Have you ever noticed that sometimes it’s not the big things that get us down? It seems we’re prepared to deal with really big problems, but a series of little ones can just about break us. I recall a time when we had so many small things happen in such a short span of time that we were beginning to think we would not survive it. It’s strange how, after such a siege of mishaps, one incident can change your perspective in an instant.
A few years ago, we had started on a trip to visit my husband’s oldest sister, long widowed and getting on in years. She lives seven hours away up on the Arkansas/Missouri border. The first stop we made was at Atwood’s in Poteau, where we bought a large two-wheeled yard cart for me to use because I don’t get along that well with wheelbarrows, and I enjoy doing yard work. I mention that only because it plays a part later on.
The next stop we made was in Clarksville, AR, when I had an ulcer attack. I never know what brings them on or when to expect them. I don’t have those things very often, thankfully, but when I do, it must be something to see. They start suddenly and usually within a couple of minutes I’m sweating profusely and throwing up, not because I’m sick, but because of the severe pain. They can last 10 minutes or two hours. We drove to a nearby park to wait it out. Fortunately, that turned out to be a short one and we were on our way again.
As we approached Conway, I tried to call my mother’s childhood friend, Esther, who lived in Conway. I had been trying for days to reach her but had failed to get an answer. This time her sister answered the phone and said she was cleaning out Esther’s apartment, as Esther had passed away a few days prior. I was very fond of Esther and she had thought enough of me to give me the friendship quilt my mother and their mutual friends had made for her over seventy years earlier. So it was sad news for me.
At Ash Flat, a car passed us on the left and promptly slammed into the back of another vehicle stopped to make a left turn. The impact sent the vehicle flying right towards us. Only by my husband’s skillful maneuvering and the grace of God were we able to avoid being hit.
We finally made it to my sister-in-law’s house, exhausted and shaken. For over 20 years she had lived in a tiny, run-down house that belonged to a relative of her late husband. I don’t think they charged her any rent, but neither did they make needed repairs. We often offered to work on the house, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
She had only one bedroom, so that night my husband slept on the couch and I slept (and I use the word loosely)in a folding recliner in the kitchen. I started the night with a throbbing headache, so every sound was amplified. The water heater in the corner of the kitchen made a nuclear explosion every time it ignited. The refrigerator competed with irritating noises of its own. Strange how you never notice those things when you’re not trying to sleep, especially with your head pounding like an Apache drum during a rain dance.
Even at midnight, the heat was oppressive. My sister-in-law had no air conditioning, and not even a fan was available. The window screens were all shot, and hardly slowed mosquitoes down on their way in. They buzzed around my head like buzzards after road kill. Soon I could imagine fighter jets circling a target. And I was it.
The back door near my head was open, though there was a screen door that was latched. The neighbors to the back apparently never sleep and like to celebrate late into the night. About the time they settled down and I finally dozed off, two neighborhood cats launched into a yowling match on the back porch. Soon it blossomed into an all-out battle. I could hear their bodies slam against the wood floor and feel the house shake as they flung one another around like professional wrestlers.
Having reached the end of my endurance, I slipped out the front door, crawled into our van and eventually managed to sleep for a few minutes.
When I heard stirring in the house to indicate that my husband and his sister were up, I went in and suggested we get our showers out of the way. I took the first shower while he shaved. The old metal shower stall was rusted through near the bottom, with a large area completely eroded away. His sister had shored it up with two small boards and a few rusty nails. I could just see one of us slipping and cutting a leg off on the jagged metal.
I eased out of the shower and my husband gingerly stepped in. As I was dressing, I happened to look down in time to see a snake crawl through a hole in the floor. You can imagine the commotion that went on in the next few minutes. Suffice it to say that my husband killed the snake, identified it as a ground rattler, and said that since it was a young one, there was probably a nest of them under the house. Comforting thought.
That day I learned that one can actually go for quite a long time without visiting a bathroom. Especially one frequented by snakes.
