Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

When It Rains, It Pours: The Story of How I Forgot About the Rotting Corpse in Our Wall For a Few Hours

Remember shortly after we bought our place, there was lots of drama, and I plummeted into a bit of despair?

We spent two whole years looking for a place (in the official sense and several years before that unofficially). We debated, over and over, the merits — the pros and cons — of staying in New York, of moving to the suburbs, of moving far away. We felt the burden of wanting to make the right choice for our kids, like most parents would. Plus, the sale of my father-in-law’s home after he passed away provided us the deposit we’d need for a family home in NYC, so there was the additional emotional weight of wanting to be responsible stewards of that generous inheritance. And then to feel we made a reckless choice, even after so much careful thought — that we had squandered the money — made us feel like such idiots.

Then, things got better: Most of the issues we discovered in the house after we bought it were repaired and the bill was nowhere near as big as we were led to believe it would be. Our tenant, who told us the day after we closed that she was going out of business, moved out at the end of January and we found a new tenant much more quickly than we thought it would take, learning in the process a little bit more about how commercial real estate in NYC works (including that it’s customary to offer a couple months of free rent to a new commercial tenant, ouch). We even got a tenant (the restaurant next door) to rent out our backyard for gardening, for some additional passive income. Things were trucking along. But I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even after saging our place like crazy, it felt like the negative energy of the previous owners — who sucked — was still lingering about. Also, I think a part of me feels like an imposter living in this place — like it can’t really feel truly mine if I don’t suffer a bit having it. (Hey! Look at all the money in therapy bills I saved figuring that one out myself.)

And then last Thursday morning I smelled something in the kids’ bedroom that I was pretty sure was the scent of death. By the evening the scent was so undeniable that even Drew, who has a terrible sense of smell, had to admit it was potent. We already knew there was a small hole in the seam of the ceiling and the exterior wall that our contractor said he’d patch once spring came and the threat of ice and snow was over (he said he’d have to put up scaffolding to reach the hole, and then while the scaffolding was up, patch up the cracks and erosion on the whole exterior facade), and we’d heard what we were pretty sure were squirrels throwing parties in the ceiling every few weeks. They’d go away for a while and then come back. Joanie would call it “the knocking.,” as in “Mommy, the knocking is back!” And then I’d get a broom and bang on the ceiling, and the squirrels would scamper away. (We’d see them out the window, running down the wall and onto the trees outside.) I felt like a sitting duck waiting for one of them to die in our wall. And then, last week, one finally did.

We called an exterminator last Friday morning — a grizzly white guy who was carrying a bunch of cages and poles with hooks and an opened bag of marshmallows (for bait, I assumed) and who stepped inside the room, took one sniff, and said, “Ma’am, I’m a retired NYPD cop and this smells like a homicide.” I assured him I hadn’t murdered anyone — not yet — and then he told me I had one of two choices: I could spend potentially thousands of dollars and hire someone to start cutting and patching holes in the ceiling to find and remove the dead animal (whom he agreed was probably a squirrel), or, “What I’d do,” he said, “is just wait it out. If it’s a mouse, you’re looking at a week at the most, a rat is two weeks max, and a squirrel is maybe two to three weeks of hell while nature takes its course.” We opted for two to three weeks of hell.

So, we moved the kids’ mattresses to the playroom, opened the windows in their bedroom, threw in some air fresheners, taped up the vents, turned on a fan, and closed the door while nature took its course. And let me tell you, the smell was every bit as bad as you’d imagine. Maybe worse.

Through the whole weekend, we spent as much time outside our home as we could. We saw Daniel Tiger Live! We picnic’d in the park! I broke out my bike and went for my first ride of the season. The stench lingered, but we were surviving. Still, I had trouble sleeping, thinking about, you know, a dead animal decomposing right above where my kids normally sleep, so I was already awake when, on Monday morning at 5:00, our fire detector in the playroom went off. Within minutes, water burst through the fire detector in the ceiling and Drew and I sprung into action. We got the kids down to our bed and told them to stay calm (which they did, even though Jackson told me later he was terrified). I gathered towels and sheets and every bucket, garbage can, and large container I could find to try to catch what was quickly becoming a monsoon pouring through the ceiling. I documented it on Insta Stories, and within half an hour I was getting texts from local friends asking how they could help.

