I have another list of home improvements I didn’t know I could do: I fixed the living room ceiling fan, daughter and I lugged the unwieldy secretary upstairs, we assembled some shelving in the basement, we loaded a big piece of furniture into the car and took it to the thrift shop, I took down and broke down some old cabinets that husband has been using for storage. I hammered down nails that were sticking out of boards, I found dedicated storage for sharp tools, for heavy tools, for those big boards that always look ready to fall on our heads. I’ve cleared two carloads of extraneous stuff out of that basement room this week, in addition to the numerous carloads I hauled away over the summer.
The living room looks so nice with piano gone, the secretary assembled, and the room rearranged with some decent lighting. I texted a photo of it to a friend who has been keeping up with my progress. I want to show off my basement, too, but when I scan the room and my accomplishments it looks….ordinary. That’s it. There’s nothing to see, unless you saw it before, and unless you know that it used to be the frenzied depository of my husband’s illness. It was a mess, and such an inexplicable mess at that. I used to offer to help clean it up, but he didn’t really want to tackle it. When I expressed concern about it with our marriage therapist last year, she tut-tutted and explained that some people are messy (read: my creative, brilliant, charming husband) and some people are tidy (read: boring old me). I knew she didn’t get it, but if I couldn’t explain that, then I didn’t really get it, either. The mess bothered me, and it worried me, but I never fully understood it. It was only when I sorted through the things after his death that I came to understand how overwhelmed he was. The mess was the external expression of his internal struggles, and I finally realized how hard things were for him. I walked in his shoes by walking through all this stuff.
And then I got rid of the stuff. I made sense of the stuff that remained. I’ve reclaimed the space for us. The basement is now a safe space for me and the kids. It’s open, it’s organized, it’s a friggin’ achievement, but it’s unremarkable. If you want a tennis racket (or a rake, or a bike rack, or a hammer), you can easily find it. That’s the big accomplishment. I’ve worked so hard to arrive at the ordinary. And we, of course, are not ordinary at all.