Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Please Don’t Say the “B” Word

My (b-a-s-e-m-e-n-t) has been on my mind the past few weeks, as I’ve been trying to face my backlog and get my life in order.  My bedroom, if I loosely use that term to refer to the space where my bed lives, is in my (b-a-s-e-m-e-n-t), so it’s a place I visit regularly.  And not without dismay.

The subterranean level in question is partially finished.  The concrete block walls are painted in some areas.  There are rugs on the cement floor defining “rooms.”  Walls and doors separate spaces within one half.  We added a fairly well-appointed full bath when my sixteen-year-old was a baby, and an egress window about ten years ago, which makes it legal to sleep “down there.”  But this territory, containing almost as much square footage as our ranch’s first floor, remains a work in progress.  Or more accurately, a work in need of progress.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, roughly four-and-a-half years ago, I made matters worse.  Much worse.  My husband had been dispatched to Mississippi to meet my evacuated parents and bring them to stay with us; I spent that anxious period laboring to vacate our first-floor bedroom and create a makeshift assisted-living facility in its place.  This entailed moving in and assembling borrowed beds, making minor plumbing and other modifications in the adjacent bathroom, and making the public rooms friendly for my father’s newly acquired, and much despised walker.  It was a busy, crazy several days as our newest household members made their way north at the snail’s pace dictated by shock and malady.  I have described what I did to our dismantled sleeping quarters during that time as opening up the (basement) door and throwing our bedroom down the stairs. 

Of course, gratitude to my spouse, who would spend the first months of an overdue sabbatical surrounded by a grumpy teen, a grumpier preteen, two dislocated elders (in-laws, to boot) and an antique Bichon, did inspire me to make some efforts.  I managed to set up our bed and get the sheets on before he returned from his rescue mission.  Somewhat later, I put up pictures and bought new bedding we could barely afford to distract us from our new low rent location.  But the items that had previously been crammed into this “oasis” had been displaced to the rest of the now thoroughly disastrous space. 

Meantime, my husband was sitting in the middle of the kitchen most days, working on the book he had started on the road while waiting for my parents to get ready for each day’s travelling.  And my father was sitting at a nearby table, fretting.  He had absorbed the facts about the morass of stuff one floor down from where he sat.  And he wanted to help.  In the best of times, that would have been an impractical proposal.  In our post-Katrina state, it was flat-out impossible. 

We spent a good deal of the first several weeks after the storm looking at images of devastation, on TV and on the internet.  We were trying to gauge how my parents and my sister’s family had “made out”—a subject that would still begin most conversations in their community on Lake Poncetrain for many months after people began trickling back.  So we knew what real chaos and destruction looked like.  Our disarrangement was like a bad migraine in the face of a brain tumor.  But I did apply what I learned about the power of pictures to disabuse my father of the dangerous idea that he should brave the deep to offer assistance.  (In retrospect, I begin to understand that his desire to help was probably more global than I realized then.)

A few weeks into our adventure in extended family living, we celebrated my birthday, in the midst of emergency room trips, my mother’s growing, and frightening, illness and disorientation, my father’s accelerating physical deterioration, my teenager’s bumpy adjustment to a new school, my husband’s determined digital scribbling, my sister’s reports from their exile, and other relaxing occurrences and conditions too numerous to want to think about, ever again.  My family gave me a digital camera.  After snapping pictures of my cake and my gathered family members, I opened the instruction manual.  In three languages, it announced that I could display my pictures on our TV set. 

I decided I would use this new technological capability to show my dad why I was not going to accept his offer to help me straighten out the (you know what).  The pictures of things strewn and things piled and things sliding around down there were all he needed.  End of subject.

We are four-plus years on from that period of our lives, and still recovering.  Much effort has been expended, mostly by me, in the interim, to make our underground dwelling space habitable.  But we are not there yet.  I battle it back, but anarchy continues to creep back in, as if from the walls.  I begin to think an exorcism may be in order.

My sister recently shared this bit of dark post Katrina humor, which manages to congratulate Gulf Coast residents on their "good fortune."  In the conversations about household clutter that represent both a return to a facsimile of normal and a reference to their continuing special circumstances, standard tongue-in-cheek advice among the locals begins with "Don't have a basement." 

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