I believe in being proactive when it comes to health care. I schedule my annual mammogram on time, make sure I have a colonoscopy every few years, submit myself to the dermatologist’s scrutiny as he scans my body every six months, looking for suspicious lesions that might have appeared on my skin. I allow the dental hygienist to scrape away the plaque on my teeth and poke my gums with her pointy probe, all in the quest to achieve and sustain good health and ward off illness.
However, when it comes to home maintenance, my approach is post-facto rather than preventive. The notion of living in a work zone filled with strange men smelling of cigarette smoke and Turkish coffee, lugging tools, tiles, sand and cement is so overwhelming that my desire to renovate, which once called to me, is now something I do only when forced to by circumstance.
Like the time the tiles fell off the bathroom walls several years ago. I realized I had no choice: on the recommendation of a good friend, I hired a craftsman to retile the main bathroom. He placed tiles on the wall in aesthetic geometric patterns at critical intervals and framed the mirror with decorative ceramics. The result was a work of art.
I thought he would never finish. Fine dust was everywhere. The upstairs was sandier than a beach. No amount of dusting and mopping helped. Hours later, more dust had settled on the furniture and floor. It was in the air. It must have gotten in my eyes, since I did not see the rust that had formed on the rim of the bathtub where it met the shower enclosure. I should have replaced the tub while I was redoing the bathroom, but that would have entailed more work, more time, more mess. My nerves had reached their limit. When the work was done, I was done.
I lived with that rust for eight years. I had convinced myself that it matched the color scheme of the bathroom and framed the tub nicely. I regularly swept up flakes of rust and enamel that had fallen on the floor. However, once my granddaughter was old enough to step into the bathtub and risk cutting herself on a rusty edge, I knew my days of denial were up. The time had come, once again, to renovate.
I did my due diligence and called a friend who had recently installed a bathroom. On her recommendation, I contacted her contractor for a price quote. It was way over my budget.
Should I just replace the bathtub or do a full renovation? My conscience told me that the bathtub was the only thing in dire need of replacing. However, the entire tub area would have to be retiled anyway, plus, the toilet and sink were twenty-six years old. I did not want a repeat of what happened the last time I did things piecemeal in that bathroom. Besides, it is always better for resale value to have an updated bathroom: they say bathrooms and kitchens sell. But I had no plans to move any time soon. I really wanted to enjoy something pretty and new now.
A week later, while I was sitting in my hairdresser’s chair, her scissors flitting about my head, she mentioned her newly renovated bathroom. I took it as a sign of Divine Providence. Bill had done the work in a record two weeks’ time. He did all of the work himself – the tiling, plumbing, and electrical work. This jack-of-all-trades’ fee was half of what the other contractor had quoted.
“Can I see your bathroom?” I asked. Her hair salon was in her house. She
nodded her head in assent as she dusted my neck with talc. As she unsnapped the nylon cape and lifted it off my shoulders, lose hairs fell to the ground. After a few swift movements of the broom into a dust shovel, she escorted me down the hall.
The lights shone on a showcase bathroom: parquet tiling on the floor and walls, a shower panel system, a wall mounted toilet, beautiful cabinetry, sink and hardware. Admittedly, she had paid extra for a few upgrades, but even so, the cost was still cheaper than the competition.
As soon as I got home; I called Bill. “So, you like my work?” he shouted into the phone. “I’m busy until February but I can come over on Friday and have a look around.” It was October. I had waited eight years – I could wait another four months.
Bill seemed like a nice, honest guy. We spoke about tiling the walls up to the ceiling (as opposed to the three-quarter high tiled walls I currently had) and ordering a bathtub that was shorter than standard, in order to allow for a vanity unit to replace the pedestal sink. He wrote up three price quotes: one, for just replacing the tub and tiling in that area; another for also replacing the sink and toilet; and a third for redoing the entire bathroom. I told him that I would think it over and get back to him.
I opted for the full renovation. The price was reasonable, as I had anticipated. I was not upset about waiting until February – each day that he was not renovating was a reprieve from the anticipated stress of having my space invaded and the loss of control over my ordered little world.
But February 1st did eventually arrive, and with it came Bill, tiles and tools in tow. Bill and I had actually gone to the ceramics showroom three days earlier, so that I could choose the tiles and bathroom hardware. That part of the experience I enjoyed, since it spoke to my aesthetic sense. As Bill showed me the tiles and vanities that were within budget, I began to realize why his quote was so much cheaper than the competition: all of the fixtures were the standard – ugly – options. Like my hairdresser, I opted for upgrades.
We hit our first glitch when Bill finished tiling the first wall; “What color should I paint the top?” he asked. He leaned back, surveyed the wall and smiled, as if to congratulate himself on a job well done.
