We bought our first house from a community organization that bought houses cheap and rehabbed them and then sold them to people who agreed to live in them for a certain amount of time. The house was in pretty good shape. The only problem that remained, according to the seller, was that some of the radiators didn’t work.
They agreed to repair the heating system and we had a deal. There was plenty of work to be done in the house, but that was all work that Kim and I could do. We knew we had a lot of painting and sanding ahead of us.
A month later we were ready for the final walk through. We stepped into the house and there was a sixteen foot hole in the living room ceiling. The person showing us around seemed not to even notice it. He was focused on showing us the radiators they had replaced. We stared at those as well. They had put in undersized radiators to replace the ones that had been there.
We asked about the hole in the ceiling and he said that when they had hooked up the new radiators and pressurized the system, pipes in the ceiling had burst. “But,” he said pleasantly, “don’t worry. We fixed the faulty pipes as well.”
“What about the large hole in the living room ceiling?” I asked.
“What about it?” he replied.
“Well, you need to fix it,” I answered.
“No,” he said quickly, “we only agreed to fix the heating system. We didn’t say anything about cosmetic work on the ceiling.”
“But,” I said, “there was no hole in the ceiling until you caused it by fixing the heating system.”
He shrugged. In his opinion he’d done what he’d agreed to do and now the house was ours.
We continued our walk through. When we got to the garage we saw that there was no way for me to park my car in the garage because it contained the eight bad radiators they had replaced.
“You need to move these,” I said.
“We never said we would haul the old ones away,” he said.
This was my grown-up introduction of the difference between what is legal and what is right.
I drank coffee every day with a group of guys one of whom did plumbing and heating work. He made copies of a standard guide for calculating radiator size. The fact that the old radiators were still in the garage made it easy to measure the old ones and the replacements and show that the replacements were undersized. We took pictures of the holes in the ceiling. And we sent a nice letter off to the agency explaining what we would like them to do.
No response. We called and they refused to talk to us.
They had also spoken to one of the television channels and painted themselves as the victim. They were a do good community organization being harassed by a wealthy homeowner. Of course, at the time I was making eight thousand dollars a year as a graduate student.
We had a friend write them a letter on legal stationery and they responded. They didn’t see that they’d done anything wrong. We scheduled a preliminary hearing. We went down to the courthouse and were met by our lawyer. They were going to depose our contractor friend and demonstrate that he had a great deal of hearing loss.
Kim is a speech pathologist and knew that his hearing loss had nothing to do with anything. But again, there is a difference between what is legal and what is right. Their plan was to use his hearing loss to demonstrate that he gave us bad advice because he could not adequately hear what we were asking him.
For us, it was a no brainer. We were not going to put a friend through any hassle even though he said he was willing to go down and subject himself to it. We settled for them taking away the radiators and for a minimal amount and I repaired the ceiling and the other holes that were left with some help from friends.
For a while, it was our favorite story to tell. It had dominated our attention for months and we tended to talk a lot about it with friends.
And then we noticed something.
Every time we would tell the story, we’d get mad all over again. Telling the story would bring up the emotions we had felt living through it the first time. As a result, we spent a lot of the time feeling angry.
It’s important to think about the stories you tell. Because so many people asked, we spent a lot of the first week after Elena died talking about her last minutes. Talking about her death. Talking about seeing her on the table at the Emergency room. Talking about Kim giving her C.P.R. until the rescue team arrived. We’ll talk more about those times – just less and less frequently.
Now we mainly tell stories of Elena from when she was alive. For a moment we are able to relive the emotions we felt during those happy times. Just after telling them, there is a sigh where we again feel the loss of her presence. But we would feel that loss all the time if we weren’t telling stories.
Here’s a quick story. On Friday, Maggie got the dates for her next Girl Scout camping weekend. Until this year, Elena has been too young to go on camping trips with her troop. So whenever Maggie and Kim would go on their camping weekends, Elena and I would have our own adventure. She would set the menu. Generally we’d end up cooking hotdogs on a stick over our gas stove. Then we would toast marshmallows and sing songs. Finally, we would pop Jiffy Pop and set newspapers on the floor of the living room and put the popped corn between us and tell ghost stories. She loved to tell ghost stories in her scary voice. Long non-sensical ghost stories with as much gore as she could describe.
The stories we tell and how we tell them – so powerful in almost a magical way.