My friend Lesley brought over more buckets, and by 8:00, I was literally racing back and forth from the playroom to the bathroom, dumping bucket after bucket after bucket after bucket of water, with no minutes to spare between laps. Drew was on the roof both trying to find the source of the leak and trying to sump pump the water pooling up. The sump pump we borrowed from a friend stopped working, so he ran to the cafe next door and borrowed theirs, and that one didn’t work either (turns out he wasn’t using them exactly correctly, being are new to all this, you see). And the more it rained — it was raining so hard!— the more difficult it got to contain the water raining through the ceiling. I was about to give up. The cracks kept getting bigger and bigger. Water soaked the walls and dripped to the floor below. I was running buckets up and down the stairs as fast as I could and it seemed almost futile. I was so scared the ceiling was going to cave in. I saw the next two years of our lives flash before us.

And then our friend Matt came over with some tarps and his expertise. “Did you check the drain yet?” he asked. And within a few minutes, he and Drew found the drain, which was totally clogged with leaves and debris, they cleared it, Matt showed Drew how to work the sump pump, the heavens opened, angels sang, and our home was saved.

It was super stressful in those six hours or so during which we didn’t know what the issue was or how to solve it, but it seems ok now. A contractor just came by to assess the damage and he doesn’t think it’s severe. We’ll get an estimate in a few days for the cost of repairs, and hopefully our insurance will cover it. So… all in all, not such a big deal in the end. I was worried I’d lose a bunch of hair, as has been typical after stressful events since my alopecia started a couple years ago, but even that didn’t happen. (I think the acupuncture and stinky Chinese herbs I started taking are working!)

I’m feeling pretty grateful today that things weren’t much worse. Had we been out of town, like we were two weeks ago, or even out for the day when this happened, the damage would have been extensive. We likely would have lost half of our possessions, and our home would have been uninhabitable for a while. Had our friends not come to help or had they not had the experience to know what to look for, we’d be in a lot more trouble. Had the source been more challenging to fix than just a clogged drain, we’d be a lot more screwed. If some of you hadn’t mentioned a dehumidifier and if we hadn’t already had a big one in our basement, our walls would not have dried out so quickly (hopefully we’ve avoided mold, but we’ll confirm that later). So, thank you! I even got to forget about the decomposing rodent in our wall for a few hours!

I’m not sure if I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop or not. For good measure, we’re thinking of hiring some monks to come do an energy cleanse on our place. And/ or… maybe I’ll stop thinking that I need to suffer in order to feel like I “deserve” this house, and instead I will just be grateful. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes things don’t work out in your favor. Sometimes they do. It’s probably best, when they do work out, to just appreciate it. And, when things don’t work out, be grateful then for the people who show up and support you.

25 comments… add one
  • ktfran April 18, 2018, 12:22 pm

    Fuck! I’d do the energy cleanse. I mean, I don’t really believe in that, but fuck, there is some bad juju in your place. And I was secretly waiting to read that the dead rodent was, in fact, a human. Awesome storytelling! I’m glad it wasn’t though.

    I’m glad all is well right now and I hope it continues to get better. Sending good thoughts your way.

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  • CCL April 18, 2018, 12:48 pm

    Maybe this is a dumb question – and I don’t know the structure of your home but do you have access to your attic to have someone go in and look for the dead rodents? I bought my first home 5 years ago and it has been stressful at times, it’s just me so any repairs is paid by myself so I definitely know that feeling when things go wrong and you just stress thinking about how much it will cost. Ugh!

