By Tim Hayes
A warm breeze drifted across the front porch of the charming townhouse, as I stood on a ladder, reaching above my head to paint the ceiling a soft shade of green.
The scene presented a brief period of peace amid what had been, to that point, a fairly upsetting and demoralizing couple of days. Little did I know, however, that we were just getting warmed up.
Dipping the wide brush into the can of seafoam paint, then swiping up and down, up and down, across the slatted wooden ceiling surface, the scope of the whole desperation reclamation project took shape again in my brain. The townhouse in question had been home to my wife and me for about three years, while we lived five hours from our mutual hometown, where both of our families remained.
We brought our first child home to that townhouse, bounded on both sides by wonderful neighbors – both wives named Grace, each married to jovial husbands, long retired. It was the first home we owned, after years of renting and all of the unpredictability and mess that can entail.
Suddenly, an opportunity arose for me to land a job back home in Pittsburgh. Piggy-backing on frequent flier miles racked up by my Dad, I flew in, went to the interview, and flew back to our little townhouse, eager to learn whether our lives would change. The call came within two days – our little family was going home! Back to all four grandparents, all of the aunts and uncles, everybody who would be around our little daughter, surrounding her with familial love. How wonderful!
But the good news quickly got tempered somewhat by the realization that, unlike breaking a lease, we had signed up for a 30-year mortgage. And not only that, but all this happened during one of those crushing real estate market “corrections,” where property values went crashing through the floor like a dropped anvil. Uh-oh.
We left anyway, arranging for friends to rent the townhouse, thereby helping us cover most of the monthly mortgage payment, for which we were legally on the hook for another 27 years. But after their 12 months in our place, those friendly tenants moved overseas and we handed the job of finding occupants over to a real estate office. Two years and some pretty unreliable and irresponsible renters later, Dad and I made the five-hour drive to rehab the place and prepare it for sale.
The charming townhouse we had packed up and driven away from some years back had been beaten up fairly badly. Renters sure are not owners, and that became depressingly and overwhelmingly apparent as Dad and I walked through the place upon arrival. This would require a Herculean effort. Problem was, we only had one do-it-yourself Hercules making the trip – and it sure as hell wasn’t me.
Dad always had the fix-it skills that somehow never got passed on to me. He’d spent most of his career in banking, but when my siblings and I were small, he had single-handedly renovated most of our home in beautiful, meticulous style. He measured and planned, bought all the materials, and performed all the work himself, on weekends and in the evenings after putting in a full day at the office. It still astounds me, to this day. If I got that gene at all, it’s so recessive as to be invisible, irrelevant, and immaterial.
So in plotting the work to be done at the once-and-future charming townhouse, Dad handled the big projects while I did apprentice-level stuff like elementary landscaping, scraping accumulated cooking grease from kitchen shelves and surfaces, and handling the painting.
Which brings us back to me, the ladder, the paint can, and the front porch ceiling. Finding a nice rhythm in the brushstrokes, achieving a calm in my breathing, entering a Zen state of sorts and letting the stress of the previous days’ initial shock and subsequent work ebb away, it happened.
“Tim!” came the shout from somewhere inside the townhouse. Was that real? Did someone just call me?
“TIM!!!” Yeah, that’s Dad. Wonder what’s up? I set the brush against the rim of the paint can, stepped down the ladder, and started toward the front screen door.
“TIM!! TIM!!!!! SHUT THE WATER OFF!!!”
Shut the water off? What water? What’s he talking about?
“SHUT THE MASTER WATER VALVE OFF!!! IT’S IN THE CELLAR NEAR THE FRONT OF THE HOUSE!!! HURRY UP!!!!”
I heard genuine panic in his voice, so I ran to the basement, frantically looking for this valve that I’d somehow never noticed in three years of living there. Making my best guess, I turned a random valve and apparently got lucky. The sound of water rushing through the pipes ceased. When I got back up to the first floor, the reason for the shouting became all too clear.
It was raining in the dining room.
A steady cascade of water droplets oozed from the seams between the foot-square ceiling tiles onto the hardwood floor of the – thank God – empty room. Puddles formed as the rainfall increased. The tiles overhead sagged downward, the weight of the water that had seeped through the second-floor bathroom directly above accumulating in a most menacing fashion.
Dad came down the steps and looked at the growing disaster. Amazingly, as a greenhorn apprentice may sometimes do, I blurted out the first step in the recovery process ahead for both of us.
“We have to poke some holes in those tiles and let all that water out,” I said matter-of-factly, through the stunned haze of emotional and mental paralysis. It truly was one of those moments when your mind just shakes its head from side to side, whispering, “Nah, this can’t really be happening.” Yet, it was. In 3-D Technicolor Sense-Surround.
And, normally, I find the sound of rainfall so soothing. But interior rainfall? In a house on which I still owed many thousands of dollars? Well, let’s just say “soothing” wasn’t exactly the first word that popped to mind.
We carefully sliced openings in the ceiling tiles and our little diorama version of Niagara Falls instantly followed. Seems Dad had been working in the upstairs bathroom, trying to remove a poorly made covering beneath the sink, when a pipe got accidentally smacked open – with no shutoff valve! – and the deluge began in earnest. The poor guy had been up there, getting soaked, trying to plug the leaks with his fingers like the Little Dutch Boy, while screaming for me to shut the damn water off. Lots of towels and brooming later, the water had been removed.
In the minutes following completion of the cleanup, I walked into the kitchen. There stood Dad, hands on the porcelain sink, facing the window to the backyard, hunched over. I could see his shoulders shaking. He was in tears, he felt so bad.
“How did we ever think we could do this?” he said, letting the weight of what we had walked into and tried to tackle ourselves pile up and overcome him. “I don’t know why I’m even here.”
If you have ever seen your Dad weep, truly weep, you know it is a moment that never, ever, leaves you.
I walked up to him, still with his back to me. I put my arms around him as tight as I could, leaned my face on the back of his t-shirt, and told him, “Dad, I don’t know what I’d do here without you. I am so glad you’re here with me. We’ll fix it. I love you so much, Dad.”
The two of us just stayed like that for a minute or two. He felt better, as did I. We even told ourselves we’d laugh about the whole thing one day. Still waiting on that, by the way.
Over the next 24 hours, he fixed the broken pipe and finished updating the bathroom. We got the dining room ceiling pretty much back in place and threw a coat of fresh paint on it to gloss over the water stains. The front porch ceiling received its complete coverage of seafoam green. We hired some local help to complete whatever we couldn’t get to while there. The house went on the market and sold fairly quickly. I’ve never been inside again since.
But on this Father’s Day, my mind’s eye travels about 25 years back, to the day when disaster struck. The day when I saw my Dad feel so bad it brought him to tears. The day when my heart blew open with love and respect for the man. The day that produced, for me, perhaps our greatest, finest, warmest moment together.
The day it rained in the dining room.
I love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.
Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes