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.