I looked at him in confusion. “Do you mean the ceiling?”
“No, the last quarter of the wall up to the ceiling,” he said, pointing above the top row of tiles.
“I thought we talked about tiling all the way up,” I said. My voice rose a decibel.
Bill hooked his thumbs into his belt loops, “Look at the price quote: I wrote 6.5 feet of tiling. The whole wall is 8 feet.” He radiated confidence and contentment.
“You might have written that, but I told you that I wanted it tiled all the way up. How am I supposed to know that 6.5 feet is not the whole wall?” I said, my face screwing up into a question that was really an accusation.
“Not a problem, just call the tile store and order another two boxes of tiles, and that should do it.” He turned to continue work on the next wall.
It was a problem. We did not communicate the same way. I let it go and called the store, but was left with an unsettled feeling, much like the dust that hovered in the air before its descent floor-ward.
I had two basic requests: no smoking in the house (but, of course not!) and keep the front door closed so that the many feral cats that roamed the neighborhood would not feel welcome. He smoked right outside the front door, which he left open. After several reminders that went unheeded, I took to closing the door behind him. I swept his lunch crumbs off my dining room table, swept the sand off the stairs as best I could when he left each night, and canceled most of my meetings that week so that I could be on cat patrol.
Two days into the renovation, Bill disassembled the bathroom water cabinet in order to tile around it and discovered an old, suspiciously wet pipe. Later, when he opened a wall to cap off the old bath tap, he noticed another wet pipe. Its source was the laundry room next door.
I had shown Bill our downstairs powder room, which had a damp spot on the ceiling, which I feared might indicate a leak from one of the pipes in the bathroom in which he was working. He checked the location of the damp patch, relative to the rooms upstairs, and determined that it was not under the bathroom, but rather the laundry room.
“I’m going to replace these two pipes at my own expense. That should take care of the problem. But if that damp spot spreads, it’s some other issue. Then you’ll have to call your home insurance company. You know, anyone else would charge you good money to replace these pipes. You’re getting a great deal,” he said. He smiled that smile again. I should have known better. I should have called the home insurance plumber pronto.
At the end of the week most of the work was done. I cleaned for the weekend and surveyed the bathroom. It looked beautiful however, something looked wrong with the bathtub. Bill had recommended I buy a shower panel that had knobs to control both a large rainfall showerhead attached to the ceiling, and a hand-held massage wand. That was in place, but I did not see any bath tap. Maybe the water bubbled up from the drain, like a Jacuzzi? Somehow, I did not think so.
First thing Sunday morning I asked Bill where the tap was, “You never asked for one! I wrote a shower panel in the price quote.” He was no longer smiling.
I looked at him in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding! Why would I have bought a bathtub if I only wanted to shower? I told you that I was replacing the bathtub in order to bathe my grandkids rust free. I assumed a tap is a given when you buy a bathtub!” Either this guy was missing a few marbles or he was too arrogant to admit his errors.
“And you never asked if I wanted one!” My voice was several decibels above normal now and my hands were flailing about wildly. “You’re the renovator. How about communicating with your client so there are no misunderstandings?”
“If you want to change it now, I’ll need to rip out this whole wall of tiles.” So, the onus was on me. No responsibility, no apology. I could not deal with the situation, nor could I deal with him.
“How, exactly, am I supposed to fill the tub?” I asked, waiting to hear how he was going to get himself out of this one.
“You use the showerhead, no problem,” he proffered, looking guilt-free, as if this is what most people do.
“Then it will be Niagara Falls in here! That’s no solution.” I had restrained myself previously, but now I could not control my anger and the hyperbole that came with it.
“Well, you could also use the wand. Both of them have the same pressure as a bath tap. No problem.”
Bill had no problems, but he left me with more than one. I just could not imagine that wand spritzing out enough water to fill a bath in under an hour. Besides, someone would have to hold it the whole time, since it sprayed half the bathroom when left to jiggle in its none-too-snug wall mount.
At that moment, I realized I had two choices: be angry or let go. It was actually kind of funny, how ridiculous the situation was – a bathtub without a tap! In the scheme of things in life, it was not so important, or horrible. I was going to go with the flow, literally and figuratively. He would be done in a few days, the cleaning lady would come, and my grandkids would enjoy splashing around in the gleaming new tub, holding the shower wand. I would let go.
When the vanity was installed and the door banged into the bathtub, Bill called the tile store and screamed at the owner, “We ordered the smaller unit! You sent one that is narrower, but it’s too deep. It’s not what we ordered!” He turned to me and muttered, “What a jerk.” It turns out, however, that the depth was standard. Bill had known the dimensions when he ordered. What’s more, I had asked for a smaller bathtub, to allow additional room to maneuver, but Bill did not deliver on that either. Now it was too late to do anything about it. I bought a silicon sticker and put it on the tub at the point of contact with the door, and let it go. The new me.
