05 Feb Winter Update from the Farm: Don’t Dream It’s Over

A few weeks ago, Jill and I got up early on a Saturday morning, packed a lunch, loaded the dogs into the truck, then took off for a day of antiquing in Pennsylvania, one of our favorite pastimes. On this occasion we were going to pick up a cupboard ironing board, circa 1920–the kind of cabinet you open up to reveal a built-in ironing board that folds out–for our new laundry room. Moving the laundry from our dank basement to our sunny second floor would be a major improvement in our quality of life, especially for Jill, who can’t negotiate stairs very well. Now she has ready access to the washer and dryer any time she likes, adjacent to her office and our TV room.

One aim of this fieldtrip was to find decorations for the Hen House Cottage and necessities for the travel trailer.

We weren’t a mile from the house when Jill said quietly, “I don’t want to die.”

I said, “I know, my sweet.”

“I’m not ready to die!” She started crying.

I reached over and touched her hand.

She drew a deep breath, one hand to her eyes. “You’re going to end up wiping my bottom. It’ll be horrible.”

“That’s part of the deal, Jill. You know that. It could’ve gone the other way.”

“But it didn’t,” she said. “You didn’t even get a retirement.”

“Sure, I did. I’m retired! And the timing worked out. Imagine how bad this would be if I was still on the job.”

She glanced out the window at the cornfields. Then: “Let’s talk about our list.”

We always have a shopping list of salvage targets and warehouse finds for our projects.

Last week we finished the laundry room, which includes that way-cool closeted ironing board. Jill felt well enough to help with trim painting. Her hand is steadier than mine. Though she tires quickly, she insists on helping. She loves the work. And she wants to be useful. One of her most painful laments is that she’ll soon be “totally useless.”

We argue about this often. I insist that she isn’t useless, she insists that she is. There are many other things we argue about, probably like most couples sequestered in our pandemic lockdown. Truth is, I’ve been increasingly quick to anger and frustration and Jill’s been quick to upset and depression. Just the other day, I came down to feed the dogs in the kitchen, only to find that they had gotten into a bag of plaster I had thoughtlessly left near the door. A white flour of plaster dust totally covered the aged wood floor: like a dusting of snow, paw prints zig-zagging everywhere. Oliver and Maisie were powdered from snout to tail. They were wagging their tails at me, expecting a loving greeting.

Instead I howled in anger and sent them scurrying outdoors. My curses brought Jill, whose first response was a weary “Oh, no!” Then she kind of laughed because, really, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you own two dogs who are ALWAYS getting into trouble and isn’t that a fun thing, how they surprise you at every turn: oh look what they did this time!

But I had a two-hour errand to run and a list of chores and I just didn’t have a chuckle in me. I couldn’t stop cursing and Jill couldn’t calm me down. I cleaned up as best I could, then left the rest for Jill. The tricky thing about plaster dust is that you can’t let it get wet or else it will turn to plaster and then it will NEVER come up unless you sand the floor.

While I drove my two-hour errand, I had lots of time to think about what’s become of our homelife, how in recent months Jill and I have been at odds too often.

Just the night before the plaster incident, I had gotten angry when Jill accused me of making a fix-it decision without her input. Keep in mind that our partnership centers on restoring our old farmhouse, which demands any number of design and decorating decisions–which is what we do best as a couple, conferring on everything from paint color to construction. I was installing the door on our new laundry room, actually digging out some screws from a package that had contained a set of hinges, screws, etc. Jill was nearby painting some trim. She turned and frowned at me (as I was digging out those screws), then said, “Don’t use that handle! Why would you do that? Didn’t we discuss that I wanted something historic?”

Her tone announced annoyance, hurt, and disappointment.

The handle in question was a crude little aluminum thing I wouldn’t even have used on a shed door, much less the door to our laundry room. It just happened to be in the package that contained the screws and some other hardware. My sudden anger grew from two realizations: 1) Jill assumed I had ignored or forgotten our discussion about the door handle, which reads like this: Ron is a jerk who never does what I want; and 2) she assumed also–despite all evidence to the contrary–that I’d be tasteless enough to install that little aluminum crescent as the door handle and be done with, as if suddenly I didn’t care anymore about what we were trying to achieve–which reads like this, I can’t trust Ron to make decisions on his own.

