Mold Remediation Becomes Soul Remediation

My Coronavirus story began back in December when I noticed a small trickle of water winding its way through the concrete floor in our basement utility room. At first, I went about my workout (yes, with two kids at home, my workout room is relegated to the utility room). Pounding out set after set of ring dips, pull-ups, and push-ups, I ignored whatever inconvenience the world might be throwing at me with this sign of water. However, as I wrapped up my workout that day, I had to snap back to reality and search out why water was winding its way around the floor below.

Curious, I poked my head around, behind the water heater, under the stationary tub, and around the cold cracked floor. Unable to detect anything I grabbed a flashlight, but, shining the light all around the crevices of the room, I could not find the source of this water. Okay, the floor is concrete, I figured, no real damage, and I walked away, oblivious to the danger that may have existed down below. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I had forgotten about these signs of water as I went about the chaos of teaching, raising two boys with my wife, and navigating the prelude to the holiday season. The next time I descended into the basement, however, I noticed the trickle had invaded further into my workout space. The concrete below the stationary tub was now a darkened damp gray. Perplexed, I once again searched around and concluded that it must be the hot water heater. I walked upstairs, mentioned to Michelle that we needed to add another expenditure to our seemingly never-ending list of projects and improvements that comes with being homeowners. Already on our radar was resurfacing the cabinets, replacing the floor in our upstairs bathrooms, and putting in a new shower in the basement bathroom. There had also been this nagging musty, sweet maple-y smell that often permeated through the house, but although it was annoying we had grown used to it, and added two more items to the to-do list: maybe have the ducts cleaned and deep clean our carpets to have everything smelling fresh.

Then Christmas came, days were spent away from home and then we hosted our annual neighborhood New year’s Eve bash complete with balloon drop at 9 p.m. Yet this year Ryan and Andrew would not stand for going to bed as soon as their friends left. Nope, this year, they insisted on staying up, and all four of us, Michelle and I included with our drooping heads and sleepy eyes, watched the ball drop at midnight. It would be the first sign that this would be a unique year full of new experiences.

 

Flash forward to January 20, Martin Luther King Day, a day of respite from work, and a day to serve others. I ventured down the basement to serve my family by beginning the demolition of the drywall in our basement bathroom so the new shower could be put in. Now I am not what you would call a handyman, but hey, I could destroy things! So I went at it with my sledgehammer and pry bar, and began knocking down and ripping out drywall piece by piece. I was getting into a rhythm now, feeling good, feeling a sense of accomplishment. And then suddenly, I was stopped dead in my tracks.

 

Behind the wall I had just attacked, water was spurting everywhere from a tiny plastic tube. As I glanced around at what seconds before had been hidden behind the wall, I was shocked: the wooden studs were rotted through, the pink insulation had turned a grisly black, and a stream of water seeped along the path right towards, you guessed it, the utility room. I stood amidst the chaos of debris, sheetrock dust and cracked porcelain tiles, and shaking my head in disgust, let out a few four letter expletives that somehow did not even capture my anger and frustration. My mind flashed back to that day in December when I had first noticed the water meandering along the concrete, and as with most things, this sigh of a problem actually lay hidden with a root cause that would prove much more sinister.

Within days, a whirlwind of people swept through our basement: insurance claims adjusters, contractors, air quality testers, and… dun, dun, dun… mold remediation companies ( a term I had never used or even heard before). But there we were in the middle of January with a diagnosis of mold throughout our basement, on the drywall, in the ductwork, and throughout.

 

Our basement quickly transformed into something out of a science fiction movie with plastic seals covering up all entrances, a loud humming machine running 24 hours a day, workers in space suits from head to toe. In all, our basement was quarantined ( a word that would soon become part of our everyday vocabulary) for over two weeks, and we did not have heat in our house at all for 13 days, including some frigid January nights. Space heaters lined our living quarters to provide some sense of warmth and Michelle learned an important lesson when she plugged two space heaters into the same room, blowing a fuse. I had to get special permission to enter my own basement, and had to do my best Spider Man impression scaling our wall over mountains of objects sealed off with plastic just to reach and flip a breaker. Not having heat over on those cold winter nights was a humbling experience knowing that we take this simple comfort for granted.

 

Finally, however, the mold remediation was complete, and we were able to enter our basement. Hooray! The kids would get some normalcy back. Wrong!

 

When I entered our basement, many more walls had been destroyed than had originally been thought necessary. I stared around our now unfinished basement with shock. I clenched up, overwhelmed at the amount of work and money that it would take to rebuild our basement.

 

Meanwhile, in the news, mention of a mysterious coronavirus began to flash across headlines and airwaves. It started popping up more and more, but then it became real on March 11 when the NBA suspended its season. More and more sports leagues made similar announcements in the following days, and then on the afternoon of March 13, came the announcement that all Pennsylvania schools would be shut down.

