09 Oct Autumn Update From Ron & Jill at Good Contrivance Farm

Phase 1: the gut

Our travel trailer isn’t ready. But you suspected that would be the case, didn’t you? There have been some understandable delays. Manufacturing backlogs, for example, due to the pandemic. I’ve been ordering lots of equipment for the trailer build-out, but some of the stuff–like the solar panels–still hasn’t arrived. It took us over two months to get our RV fridge. And then there was the cashflow problem. I had to sell our Super Custom Ultra-Compact Camper Van to fund the travel trailer restoration. That meant I had to fix every little thing in and on the van. Then the van had to pass inspection. When I finally got the van online, it sold in five days and I still have a line of prospective buyers clamoring to see it.

Super Custom Ultra-Compact Camper Van: Sold!

In case you don’t know, RVs and camper vans have never been more popular, thanks to everyone’s desperation to get away from their personal lockdowns. RV dealers have been selling out their stock of vehicles and selling them for the highest prices. People want an escape pod. As you can imagine, Jill and I are eager to escape too but it’s going to take another month. Actually, Jill doesn’t believe it’s going to happen until next year, but I’m determined to prove otherwise. I’ve already gutted the trailer, insulated it, and am ready to install the electronics, which I can now purchase because the camper van sold. My master carpenter friend, Christopher Sisson, is building the cabinetry for free. How’s that for friendship?

All the while, I’ve been working on our farmhouse too, restoring our kitchen porch, which was a wreck, and moving the laundry room from the back of our damp, stony basement up to the second floor. The laundry room is a big deal when it comes to quality of life. There’s about another two weeks of work left in this location, which I might not get to until Dec., but at least the washer and dryer are operable. No more long walks down to the dungeon!

Closet turned into a washer/dryer alcove

Jill’s most recent tests have brought good and bad news. It seems the radiation didn’t do much but the hormone treatment has been fairly effective. Though drug therapy has brought her numbers down, it’s hardly an occasion for confetti because her cancer markers still read in the high 300s, while a normal reading is about 30. Further, the cancer can be found in many new places–her lungs, left breast, her entire spine, both legs, both arms, collar bone, shoulders, and sternum. As her oncologist warned, “Once it’s in your bones, there’s no getting it out.” The good news is that we’re assured Jill won’t die soon, like within the next twelve months. So we’re buying time. And “buying” is the operative word.

Right now, with subsidized insurance (which runs out in 12 months), we’re paying about $2000 a month for medical bills. My retirement income can’t take that kind of monthly hit.  Since we can’t afford to refinance the farm, I’m talking to the bank to see if they can lower our interest rate and maybe extend our mortgage through their “home preservation” program, designed to keep homeowners from defaulting on their loans.

Jill and I try to take a field trip once a week, though we haven’t really gotten out in three weeks, except to run errands. The last day trip we took, we drove to Pennsylvania to pick up an antique ironing board cupboard that gets installed in the wall: when you open the cupboard door, the board folds down. Really cool for our new laundry room. As we began our trip, with Masie and Oliver on the truck’s back seat, Jill started weeping.

She gasped: “I don’t want to die!”
“I know, my sweet.”
“I’m not ready! I don’t want to leave you!”
“I’m sorry, my love. I know.”
A spasm of grief made her collapse, her head nearly to her knees.
I fought back my own grief, watching her as I drove and hoping she’d find a way to recover; otherwise, we’d both be weeping and I might have to pull over. I didn’t want to short-circuit a natural response, didn’t want to say something glib or dismissive in an attempt to make her stop.  There is no stopping what has begun anyway, this flash flood that has swept us away.
At last she pulled herself up and drew a deep breath. She said through tears, “We have so much fun together!”
“Yes,” I said, “You, me, and the dogs–what could be better?”
Then I tried a gambit: “Look at them, sleeping already.”
She drew another breath, glanced to the back seat, wiped at her eyes: “We’ve never had better dogs.”
“They’re the best travelers,” I said. “But, man, do they smell!
She laughed. “Hound dogs, what do you expect?”
All right, this is what I expect, that you will find a way to be your best self, my love, and here it comes, the good humor, the gratitude, the happiness with what we have.
I said, “You think we should give them a bath?”
“No way!” She laughed again. “Their doggy smell is like the essence of their character.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s distinctive. Maybe we’ve gotten too accustomed to it and visitors are appalled by the hound-doggy smell of our house?”
Another laugh: “That’s already happening! When Vanessa came by last week, she glanced down at Masie and Oliver asleep on their bed under the kitchen table, then she looked at me, widening her eyes over her mask, and said, ‘Jill, do you ever wash those dogs?’ I said, ‘Never!” She nodded and said, ‘Ah-hum.’ I could tell she was smiling but suppressing an eye-roll.”
“So stinky goes with the territory?” I said.
“Love me, love my smelly dogs!”
“I do love you, Jilly!”
“And the dogs?”
“What’s not to love?”
“Right!” she said brightly. She looked ahead, through the windshield, both of us now removed to a safe place. “Let’s talk about what we’re looking for today!”

