We are a project house. There's rarely a day either my wife or I is not working on some kind of home repair (that would be me) or a new dish or baked good (that would be my wife). While the kids require us to be at home so much, these activities act partly as an adult distraction and partly as a measure of privacy.
"Coming to bed," my wife asked a little earlier as she was heading upstairs.
"No" I said, "I'm going to do a little work on the bathroom first - pop in a few more tiles tonight."
All week long, I've been repairing a (formerly) tiled section of our bathroom wall where the drywall had rotted out.
We don't have the funds right now to replace the bathroom, so I've been taking it day by day, cleaning it out, fitting, cutting, and screwing in new drywall and re-grouting the tiles. I've tried to put in a half hour to an hour each night. I try not to think about the time it's taking (or the sleep or free time I'm giving up). Instead, I try to think about doing the next little bit; that and about having our second bathroom back.
I also feel, that when I fix tiles - fitting little squares into a pattern with glue - like my daughter must feel in her art class at preschool. It's a kind of simple creation. I find that little four year old part of me that wants to show off the Halloween pumpkin or Thanksgiving turkey that I made. It's an expression of pride and love.
"Looks like a lot of work," my wife said to me earlier this week, a little curiously, observing my progress calmly, "Thanks for fixing it."
"No more work than preparing a menu for a family holiday," I said to myself thinking of the recent holidays she's hosted for our family and friends, "Thanks for baking those cookies."
She's a baker and a cook, my wife is. She makes bread, cakes, brownies. She reads Julia Child and prepares elaborate dinners for the holidays. She constantly challenges herself (and my diet) with new creations. She's not shy about complex projects with lots of steps. It's one of the traits we share in common.
I always used to think it was a little cute; how we could be so different in our subjects of interest, but so similar in our capacity. She's a cooker, I'm a cleaner; She creates, I improvise and repair. I feel sometimes like the Owl to her Pussycat in the Edward Lear poem,
"...and they danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon, and they danced by the light of the moon."
Now I'm all the more grateful for all these differences. Our different approaches seem to help more when things get tougher.
"Karen and Anthony think the little guy needs a leg brace," she said to me over dinner earlier this week, discussing the next treatment my son will need for his cerebral palsy, "he's inclined not to use his left leg and they both think it's a good idea."
"Okay," I said, trying to hold in my discomfort with the idea of it, "We gotta help the the little guy."
I have to put my mind in a much longer term mode - way beyond bathroom tiles here. I try to imagine my son walking to work some day, or going for a morning jog, or walking up to get his diploma. At the same time I also try to think only about the first steps. I try to give myself time of just getting used to the idea, like thinking about a morning run while I'm still laying in bed. I try not to think of the extra work it will take to get him dressed; to take him through his drills in the morning before my run; to distract him when he's conscious (and frustrated) with the constraint. I know these things will come - and I will do them - but it helps me to just think of the next step.
I also know I can rely on my wife to start this new therapy for us. Though it's not the same, it's always amazing to me how she prepares herself for a new task in the kitchen. She pulls down the right cookbook; takes out all the utensils and bowls and cups; and lays out all the ingredients around her in our kitchen so that the place looks and smells like a test kitchen in full career.
"I'll take him in for his fitting," she said later, "I'll work with the prosthetics people to find a small cast and coordinate with his therapists."
"Thanks," I said, my head hung a little for being overwhelmed, "Thanks for doing that."
I'm grateful for her strengths and her approach to these new challenges. In my better moments, they remind me of my own strengths; they remind me of some of the excitement we had when we were first a couple and discovering those secret talents.
"Gonna need a tile saw," I said to myself tonight when I had nearly finished. Somewhere along the way in this job, I left one or two tiles with a little too much grout between them. I'm left with a couple of tiles that won't fit in the remaining space, "Gonna take another day or so to finish.
I cleaned up and put the remaining tiles and grout on a high shelf. I stopped and made tea and sat down to write (another step by step process) .
"Give it a half hour," I say again, "Start something small."
There are so many fables and stories that teach us to act like this; the tortoise, the inchworm, the little engine. But each time I need that patience, it's like finding it for the first time; like being an impatient kid again.
"Little steps make big changes," I can still hear my Dad's own take on the practice, "try to do something small."
Once I start, it's not so bad. I know I'll se it through. And I know there'll be a cookie or a pie waiting for me when I do.