that because our damages were in excess of $75,000, they will be waiving our $10,000 deductible. Once again, music to our ears! 

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