Posted by: trevormeers | October 10, 2010

Better Than It Was

First Thursday of every October, 9 a.m. You’ll find me clinging to the side of some little old lady’s house, struggling to figure out whether it’s possible to nail gutters to marshmallows. Or at least fascia board turned to the consistency of marshmallows by years of profoundly minimal maintenance and resident colonies of bats and pigeons. It’s my office’s annual one-day volunteer rehab blitz on needy houses all over town—something like Extreme Makeover without Ty Pennington’s looks and cheerleading, or a gleaming new home at the end of the episode.

Katie models a project house T-shirt from '07, the year she turned 5.

This week marked the ninth time I’ve braced a ladder against an off-kilter house in one of Des Moines’ lesser neighborhoods and climbed up to see how much good I and about 20 other volunteers can do in eight hours or less. Every one of these houses presents a trip that’s something like venturing into a funhouse built by Bob Vila after the lacquer fumes have finally driven him mad.

One year, I pulled down an antiquated light fixture to find a mouse mummified beside the fluorescent tube like a pharaoh sleeping in his tomb. Another time, our roofing team tried caulking old nail holes in a lady’s shingles as a cold rain poured down. It turned into a game of betting on what part of the house we’d see the white caulk come streaming from next as the rain carried it through the structure’s hidden channels. On a garage in the shadow of an interstate ramp, I tried to help a meticulous roofer resolve himself to crooked shingle lines on a roof with a back swayed like a rundown mare. When I drew the job of changing a furnace filter, I strapped on a backpacking headlamp and waded into the cellar, pushing through cobwebs like Indiana Jones on his way to a golden idol. The year I changed out a toilet, I didn’t feel safe shaking hands or eating anything without a fork for a week.

When you’re working fast and dealing with houses seemingly held together with kitty litter and old People magazines, your handyman expectations undergo some adjustment. About five years ago, a fellow gutter-hanger and I hit upon what has become a running motto for these jobs: “It’s better than it was.” Maybe not how we’d like to see it. Not as good as most people have it. But better than when we showed up and the best we can do under the circumstances.

Outside of helping people and giving me a chance to pretend I’m at Dirty Jobs fantasy camp, the projects have come to carry a larger meaning for me. During the first job, in 2002, I carried a clunky, although sleek for its time, cell phone in my tool belt, waiting on a call from Teri. At about 2 in the afternoon, the phone rang, and I had to throw my belt in the car and rush home. By the time I got home and rinsed off the funk of the house we’d been working on, she was on her way to delivering Katie four hours later. That morning, my back had started occasional muscle spasms as I worked on the project’s kitchen, the result of me recklessly picking up a pair of Vise-Grips—or perhaps being in pretty sad physical shape overall. So as people came by the hospital to see Teri and Katie, I laid on the floor in the corner, waving over the top of the nightstand and accepting everyone’s congratulations.

It was a fitting start to a new life destined to be anything but typical. I rehearse Katie’s first day in my mind each year as I climb up to survey what kind of hand that year’s project house has dealt us. Project day has come to be an annual marker almost more significant for me than Katie’s actual birthday; it lends itself to thinking more than a room full of birthday cake and gift bags. I remember starting her life with no inkling of the road we’d all be traveling together, no clue that Katie would take a path almost no one else does. That our doctor’s appointments would be more troubling, our confusion about how to help her more long-lasting. Up on the ladder, I try to count up all the surgeries and procedures she’s had and lose track somewhere around the time of the fifth project house.

About the time I was pulling gutters off the third or fourth project, it became a bitter thing to ponder where we’d been. But this week, as I tore away the rotten fascia on House #9, I realized how much the feeling had shifted. We’ve had a long year, and I’m now well past imagining that Katie and, by extension us, will ever have a typical journey. But we’re seeing a lot of good signs since August’s big surgery, and perhaps just as importantly, I can see what Katie’s eight years have done for the rest of us. Even as her story has etched deep lines on our relatively young faces, it’s also forged our faith into a fire-hardened core stronger than I would have dared hope for. It’s welded our marriage into a partnership built out beyond love with a sense of shared hardship and mutual respect, far stronger than I couldn’t have imagined in my younger, selfish years. It’s set Allison onto a path of caring like few other kids do for the overlooked ones around her.

None of our lives are what I would have outlined when the cell phone rang that first October afternoon eight years ago. But when I look at how Katie’s doing now versus six months ago—and when I look at my own heart versus eight years ago—I can honestly say that while everything in our world is a long way from perfectly level and polished, it’s better than it was.



  1. Again, another great post! What a gift with words you’ve been given! It is a privilege to follow your post. Thank you!

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