"The happiest of people don't necessarily have the best of everything, they just make the most of everything that comes along their way." - Unknown
"When life gives you lemons make lemonade" is a quote attributed to turn of the century writer Elbert Hubbard, Dale Carnegie and others. It's a good quotation, one that can evoke both reflective consideration and eye rolls depending on your mood.
But what happens when life gives us a nice pile of shit on our doorsteps or elsewhere, either figuratively or literally? What are we supposed to make with that?
Let me explain.
One evening our household was startled by the visual cacophony of flashing lights outside our front window. The first concern is of course that this could only mean an ambulance, police cruiser, or both have pulled into the neighborhood. As a parent of someone who has abused drugs, the immediate connection "flashes" to the police with images of COPS, or the last scenes of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. But these were not the familiar and irritating white-blue-red flashes of our local constabulary. These lights were amber.
We all approached our picture window as if cast in a sci-fi alien invasion movie. I saw the MSD logo on the truck and large men in brown canvas jumpsuits emerging from it.
Initially relived that no one had succumbed, been arrested or was going to be put into custody, my mind then turned to the innumerable possible reasons that a Metropolitan Sewer District truck would be parked on our street (bad), and in front of our house (even worse).
It was about this time that I was asked by one my housemates (i.e.; family members, i.e.; wife) if I had noticed the backup from the sewer in the storage area of our basement.
I had not. I had not even ventured there since coming home from work that evening.
I made my recon downstairs and as reported, there it was, in all its putrid glory, a splash of overflow from our drainpipe, a mixture of sludge, tree roots and other material one would expect in a situation of this kind.
"And that's all I have to say about that." - for now.
What happened that night is a personal metaphor I would like to share on how our reactions can change, how our personal and ongoing recoveries can actually leach out (sorry?!) to our lives in the "real world". It is a metaphor for how we can deal with all our parents' worst nightmares we will experience as we continue on our recovery journeys.
My first reaction before beginning my recovery would have been to fume, curse and rage and stomp around like a spoiled toddler on speed, cleaning, rearranging and misplacing items in a driven mission to fix the situation immediately as I mopped myself into a fecal lather.
I almost started on my accustomed behavior. I felt the panic, the urge to control the ooze, the uncontrollable.
Then I stopped myself and thought, "Maybe I'll go talk to the MSD crew."
So I made my way outside only marginally dressed for the cold February night looking for anyone who could provide me with what I needed - information.
I quickly deduced that an MSD night crew is not assembled for its people skills or abilities to engage in conversations with homeowners. The goal is to take care of a problem - to get in and get out.
I selected the member of the crew who seemed most likely to act as spokesman and asked what prompted a visit from MSD this night. He explained how some sewer work up the street from our lot had dislodged dirt, root and other large wretched refuse. This had made its way down the sewer "main" playing havoc with normal sewer function downstream. In other words, work up the hill had essentially plugged everyone's laterals (long drainpipe leading, "laterally" from houses to the sewer main).
The MSD crew was in the process of flushing this material down the hill when my contract lifted a manhole cover exposing a large blockage in the flow.
"Shut it down, shut it down!" he screamed to the crew at the base of our street who were somehow controlling the water flow. The stream of water ceased revealing two large roots, partially decomposed by a week or two of detachment from its deciduous host yet maintaining a sufficiently gnarled form to disrupt my evening.
Even I knew this was a bad thing. This night I was learning more about sewer systems than I ever cared to while at the same time gaining an appreciation for the work these men performed.
"I'll let you do your thing," I screamed against the din of a generator nearby.
My spokesperson said nothing, looked up and gave me a polite nod as if to say, "It's about time … sir".
In my search for information I did "unearth" a couple of truths about sewer system issues.
Sometimes things happen over which we, as homeowners, have no control. These things can trickle down as if from nowhere and cause major issues when we least expect them to arise. And if we, as homeowners, attempt to force the issue, it may only exacerbate the problem.