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    • TheGirlinME April 18, 2018, 7:41 pm

      @CC I just bought mine last year. Sunk all my retirement in for the down payment. All was great, until the winter. Then the roof/windows began to leak right above where the heater plugged in. It’s just me, too. Had all the inspections done prior & it was a brand-new remodel. Definitely stressful.

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  • carolann April 18, 2018, 1:00 pm

    I feel every bit of what you are going through and feeling some PTSD. Remembering the bad rains we had in Atlanta and my husband spending two days with a shop vac in the corner sucking up water that was pouring in the corner of our basement apartment. We had to switch off, so he could go to the bathroom or eat something. He had to call out of work. It was a nightmare!
    My best friend also lived in a basement apartment and she lost everything she owned. I felt so bad for her.
    Then came the rat ?. My husband was working out of town and the smell was enough to make you vomit. I searched everywhere. Moved and cleaned everything. It took over a month to find him. He had crawled into my old 1950s Magnavox stereo and died. One of the tubes gave out in it, so it hadn’t been opened in a while. I opened it to clean and omg!
    I have never found a rat in my house before. It was dang disgusting!
    I guess your situation not much different. Squirrels are just cute rats with fluffy tails! We have them in our attic right now knocking. I am going to put a trap up there before one dies on me.
    I sell vintage and retro mid century. The shop I sold in burned to the ground. I was insured, but the loss got to me emotionally because of the history of the stuff that was destroyed.
    And last, but not least… in the same basement apartment an old cast iron sewer pipe busted and poured sewage all over my stuff. All my things are mid century and some are extremely rare. Lucky for me the worst damage was to my rugs. I only lost a few things. I have to remind myself it is just STUFF. But when collecting is your business (and my families before me) you get overly attached.
    I forgot our family’s 1930s FL vacation home (my great grandparents old house) flooding. (Busted pipe, turned the water off at the street after that) Luckily we had people keeping and eye on the house who alerted us. (Always a good idea to give someone trusted a key.)
    I am glad the worst is over and the damage wasn’t too bad.
    In all my situations everything worked out and the losses weren’t near as bad as they could have been.

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  • carolann April 18, 2018, 1:05 pm

    When they are repairing your roof can’t they go ahead and get your dead squirrel out?
    Reminds me of the woman they found who had been missing for years… she was in her attic and fell through into a space behind the walls. Renters found her years later.

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      Dear Wendy April 18, 2018, 1:08 pm

      Well, there’s nothing to repair — it was just a clogged drain on the roof that we unclogged (removed the debris). The dead squirrel is not in the roof or an attic. It is in the space between two floors.

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      • Vicki April 19, 2018, 4:09 pm

        Word of advice! I had a similar situation 2.5 years ago. Got a roofer to come and told me that the drain was clogged with leaves and debris. So once a year, I made a habit to have someone come by and clear the drain. Then, this past fall, it happened again! It turned out when the previous owners fixed the roof, the guy must’ve done a bad job as the drain wasn’t installed properly. (Don’t know much about plumbing but there’s a drain within a drain that wasn’t clipped together properly and water was seeping through the gap between the two.) Had to get the drain replaced and properly installed. If you have a flat roof, Wendy, it’s worth checking too, just in case! Glad the damage wasn’t too bad! Having gone through it twice, it truly is stressful!

  • carolann April 18, 2018, 1:11 pm

    When I firsted started reading today I thought you meant there was an actual corpse. In an older home you never know. Lol

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  • SpaceySteph April 18, 2018, 1:35 pm

    Oh man, this is definitely the joy of homeownership, but you seem to have a heavy concentration of it right now!
    We had an attic rat that chewed through the thermostat wire for our A/C. This wire runs from the thermostat down to the compressor unit outside to trigger it to turn on. So while the compressor was fine, it wouldn’t go on when needed. This we discovered after replacing the central control unit for the AC ($900) and after it shorted out our thermostat. And this after we had to pay $2000 last year to replace a different broken component on the compressor.