As soon as the excitement died down, Sis had a faint spell and had to sit down. In spite of her advanced age, she seldom shows any sign of weakness. We thought she was having a heart attack. She said she had taken her medicine on an empty stomach and that was why she was feeling faint. We were not convinced, but had to take her word for it.
Her only child had recently died and she was obviously still depressed. She forbade us to tell the owners of the house about the snake. When I expressed concern that she would get bitten and die, she said, “Well, we all have to die of something.” And she indicated that death would be welcome. Just what we needed to hear.
Then she went outside and brought in a flat rock which she placed over the hole in the bathroom floor. It was still there when she finally moved out of the house several years later.
The rest of the day was somewhat uneventful. I had resolved to start out sleeping in the van that night, but by bedtime my husband was sick and running a fever, so I was afraid to leave him. I spent another night with the mosquitoes and cats, but at least my headache was gone.
We started home the next morning and things were going well till I felt a stinging feeling in a protruding part of my body and discovered a large lump. That fit right in with the rest of the trip. “Just another cyst,” I told myself, but planned to call my doctor to have it checked when we got home.
We arrived at home late in the afternoon, and were unloading the car when my husband called from our bedroom, where he had just deposited an armload of clothes on the bed. “Do you have any idea what these dark spots on the carpet are?” I knelt and ran a hand across them. The carpet was soaking wet and the dark spots were his footprints.
We started searching frantically for a water leak. He was afraid it was a pipe ruptured in the concrete floor. I pulled everything out from under the bathroom cabinet but there was no water there. Eventually we discovered that the ice maker tubing on the back of our refrigerator had ruptured and water had seeped under the wall into our bedroom.
My husband turned off the water and we started cleaning up. There was a four by six-foot bookcase at the point where the water entered the bedroom, and it was filled to capacity. We loaded the new lawn cart with books and moved them to another room. Several trips later the bookcase was empty and ready to move.
After removing the rest of the furniture in that end of the room, we vacuumed up all the water we could with the rug shampooer, and then took the carpet loose on three sides. We pulled it back, propped it up, and cut the padding loose. After taking the padding outside and spreading it out over the deck furniture, we placed fans under the carpet. By the time we were finally able to go to bed, in another bedroom, it was time for my husband to get up and go to work.
It took several days to get that mess dried up and things back in order. Just as we finished, we noticed water dripping from the utility room door frame. Rushing upstairs, we discovered that the upstairs hot water heater, which had gone out of warranty 15 minutes earlier, had sprung a leak. My husband turned the water off and drained the tank, and we carried it out on the upstairs deck and down the outside stairs. Easy to say, but not a fun job for two creaky old bodies.
At this point you may be thinking that we were taking all this really well. Actually, I just prefer not to take up space describing our growing feelings of frustration. Think about how you would feel and react in the ongoing situation, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of how it was going with us.
I went back upstairs to mop up the water in the water heater closet, and for some reason pushed open the nearby door into the attic. Our builders had constructed a large platform in the attic for storage, and it had been put to good use. Now my pack rat habits had come home to roost. The platform had collapsed.
We dragged all the contents out onto the upper deck. Shoring up the platform was not hard to do, but since I wanted to sort through all the junk before I returned it to the attic, it was a job requiring several more days. That kind of thing is on the very top line in my list of hated jobs. But it had to be done, and done before it started raining.
But first we had to take care of the water heater. Since the warranty was out on both of our water heaters, we decided to replace the one downstairs as well as the leaky one. We drove to Fort Smith, AR and purchased two of them with the longest possible warranty.
On the way home, we stopped at Wal-Mart in Poteau. Television sets had been placed in numerous locations throughout the store and all were tuned to the news channel. We went to investigate the reason for it, and watched a plane fly into the World Trade Center, saw people jumping out of high windows, and then watched the buildings collapse. Suddenly the catastrophes of the last few days seemed insignificant, and we realized we had been sweating the small stuff.