Tuesday, July 06, 2010

an industrious, sweaty Fourth (and Fifth)

Much of my Fourth was spent cooking, and as it turned out, I cooked for only one brother. David was able to stay from about 2PM to 6:30PM, after which he had to leave to go work in DC. Sean had a gig, which is typical for him: as a professional musician, he can expect to be working on those festive days when most of us are off.

So I cooked a huge meal in the knowledge that most of it would be eaten the next day. I brined my chicken breasts and pork ribs, made hamburgers, took out hot dogs, and whipped up cole slaw, corn salad, and a berry mousse-- the latter to top off a brownie. I prepped some baked beans, and when David came over, he helped me cook the burgers, the dogs, and the chicken. We cooked indoors; it was too damn hot to be out. As a result, the kitchen got pretty smoky, but the fire alarms didn't go off. Dinner turned out great; David made noises of approval. Dad had made rum cake for us to eat; we scarfed that down for dessert. (I baked the aforementioned brownie, but not in time for David to eat it that night.)

During the night that straddled July 3 and 4, I slept very little. I had been packing up more items in our basement in an attempt to get the space as cleared out as possible, and although the effort tired me out, I ended up unable to sleep very much. Part of the problem, though, was the dog: Sean's chihuahua Maqz has been with us for quite some time, and at 7AM on the Fourth, he began barking outside my bedroom door. I had been asleep for only about 90 minutes, and the dog's barking galvanized me into action: I thought that Dad might have been having a heart attack or something, because as a general rule, the dog never barked outside my bedroom. I charged upstairs... only to discover that Dad had already left for Bristow, Virginia, to attend an all-day, all-night affair. His bed was empty, and the second rum cake-- the one he had said he would be taking to the party-- was nowhere to be found. God knows why the dog had started barking outside my bedroom. Maybe he was saying, "No rest for the weary!"

I was unable to get back to sleep, even though I flopped back into bed and lay there, dazed, until 8AM. So I got up and began the long brining process for the immense rack of pork short ribs that Dad had bought a while back. As with the Thanksgiving turkey last year, I dragged out our big blue bucket, dunked the pork in the brine, and stuck the whole thing into one of our downstairs fridges. The rest of the prep took a few hours. David came over, helped with the cooking, ate some grub, and was on his way. As celebrations go, this one was pretty quiet.

Once David left, I had thought that I would fade away and go back to bed: after all, I had been running on only 90 minutes' sleep. I ended up taking a short, early-evening nap on one of the downstairs couches (the dog nestled alongside me), then got up and spent the next fourteen hours in a herculean push to clear out the rest of the downstairs. I worked slowly but steadily, culling and discarding items, stopping once in a while to look at old photos and cards and letters, or to admire some of the ancient knick-knacks we had inherited from my great aunt Gertrude and her brother, my great uncle Trav. Piles rose and fell and rose again around me as I went through boxes and bags-- wrapping, packing, arranging, rearranging, boxing, and re-boxing. Countless sheets of bubble wrap and strips of packing tape gave their lives for the cause. Most of the old cardboard apple boxes had grown weak with age; the items in those boxes had to be placed in the new plastic storage containers that Dad and I had bought at Home Depot. I ran the containers upstairs every now and then, stacking them in our living room so that they could be placed in the attic at some point. I stopped and vacuumed the floor, picking up all sorts of accumulated debris. Over time, the amount of navigable floor space in our basement/family room increased, while the stacks of plastic boxes in the living room grew correspondingly larger.

And then, around 8AM on July 5th, I blearily looked around me and saw that the basement was, for the first time since before Mom's brain cancer appeared, almost totally clear. Except for a small pile of unsorted possessions in one far corner, the basement was now a proper family room again. Tottering, barely to walk a straight line, I headed for the shower. I wanted desperately to get to sleep, but knew that I was a sweaty, stinking mess. Ablutions were necessary. When sleep finally came, around 9AM, I ended up oversleeping: my brother David had wanted to go out to a park around 3PM, but I didn't wake up until 4PM. Dad, meanwhile, had gotten back from his overnight stay in Bristow at around 1PM; my brother Sean popped by for a brief visit, and David arrived around 2 or 3PM. I missed all of this: Sean's visit, David's arrival, and Dad's arrival. Sean left before I had a chance to see him, but David and Dad were around when I got up. Dad marveled aloud at the now-cavernous family room. It truly was-- and is-- a sight to see.

I got right to work on the pork, which David and I hadn't eaten on the Fourth. Alas, it had been brining since 9AM the previous day, which meant it had gone more than 24 hours in the brine. The instructions I followed recommended eight hours only, so I worried that the pork had pulled a Mrs. Lot and turned into a pillar of salt. As it turned out, my fears were groundless: I slathered on my homemade barbecue sauce, slammed the ribs in the oven, and with David's help (again), cooked the meat to tasty perfection. And unlike on the Fourth, when things were mighty quiet, Dad, David, and I all sat down together in our dining room and had ourselves a hearty meal. Too bad Sean couldn't be there; he apparently told Dad that he'd be back for his dog the following day.

David hung around late, so I asked him to help me put all the stacked containers up in the attic. It was a sweatbox in there-- a very humid 94 degrees, according to the thermometer that I had left inside. (We're going to be buying an A/C to regulate the attic's temperature and humidity. Despite the new layer of insulation and flooring, conditions are still too inclement for some of the more delicate items we're storing up there.) David intrepidly sat inside the attic while I handed box after box up to him, then I climbed into the attic with David, and the two of us arranged the boxes as best we could. The variety of box contents has become quite diverse, making it difficult to organize the newest boxes coherently, so right now the strategy is to keep the arrangement neat while maintaining "random accessibility," i.e., the ability to see all items at a glance, without having to dig around to find out what they are. The storage boxes I had bought are made of transparent plastic, which has proved to be a great help: there's no need to waste time making labels when you can see what's inside the box. David left close to 11PM; I was grateful for his help. Over the past two days, he's been cooking burgers and ribs and chicken, setting the table, helping with the dishwashing-- all despite being more tired than I am.

I'm taking Dad to the airport at 4:30 this morning. He's off to the Philippines to see an old friend for a few days, then he'll be back home for a day or two, after which he'll start his grand odyssey: a road trip to a variety of cities across the US to visit more old friends. This is something that Dad has been wanting to do for a while, and I'm glad. In a Mom-less world, we need meaningful activities to fill the time. Nothing will ever replace the void where Mom used to be, but this doesn't mean we should give in to our sadness and just sit around, waiting to die. Life needs to be lived. Psychotherapist M. Scott Peck sagely noted that the fundamental problem for human beings is laziness: an unwillingness to expand our horizons, to strive for excellence, to evolve into better people. Giving in to our sadness can be an insidious form of spiritual laziness: letting the desolation wash through us is one thing, but holding on to it and allowing it to rule us is quite another. Dad's doing what he can to look to the horizon. I think that's great. While he's out of the house, I'll do what I can to continue to make the place livable. Clearing out the downstairs was only the beginning.


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