    We also have a large water stain on our ceiling courtesy of water intrusion during Hurricane Harvey, but we were lucky that’s all it was and that the sheetrock didn’t cave. Our previous home also had a roof water leak that brought down paint and drywall into the master bathroom. I have not so fond memories of trying to pee next to a bowl collecting a steady stream of water.

    Also you’re not the first person I’ve heard of whose first sign of a water leak was a smoke detector going off. How weird.

    I think you’ve had enough homeownership for awhile, hope for sunny skies (literally and figuratively) going foward!

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  • JD April 18, 2018, 2:10 pm

    Yuck. My mom had the rodents in the wall thing one time. Same thing “we can spend thousands tearing walls apart and likely not find it or you can wait it out”. Lots of candles were lit and windows left open. It was just horrible smelling. Luckily it was about a week and the smell was gone. It really just disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

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    MaterialsGirl April 18, 2018, 2:24 pm

    uffda, so many lessons in one day! Sump pump operation (so key), the multipurpose bandage that are tarps, clogged drains!

    I would look into grated drain covers, and definitely do the dehumidifier thing for longer than you think. Some of that moisture just sticks around. Luckily, it sounds like you’ll only have minimal dry wall to redo which is a whole lot better than the full sheets!

    I know that Home Depot and i’m sure other hardware type stores have new homeowner lessons or classes. Obviously you can’t prepare for all the potential housing disasters, but knowing how to install a new toilet (super easy!), basic electrical work, and other things is always helpful. As is the phone number of a good plumber/electrician/HVAC person

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  • LisforLeslie April 18, 2018, 2:28 pm

    Oh that sucks. When I lived in DC there were rats that would get stuck in the vents and in between the floors. The lobby would smell of dead goat for about a week or so. I shudder to think of what they’ll find if they ever remodel (they won’t remodel).

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    Dear Wendy April 18, 2018, 2:35 pm

    Thanks for the commiseration, guys. We definitely feel like we were thrown into the deep end of homeownership lessons! Hopefully, smooth waters now for a bit, fingers crossed.

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  • brise April 18, 2018, 3:03 pm

    Dear Wendy, sorry for this trouble! Tough to live this with little kids. But I think it is classic. Once you come into a new home, you see quickly all the defects. We had also a flood right after inhabiting our new home (which was an old house full of defects). You have to put money and energy in the first months or first year, in order to fix the problems, then it is OK, it calms down. And I know people who came into a brand new home and had also such problems, more additional work. It is unfortunately very common, but then it becomes better!

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  • brise April 18, 2018, 3:07 pm

    And for the rodents, if possible, I would try to have a professional find the source, the hole where they come in, or at least ask for advice and a price estimation. Usually one can fix such problems. Perhaps also some repulsive substances can have them stay away?

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  • Rangerchic April 18, 2018, 3:25 pm

    Sorry your are going through all of this! We’ve been homeowners for nearly 20 years from owning older homes to two years ago building a home and there is never a guarantee that everything will be perfect. In fact, almost a year into our newly built home, a water leak was discovered in the crawl space which we later found out was caused when the construction crew hung the shelves in our pantry and drilled 6 screws into a pipe. Luckily, we were still in warranty so didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket, just time off work. Ours was also caught before too much damage was done.
    Good luck getting all the damages repaired! Hopefully it won’t cost to much or take to much time.

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    FireStar April 18, 2018, 5:20 pm

    What a nightmare! Home ownership is no joke.
    In the last three months I’ve had a sewer line back up because city tree roots grew into the pipe, almost frozen pipes that I literally had to run around putting heating pads on to prevent from freezing completely and the city replacing the curb stop but putting debris in the intake pipe which ended up in all my faucet filters…so I have to replace the cartridges in all the faucets. And by me I mean pay a plumber to do it.
    But at least no dead rodents! So yay! At least you had Drew and friends that came out to help. Dealing with these things alone sucks. But on the plus side you are due for some peace and quiet from the home owning gods. You have definitely paid your dues.