I also learned that when MSD does flush a line the increased water flow will find a place to go and will, generally, find its way into your lateral. fighting gravity until it finds all the space it needs for relief. This space, generally, is the basements of everyone downstream from the area being cleared. Then, any "stuff" flushed with the water will remain behind when the obstruction is cleared, gravity is allowed to do its job, and the water recedes back down the hill resulting in crud - everywhere.
It was 9:35 p.m. and I reinspected the storage area and resolved to have the issue fixed. I contacted our local lateral boring firm.
The two hours predicted arrival by a technician turned to an apologetic, almost trembling revision of the timetable from the poor woman at the answering service.
"I am so sorry sir, we won't be able to make it out until early tomorrow morning," she whimpered.
"How early?" I calmly asked.
"Nine a.m." she responded, almost pleading.
And that's when I realized what was happening. I was beaten by a spew of roots, mud water and shit that I didn't cause, had no control over and couldn't fix.
(Did I mention I had used a bathroom plunger that evening????)
As Tom Hanks said in Castaway, "I had power over NOTHING!"
So I let it go, or at least began the process. I informed the family that limited use of plumbing would be the rule until further notice, let them know that whatever they did please remember not to flush, and went to bed.
"It's going to be a long morning," I thought to myself.
The next morning I awoke at my normal time, got some coffee and returned well before nine o'clock to await the arrival of the guy who would make all this go away. It wasn't until 10:35 our Golden Retriever alerted me of his arrival. The young man was full of enthusiasm and not yet embittered by the job. He went straight to it and within half an hour was finished.
Now I had been through this before so I made the trip downstairs to inspect the work.
What I saw seemed like a miracle. He had found the mop and mix of non-ammonia-based detergent and bleach I had prepared the night before and had done an energetic yet incomplete cleaning of the area. To me this seemed above and beyond and though the initial "fix" was complete there remained remnants of "everything" everywhere.
Then, an amazing thing occurred.
My learned, possibly genetic inclination kicked into high gear, to sanitize everything, make everything right, immediately, if only on the surface. My first thought to call work to let them know I would be taking the day off caused my hand to move toward my cell phone. I had to remedy, sanitize, whitewash!
Then, I decided, no!
"The shit has beaten me, for now," I admitted to myself.
I stepped back, turned off the lights in the basement and left home to go to work.
Actually , first I went to get my hair cut, something I had been putting off for weeks. I took care of myself this late Friday morning.
That evening after squeezing a full day of work out of six or so hours I came home later than usual.
"IT" was waiting for me, beckoning, tempting, hooking, bating, calling to me. IT was beginning to permeate the house. This permeation wasn't so much a stench as a not-so-gentle reminder:
I had a higher purpose in mind.
Saturday early afternoon I took IT on, on MY terms - calmly and deliberately . With three disposable mops and two buckets ready I began by throwing away or recycling anything we hadn't touched, looked at or thought about for years. I lugged soccer cones, baseballs, electronics and other expendables up the steps and outside. I carried the dog kennel and a space heater that refuses to die outside for a thorough cleaning and sanitation. My wife and I rearranged shelving, reminisced on baby pictures of all the kids, revisited wedding pictures we hadn't seen for years and debated about keeping books left to her by her maternal grandmother (we did).
When I separated my life from the crud I was finally ready, ready to slowly and methodically and with thought and care, eliminate IT from the basement.
So I cleaned. I cleaned around, under and through. I cleaned thoughtfully, slowly and meticulously remembering what had transpired days before but relinquishing blame and ownership. I cleaned once, twice then three times. The taunting beckonings that had haunted our house were replaced with a cleaner, purer feeling of relief and accomplishment.
I even contacted MSD the next week to begin the adult process of transferring ownership to the rightful offender. There was no malice here. I simply detached. I let go of what was not mine to own.
MSD paid the bill for the dredging of the lateral.
We all moved our possessions back to the storage area. We rebuilt our lives. It's still not a perfect storage area. Few really are, but it's better than before.
So when Life hands us shit, what can we do?
It's up to us.
"For we are always what our situations hand us." - Billy Joel, Summer Highland Falls