Drywall in the Time of Grief

As well as life lessons, Janet offers writing lessons in this well-crafted essay — about extended metaphor and about writing from what is happening in one’s life to find insight and resolution. That resolution might be a small or a large one, whether we write from a state of grief, joy, memory or puzzlement. And there is another lesson here for us as well: when an essay touches the hearts of many, it has a long, long life. –ed.

A note from the author JL Oakley:

“Drywall in the Time of Grief” won first prize at Surrey International Writer’s Conference in October 2006. It was first published in A World of Words, Writing Contest Anthology 2006.

The essay was published later in America in A Cup of Comfort for the Grieving Heart, Adams Media, 2010. Elizabeth Lyons wrote of my essay, “What does drywall have to do with healing after the loss of a lifemate? Everything. In this touching essay, the author deftly draw parallels between the process of remodeling a house and building a new self and satisfying solo life.”

I can’t exactly say I’ve achieved this, but I certainly have been on an interesting road.

–-JL Oakley, February, 2011 

I can tell you all about grief, but I’d rather talk about drywall and the way mud is spackled across the tape in smooth flowing runs until it disappears, its edges morphed into gray flat evenness. How it must turn dry until it is sanded again and more mud applied, each layer growing even with the wall it conjoins. I can tell you about texturing and priming and bringing an ugly thing to beauty and completion. Only then I can take your hand and tell you about sorrow and the need for busy hands

When my husband of thirty-one years died of a sudden heart attack, his death not only left a hole in my heart, but a hole in my kitchen wall. It was as tall and wide as the refrigerator it once held, an ugly maw to the rotten room full of boots and tools behind it.

Once for a graduation party for one of our sons, we framed the space around it with molding and hung a curtain in front.

“For when we remodel,” my husband said. But that was hardly likely. The wind came under the back door and broken floor. Its cold breath stirred the curtain. Money wasn’t at hand. It was never done.

So there was I, fifty-five and widowed and as lonely as the First Day with no one to turn to. A newly framed garage leaned dangerously towards the neighbor’s yard and the back fence had fallen down. There was a hole in my kitchen wall. To add insult to injury, I got robbed.

An empty house is a widow’s bane, easily vacated on the flimsiest reason or timed for late arrival from work or outings so that you can just go to bed and be done with the day. There is no one to greet you, no one to ask about your day or grouse about life’s infractions. There is only silence, a living thing that grows until it grips you like its prey.

I escaped from the house the very next day, compelled to get out of bed and drive down to Bellingham Bay where we walked my husband’s chocolate lab on the beach every day. I took his jeep and cried all the way down through the middle of town, cried across the beach until I couldn’t see (all the while the dog barked and chased sticks and waves). I finally asked God to send me a bald eagle and He did. One snap of a finger and an eagle flew out, its wing tips stretched out and tickling the clear morning air. It came towards me, then turned away, its white tail like a trapezoid flag. After that I saw bald eagles all the time for the next three days. Over my house, at the funeral home, and at the beach again. Then red tail hawks, rough-legged hawks, peregrines and herons. My Native American friends said that was good. My husband’s spirit was speaking to me.

It gave me solace most of the time, but I still had to come home.

I sought comfort and advice, but the best didn’t come from well-meaning friends or family, but from those who had faced the same trial. Only the bereaved knows the other, I discovered. Like we had all stepped into an exclusive room no others could see.

“Welcome to the silent sisterhood,” one widow said.

“Time does heal, but first it’ll get worse before it gets better,” said another.

“It took me five years.”

“You’ll never get over it, but you will go on.”

“Keep busy.”

I decided to “keep busy.”

A week after the robbery and just a scant month after my husband died, a member of my church came to see the door. It sagged on its pins, its middle sections weak and rotten.

“Uh,” Claude said as he pushed on it. The lock didn’t hold either. “Looks pretty bad.”

He tinkered around the frame, then he announced he was going to take the door off its hinges and take it home. “The panels are bad, but the rest of the door is firm. Besides, a new solid door is costly.”

In meantime, he would nail a board over the opening.

That’s when I pointed out the hole in my kitchen wall. Could there be any help on that?

“I’ll do it myself if someone showed me,” I said.

Claude turned and smiled. He’d see what he could do about that.

Two days later I came home from work to find the door back in its place and Claude working on the threshold. It was still rotten at the bottom of the wall and the wind came through, but a rolled towel could take care of that. I tried the door. It clunked when it shut. It was as solid as an iron gate. Then I looked at the wall to the left. Claude had set in a new sheet of drywall and taped it.

“Look on the other side.”

I went into the kitchen. Where the maw had been before, a sheet of drywall hung. Now the work would begin.

There are things about grief that can’t be hurried. It doesn’t go away just because the rest of world thinks there is x number of days to finish it up or because tears at odd junctures are unsettling to it. Grief can’t be forced. It has its own rhythm known only to itself.

Dry wall is like that. It takes patience and concentration. And it takes time.

It also takes proper tools. Claude gave me two: a pre-primed board scrap that was smooth and even and a wide spackling knife. He also showed me how to scoop the spackle from its pot and work it with the knife upon the board until it was smooth as icing on a cake.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Slab a glob on the tape then push so the blade splays out and spreads it thin. Wipe excess on the edge of the board and start again.

Soon the knife flowed across the tape until the edges disappeared. I could have ended it there and called it done, but a wall takes time. Old must flow into new until it’s one.

I learned to wait.

Each night I would come home from work to the empty house, dreading its echoes and a dog worried that I would leave her too, but after changing I went to the wall and sanded down the rough edges of yesterday’s work. Then taking up the board and knife I would start anew, slowly adding a new layer to the last. When I was done, I let it dry until the next day. By the end of the week, it was finished. The tape had disappeared and the wall felt smooth to the touch from the old to the new. I sanded one more time, added texture, primed it and eventually painted the new wall and the entire kitchen.

Then I started to work on the bare drywall concealing the backside of the old maw. Once again I covered the tape with spackle, sanding it and adding more until the new piece flowed into the old. I textured, painted and learned to use molly screws to put up some shelves. I moved upstairs, tore out ancient rugs and painted again. Busy hands to heal and transform.

I am at peace now. It has taken nearly five years and though I can still cry on a dime when I see a bald eagle fly across my path, read a handwritten note of my husband’s or celebrate alone one of our three son’s achievements, I am happy most of the time. I have left the “us” and “ours” of my life and moved into “mine” and “me” carrying those precious thirty-one years with me.

The house feels new. The rotten walls at the back are gone and replaced with new solid ones — all painted by me. A foundation of historic looking blocks has replaced sandstone rocks and bricks to hold it up. I have gutters, gardens and this fall a new furnace will warm the house completely for the first time in the many years I’ve lived here. In a sense, all my grief is cleaned and spackled away.

There are new cracks in the walls, but this happy thing comes from a 102-year-old house settling onto its new digs.

I will come home at night and after sipping ice tea or even wine, I will take my spackling knife and board in hand and fill each crack with patience, love and care.

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  11. Emptying my parents’ house and preparing it for sale ministered to my grief in so many ways. It was wrenching to sell or give away so much of the evidence of their existence, but I put my hands on everything they owned, and in so doing, I began the process of letting go. Your essay reminded me of the power of our hands to heal our hearts. Thank you.

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