 

With this new unchartered territory, I decided to throw myself head on into this basement. Friday night, I hauled home 30 sheets of drywall, ready to take on this daunting project. First, as with any project or challenge in life, we needed a foundation. Thankfully, I had my dad and my buddy Angel there to help with their engineering and construction experience and expertise. By Saturday evening, we had the wall framed with studs ready to start the drywall the next day. After thanking them with Chinese food and cold beers, our house cleared out, we got the kids settled to bed, and we and the rest of America prepared to face our new normal.

 

Except I did not go up to bed. Instead, I ventured down to the basement. My white whale awaited, and I was about to embark on a journey that would make Ahab smile or, perhaps, cringe.

Step number 1 was to haul down to the basement a massive, cumbersome contraption known as a drywall lift. Once I figured out to put this lift together, which included snapping some pins that seemed shut with the power of the jaws of life, I had to move it with its triangle of legs on wheels and its long arms like tentacles spanning all over the basement. Finagling this unwieldy machine through the narrow bathroom door would prove to be the first major challenge of this voyage.

Next up, I began measuring and making the first awkward cuts of the piece of drywall that would hopefully soon become the new ceiling of our basement bathroom. Soon enough, I would learn the first of many  valuable lesson: not to make cuts too precise or the drywall is too tight. You have to leave room for flexibility, both in drywall and in life. The hours rolled by, and by the time I headed up to bed, it was 3 A.M. (an hour I hadn’t seen since college).

Yet, I was up at 7 a.m. the next morning and back at it in the basement. Hour after hour, day after day, the basement became my obsession. Over the 9 ensuing days, I spent over 100 hours in my basement, oblivious from the outside world. 27 sheets of drywall cut, hung, taped, mudded. But that doesn’t tell the story. There have been countless moments of frustration, curses muttered under my breath. I’m not sure if it was a healthy obsession, but it was definitely an obsession, and it did end up at least getting walls built in a previously barren basement.

 

Cuts a little too short. Cuts a little too long. Futilely trying to anchor screws into metal studs, watching the screw spin haphazardly off of the slick, unstable surface. Countless hours watching Youtube videos and then trying to master (or at least fumble my way through) new skills.

As I attempted to screw in the final piece of drywall, I screamed in anger as the screw spun its way off of yet another slippery, unstable metal stud. I finally admitted defeat. I had put in all the hours I could. The next day, I would have to resume “work” from home and help Ryan and Andrew with their elementary “home school.” I turned over the reins to a local contractor friend and had him finish the last few hours of work to get the walls and ceilings finalized and prepped for painting

 

In one sense, I was grateful for the time. When else would I have 10 straight days to rebuild my basement? Although these hours would prove extremely frustrating, they have also taught me a lot of lessons: Setting goals. Embracing failure. Humbly accepting the wisdom of others.

 

And while my own social isolation in my basement forced me to adjust and accept a new normal, we have all been forced to adjust to a new normal. As I write this, I am helping my second and fourth grade sons with their schoolwork, and Schoology(the program we are supposed to use)  has crashed!!! Ahhhh…haha, what more can we do but laugh. As we fumble our way through this online school fiasco, we are all venturing into an unknown future, a new normal.

 

We are all being forced to encounter in this new normal. And I think as I ask some of my students to complete writing assignments that this will seem as daunting for them as those empty walls were to me.

 

At night, I have allowed myself to actually unwind and read, staying up much later than I would if I had to be up at 5:30 to head to work. So, after countless hours slaving away in the basement and dealing with the anxiety of the Coronavirus pandemic, you might think I would treat myself to some light reading. Haha, of course not. I have been reading Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s heartbreaking memoir. Ironically, I’ve already read the sequels, ‘Tis and Teacher Man, so I figured I had better read the original. Plus, it had always eaten at me that my dad said he had to stop reading this book because it reminded him too much of his own childhood. As I’ve fought through the pages, choking up at the poverty, the addiction, the inhumane living conditions that make my few weeks without heat and wall-less basement look like luxury living, I can’t help but feel like I am learning something about my dad, about my past, about myself. And although we are all reeling from these uncertain times, I realize I have health, shelter, plenty of food, a steady income, which is much more than many people, including some of my students have while they are stuck at home. Thus, out of the dust of the drywall in my basement and the ashes of this tragic tale, I have gained  a bit of wisdom to take forward through this strange time in life.

 

A friend of mine recently mentioned that it has been kind of nice to slow down and take a step back from the normal rat race of life, and I think this is one positive that could come out of all of this. Although our country is in a crisis, we have all been granted the opportunity to react to this crisis in a positive way. How can we use this time to grow, to better ourselves, to expand our own humanity, so that when we come out of this crisis on the other side, we are ready to build a better world (hopefully with a few less setbacks than I have encountered while building my basement :).