We’re always looking for a cheap find on our field trips. This time, we found (for the Hen House Cottage) several colorfully-labeled canisters that once held potato chips, lard, tractor oil, etc. And it was a grand day, finished off with a stop at a popular old-time ice cream shop in rural PA.

Jill’s outburst at the start of our trip was unusual. Our cancer journey has begun to harden us to the extent that–without breaking down–I can now tell strangers that my wife is “terminal with cancer”; and Jill freely talks of her limited time, even down to her last days, how she’ll be in a wheelchair and heavily drugged. None of this talk is pleasant but it seems necessary as a kind of preparation, even though both of us know there’s really nothing that can prepare us for what is coming.

I’m now three months into retirement and you might wonder what it’s like. Short answer: fabulous! Sundays no longer depress me. You know how that goes, what a down-day Sunday is as you eye the coming week and contemplate jumping yet again into the cold pool of work. As much as I enjoyed my job (and was grateful to have it), I never felt good about starting another week. There was always homework–student papers to comment on–and meetings to attend and workplace politics to negotiate. My god, the relief of knowing I’ll never have to grade another composition!

Still, it’s going to take me a while to settle into this new life, especially given the complications that frame it. Cancer has made much of my work  on the farm, and especially the travel trailer, seem urgent. I’ve mentioned before that it’s as though Jill and I are preparing for a natural disaster. We’re trying to tie down everything that’s loose in our lives and clean up the mess we’ve been living with since moving to the farm five years ago. For example: we’re finally sorting through the last of our boxed belongings. I’ve relocated all of my tools and all of our miscellaneous stuff to the shop–we’re clearing  out the house as if we were going to sell it.

Our two new cats, Paisley and Lilly, take over every night: I hear them galloping down the hallways and up and down the stairs. They remain wary of the dogs but usually find their way to Jill’s bed by the early morning. As it’s been years since we’ve had young cats, we’re surprised how much they eat and poop. We find their toys in every room. And they love hunting crickets in the basement.

Autumn on the farm is divine. Last week I took down the hummingbird feeder. Canadian geese regularly pass in a big V overhead, their honking announcing the seasonal change. Our kitchen garden is still giving us peppers, the last of the tomatoes, and, surprisingly, a few eggplant too. Most of the beds are already under cover for winter. This is the first year I’ve begun to nurture our compost pile, which should be ready in spring. Before the snow comes, I have to fetch a truckload of horse manure from a nearby ranch. Another chore: pull up the poison ivy, easy to find now as its leaves turn yellow and scarlet. Because I have volunteers regularly weeding the flower beds–Don, Heather, Beth, and Ali–and I’ve found, at last, a reliable mower (Richard, a spry sixty-nine-year-old), our property has never looked better.

Not far from the house, we have a large, old Kousa Dogwood. Its grape-sized, bumpy, fuchia-colored fruit is edible and very sweet. Some say its flavor resides between a mango and a pumpkin. I’m not a fan. But Masie and Oliver love them. If we can’t find the dogs, we know to look under that lovely, aged tree.

Kousa berries

Masie caught in the act

The deer have begun to maraud, sneaking into our flower beds in the early morning to eat down our best plants. We’ve already lost two hazel nut bushes. Sadly, I just haven’t had time to attend to the interlopers, though the other day I set out 12 bars of Irish Spring soap, whose reek the deer abhor. Problem is, the next morning all of the soap was gone from the flower beds. Twelve fat bars of Irish Spring soap wholly disappeared! It’s a mystery that I and my neighbors are investigating. I believe we’ll have an answer by the time I make my next post.

If you know of anybody who can help fund Jill’s cancer treatment, please send them here: Jill’s GoFundMe page