I said, “I’m just getting out some screws, I’m not going to use that handle!”
She said, “But there’s a handle in the package.”

I said, “Why would you assume I was going to use that cheesy little handle?”

She said, “Can’t you see how it looks?”

I said, “It looks like I’m putting hinges on this fucking door–if you took a moment to hold back your judgment, you’d see I’m not doing anything about the handle, it’s the hinges I’m working on!”

Back and forth we went.

For me, it came down to this: Jill doesn’t trust me.

For Jill, it came down to this: Ron is often impulsive and doesn’t explain fully all I need to know.

Because we are two headstrong people, ours is sometimes a volatile mix. Usually, one of us knows when to give way to the other. Increasingly, though, we’ve been mixing less well than we’d like. So, the next day, I sat down with Jill for a talk about our respective and mutual burdens. Here are mine:

1) I’m grieving. It’s an odd place to be because it’s not full-blown grief. It’s a kind of pre-grieving, compelling me to picture life after Jill. I carry this around with me every day. There’s no escaping it.

2) I’m overwhelmed by work on the farm. As Jill’s time is now limited, we have to jettison our ten-year plan. At the top of the list is completing the house. That’s now a two-year deadline in case, as a last resort, we have to sell the place.

3) Since all of the work falls to me, the partnership Jill and I enjoyed is now frayed because her illness marginalizes her from the Project. Further, I don’t’ want to spend so much time away from her (as I try to complete the Project) and yet I must in order to secure our future.

4) Jill’s brother, a retired insurance company VP whose expertise is actuarial predictions, informs us that, irrespective of Jill’s terminal cancer, I stand a 25% chance of dying before her.  This scares me. I’m 25 pounds overweight. I’m prediabetic. Then there’s Covid-19. And I don’t have life insurance. I’m not as scared of dying as I am of leaving Jill in a lurch. I feel guilty about this because the whole farm adventure was my idea.

5) In Jill’s eyes I’ve always been the comeback kid, the never-say-never guy–nothing could keep me down. And, true enough, I always came through, as my book From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story illustrates.

But now a convergence of forces seems destined to stall me, us. I can’t keep up, I can’t do everything. Something has to give. Chickens, for example. I poured a foundation for a chicken coop, had an antique coop moved to that location, repaired and painted the building, and outlined an area for its surrounding fence. But I don’t have time to dig the post holes and install the fence, much less time to take care of chickens.

I’d love to get chickens to make Jill happy. There’s always this push and pull to manage– my longing to please Jill but, at the same time, guarding against my impulsive overreach. I have to remind myself that the time and energy I’d put into establishing the chicken compound would be better spent finishing our farmhouse. Focus, it’s all about focus. I‘m still working on Jill’s travel trailer, did I tell you?  My blood pressure these days is sky high.

Jill tells me her greatest fear is that I’m pushing myself so hard, I’ll just drop dead one morning. She thought it might happen when I was raging about the spilled plaster in the kitchen. “Really,” she said, “I just wanted to send you back to bed and hope for the best.”

I told her she’s right: “I’ve got no headroom left, Jill.”

For every stressor I’ve listed, Jill has her own, as you can imagine.

That said, we’re not ones to sit idly and wait for whatever–the inevitable? So we’re now finishing the master bedroom, having stripped the wallpaper and plastered the walls. When we’re at our best, we tease each other about our respective work habits: I move too fast, Jill moves too slow. I’ll be painting the walls, she’ll be painting the trim. When she gets something wrong (in my estimation), I’ll say, “You need to wake up, missy.” Then she’ll say, “No, you need to wake up, mister.” It’s a kind of dance, this teasing, this teamwork, building bit by bit our final dream even as it fades. Some days it’s enough and we’re grateful.

Jill’s Go-Fund-Me page