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    Skyblossom April 18, 2018, 8:28 pm

    Have you had anyone check your foundation? The only times I’ve known of someone having a gap in a wall large enough for a squirrel to go through they have either had a foundation problem and the crack is caused by the building shifting or they had a huge amount of rot due to water problems that were ignored. Before fixing the crack I think you need to determine the cause of the crack and address the underlying problem and then fill in the crack. There is a reason the crack is there just like there was a reason the water poured in. If you find the reason you can fix it and prevent the problem from happening over and over.

    We clean our gutters twice a year. First, in the spring, just after the helicopters come off the maple trees. Maple trees make so many seeds that they can clog drains just as badly as leaves. Then again in the fall after the leaves have fallen. If you don’t have any maple trees you may get by with a once a year clean out but I’d check the drain in the spring and then again in the summer just be to be sure. After a year or two you’ll know when the drains will need to be cleaned.

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      Dear Wendy April 19, 2018, 5:43 am

      The foundation is good. The building is 90 years old, hence the cracks in the exterior. The previous owners built an addition in 2015 and I think ran out of money and cut corners (and then sold quickly bc I think they needed money). Almost all the problems we’ve discovered, including the small hole where the squirrel got in, are a result of the addition they built and the shoddy job in the building of it. Before we moved in, our contractor found and fixed a lot of those issues. We are hoping there aren’t more surprises.

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  • anonymousse April 18, 2018, 9:12 pm

    Wow! I’m so sorry you all had to go through this, but so glad you had good friends and neighbors helping you out. It takes a village.

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    MaterialsGirl April 18, 2018, 11:14 pm

    I feel like we should have a ‘dear wendy’ homeowner disaster prevention check list! (With tips). Love the hot pads on frozen pipes.

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  • Heatherly April 19, 2018, 6:24 am

    Ohh Wendy. Sorry to read this, but you tell it well. Hoping your luck is changing for the better.

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    MaterialsGirl April 19, 2018, 6:41 am

    oh shoot that totally reminds me! the dead rodent thing!?!? happened at work. WOW.

    that smell is something that sticks with you forever.

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  • Jane April 19, 2018, 11:59 am

    Oh man, so sorry you had to go through all that! One thing I learned from Harvey is that the walls may need to be sprayed with a bleach/water mixture (1/10). If you have or can borrow a pressure washer, that’ll make the job go a lot faster and may prevent mold, especially if you can get behind the drywall (double check all this with an actual contractor first since I am not one).

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  • Lori April 19, 2018, 4:37 pm

    Dear Wendy, isn’t homeownership grand? We too have had the dead rodent in the attic issue and subsequent debate. Our rodent corpse was under and eve that we were unable to reach. It was just above my youngest son’s room. I smelled it first, and hoped it wasn’t what I thought it was. However, confirmation came one warm evening when my son came to me and asked what the squirmy worm things were on his bed. I went and looked and, lo and behold, maggots were falling out of the can lights and on to his bed. OMG!!! Poor kid, it was like a horror movie, with all the screaming (me) and yelling (me, again). So, we had the rodent debate whether to rip out the ceiling or let nature take it’s course. Nature won, so we moved our kid out of the room, taped paper plates over the can light holes to catch the maggots (OMG), opened the windows and let nature take it’s course. Fortunately, we’re in Southern California and it was hot and dry, so this went pretty quickly (10 days). I’ve lived in my 1950 house for most of my whole life (purchased it from my father), and when it rains, it pours. We’ve had floods (2), fires (2), broken pipes, broken HVAC, and probably some things I can’t remember, over the past 50 plus years. However, these things are what make this home ours. We put our heart and soul into fixing, decorating, living in it and enjoying it. We’ve raised two generations of strong children in it and it’s not just a house, but our home. At some point or another, all well-loved people or things need some TLC. Stay strong and enjoy the journey. XO

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