It’s been a hellacious month (a hellacious year, actually — more on that in a minute), with big changes at work (two new employees to train), a major home construction/repair project going on, and a near-fatal case of the avian flu (well, it felt like bird flu… ) from which I am just now barely rebounding.
The past year or so has been phenomenally difficult in many ways — with an aging mother-in-law who has had two falls with resulting long-term disability and a rocky recovery (but who is now doing well); a major family brawl arising out of her care decisions; a contentious dispute at work over a 401(k) discrepancy; two car accidents (my wife and I, no injuries, just the expense and hassle of dealing with body shops and car insurance); a medical lawsuit filed against me; a daughter who’s 8-month marriage ended in divorce despite her heroic efforts to salvage it; the death of the family dog; the loss of two long-term employees (in a three-employee practice) which has — temporarily, I hope — nearly doubled my workload as I train their replacements. And this is the short list.
Oh, and one more thing: our house is falling down. Seriously.
Last December, we decided to replace two windows in our family room, one of which had been leaking for a while. When the old windows were pulled, the installer called my wife over, poked his finger through the exterior wall, and announced: “You’ve got dry rot.”
Dry rot — which is the unofficial Washington state flower — is a fungus which thrives in moist, unventilated areas, structurally destroying wood by digesting its cellulose component. Our house is relatively new – 15 years old — so such damage seemed implausible — or at worst, very limited in scope.
The contractor we called to evaluate the problem had some unpleasant news: it was extensive, and involved most of the south side of the house, which gets the brunt of the weather. Header beams, floor joists, external plywood, support studs, were all extensively damaged — and some in danger of collapse.
Seems our original builder had forgotten a few minor things — like flashing windows and roof tiles, and using an adequate vapor barrier. Cocky S.O.B. — whom I recall boasting about how the other builders didn’t know squat about weatherproofing houses.
The news was so bad it was good: our insurance company, which does not cover dry rot damage routinely, does cover it when there is a danger of imminent collapse.
Imminent flippin’ collapse??!! It’s a new g’damn house!!
You know it’s bad when the insurance adjuster tells you: “I’m only authorized to approve claims up to $80,000, so I’m going to have to ask my supervisor to look at this.”
He shows up, wearing a company shirt emblazoned with “USAA Disaster Relief Team.” Fresh from Katrina, right to your front door.
The line between tragedy and comedy is thin indeed.
So for the past six weeks, our contractor has been rebuilding virtually the entire south side of our house, erecting temporary walls so it doesn’t collapse; removing and resetting windows; sheet rocking and taping; pulling up flooring and carpet; spray painting. Everything is chaos; furniture moved all over and covered with tarps and plastic, windows boarded up, gas and phone service interrupted regularly. The full extent of the damage is still not known, as they move from section to section, tearing off siding and checking the underlying framing and studs. My wife and I have basically been living in our den, a 10 x 10 foot room now ridiculously overcrowded with furniture.
And we’re getting very, very tired of the ordeal. The cumulative effect of the past year’s travails hangs like sodden wood bowing under its own weight. One can only hope our emotional and spiritual beams are more solid than rotted.
There are days when I wonder.
Now I’m no big fan of whining — life has its ups and downs, its “stuff” — and often the most difficult times, once endured, bring about surprising benefits, if nothing more than some growth in faith and endurance. I’ve long moved past the foolish notion of younger years that I deserve only the best things in life. And in medicine I far too often see those whose misfortunes dwarf such pitifully small problems as we now endure. For we suffer no crippling illness, no loss of child or parent, no chronic pain or cancer, no overwhelming burden of caring for a disabled child or demented parent.
Yet there are days when you just want it to end. It just all seems so, …unfair.
Last weekend, I sat chatting with my daughter on one of her rare visits home from vet school. I touched a raw nerve when I asked how she was holding up, as her remarkable strength gave way to weeping and she said through her tears, “It’s just not fair.”
And it’s not. It’s not fair that her ex-husbands idea of commitment was “’till death do us part” — or 8 months, whichever comes first. It simply not fair that the package which looked so good on the outside proved to be an emotional 12-year old, tethered to a toxic family who poisoned his spirit from the start of their marriage with hatred, unforgiveness, and vitriol. It’s not fair that a young woman committed to marriage for life gets dumped by a dolt who notified her of his divorce filing via a text message on her cell phone. It’s not fair that she be so lonely and abandoned, while all her friends enjoy happy marriages.
And it’s not fair that she still loves the guy, who has earned naught but contempt but still receives the undeserved love of a women of genuinely fine and noble character.
Fairness — what a warm, comforting idea, this. If only we applied it fairly, it would be. But no one hollers “Unfair!” when they win the lottery, or when the biopsy comes back without cancer, or when they find a $20 bill on the ground. No cries of unfairness are heard when we get a big bonus, or wake up healthy, or end up in a happy marriage, or have a healthy baby. But turn the tables just a bit — let the slightest misfortune befall us — and the “It’s Not Fair!” banner is quickly unfurled for all the world to see.
We have a keen sense for any injustice against us, yet seldom stop to think of our harm to others — or why, in any truly fair and rational world, we should have any of the blessings we daily take for granted. Is it fair that I live in the house I do — even with its manifest problems — while others have no home, no family, no hope, no future? Such thoughts are not meant to engender guilt, either in me or others — but rather lead to a greater appreciation of grace. Were I to receive my due, I would have nothing — or worse than nothing. I have what I have – health, home, family, pleasures, profit — because they have been given to me. Not earned — though I have worked hard; others have worked far harder for far less. Not deserved — for were I to receive what I deserve, my fate would be sealed forever.
It is far better to experience grace than fairness; far better to receive mercy than justice. I think for me this is one of the most profound and attractive aspects of the faith I have come to follow: that my God is not fair, but is merciful; that He is not quick to judge but generous in grace. To spend a life shaking one’s fist at fate, at the manifest unfairness of a world where we only get ours at the expense of others, is to miss the richness of purpose in vain pursuit of self-entitlement. For we are given grace to give away; mercy to extend more mercy. The “stuff” of life — be it problems trivial or terrible — is redeemable. That to me is the Good News: I am not promised fairness, but strength and divine companionship and a measure of wisdom if sought; I am not assured a life of comfort and ease, but a process of refining with a purpose: to make me more useful to Him who is wiser and far better than I. The bad stuff of life can be an enormous blessing — if I will but see it through Another’s eyes.
And so the journey trundles on – wearying, painful at times, puzzling almost always. The process of tearing out the dry rot and restoring strong new timbers proceeds, in the realm of the home and in the realm of the heart. It is a difficult process — but the structure will be far stronger for it, if I will simply let it go forward — and rely on the grace which is my sole insurance.