Bill beat his record and finished the work in a week and change. I withheld the last payment until he finished. Of course, after he rushed off to his next job, I found that the door to the water cabinet that he had reassembled was glued shut. But Bill was not answering my calls. I focused on my gratitude for the beautiful, new bathroom and pried the water cabinet door open myself.
A week later, I was in the downstairs powder room and occasioned to look up toward the ceiling. To my great dismay, I saw that the initial damp spot that I had sighted several weeks before had spread from the ceiling to the wall. This did not bode well.
I dialed the plumber who works with my home insurance company. He had fixed several broken pipes in the house over the years. He came over and proceeded to crawl along the floors, infrared sensor in hand, searching for the source of the water leakage. As his machine flashed and beeped, I prayed furiously to God that it would not lead him into my new bathroom.
After I finished supplicating for mercy that the bathroom floor would not have to be retiled, I felt calm. Having done the best I could, given the situation, I was ready to accept whatever verdict the plumber delivered. Anxiety over water seeping through my walls from some unknown source, leaving insidious damp and mold in its wake had been gnawing at me. I had felt threatened that a pipe could burst at any moment. Relief washed over me as I watched the plumber shut off the main water valve.
As I sat at my kitchen table waiting for the plumber’s assessment my thoughts crystallized: The same moment that I had galvanized myself into action by calling the plumber, was, ironically, when I also relinquished control of the situation. Not because I was overwhelmed, but rather because I had acknowledged that I was powerless over it. I would let the insurance company’s plumber and the Great Plumber Upstairs take over. The paradox occurs, I realized, that in admitting my helplessness and in asking for help, I gain release from my fears and anxieties. I gain freedom.
The plumber interrupted my reverie with news that the leaky pipes ran from the laundry room into the new bathroom and down to the ground floor coat closet, which abutted the powder room. Several tiles would have to be drilled up in order to replace the pipes. I got the okay from the insurance company and the plumber got to work. Eight hours later and many dollars richer, he left my house.
I was expecting the kids and the grandkids for the weekend the next day. I was so looking forward to having them and did not want to bail out at the last minute. However, there were eight tiles missing from the floor upstairs, four from the bathroom and four from the hall and laundry room. I was afraid that someone might hurt himself if he lost his footing and fell into a hole in the floor.
As my stress level mounted, I stopped and decided to let go and let the kids decide. I sent a picture of the hacked-up floor on the family’s WhatsApp. The caption read, “Two for the price of one – play in the sandbox and then hop in the shower!” Everyone sent back smiley faces and thumbs up and no one canceled. We all had a great weekend, with no casualties. The new me was present in the moment, enjoying the bounty that I was so graciously granted.
The next week the insurance company sent someone to retile the floor. It looked okay when he finished, but that night, when I turned on the light, I noticed that he had used gray grouting, whereas the rest of the bathroom was grouted beige. The difference was very noticeable and aggravated my aesthetic sensibility.
What about letting go, the new me, being in the moment? The heck with that! I called my handyman, “Is it possible to put a thin layer of beige tile grout over pre-existing gray grout?” I asked him, posing the question as a theoretical construct.
“Well, if it’s too thin it won’t hold. You’d really have to dig out the old grout and redo it. A bit messy.” That was the last thing I wanted. This never would have happened if Bill had not tiled over my leaky pipes. My newfound tranquility teetered on the brink. I took a deep Lamaze breath and counted to ten.
“Okay, thanks for the info.” I hung up and tried to let go. Letting go is a daily exercise. Life issues challenges at every turn, and just because I successfully navigate one crisis, or a perceived one, does not immunize me from surviving the next one unscathed. My default is to raise the ramparts, put up my protective walls in an effort to try to shield myself from all that might upset my equilibrium. But real joy in life, I think, comes with vulnerability, coupled with acceptance, trust, humility, gratitude, and an awareness of a reality bigger than oneself.
My goal is to be able to jump into the whirlpool of life, feet first, and allow the current to carry me to uncharted territory, free of fear of the unknown. I do not relish dealing with more home renovations or leaky pipes any time soon, but if I must, I hope I will be able to, gracefully, go with the flow.
Nomi Isenberg holds an M.A. from Bar Ilan University in English Literature and Creative Writing. Her book of short stories, Of Perennial Springtime and Other Imaginations, is available from the Bar Ilan University Library. She has recently joined the ranks of readers/associate editors at Under the Sun Literary Journal.