The Firehouse Chronicles – Episode 8

This post is the next in a series of posts I have dubbed “The Firehouse Chronicles.” See Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 7.


Jim on top of scissor lift prepping trim.

Jim on top of scissor lift prepping trim.

We flit between pulling blackberries to Jim repairing the shingles at the back of the house while I sample paint colors for the exterior trim which is in dire condition. What was once a chocolate brown has weathered to a near pink, peeled and chipped, exposing wood to rot. I begin to scrape at a window frame, and soon I’m at the paint store and finally perched on a ladder in the sun painting trim like a pro. Of course, I want the entire place painted instantly.

I call a few painting contractors, but only one returns my call. By the time he arrives to give us a quote, Jim has already tackled one of the worst rotted window sills with epoxy and I have slathered it in paint in hopes of protecting it from rain. The man appears in the back yard where we are back to pulling blackberries. We follow him as he takes a look at the ill-repaired sill.

“Hmm, I don’t know what somebody thought they were doing here,” he says, poking his finger at it. He continues around the house without us and comes back around the other side.

“OK, I think I have everything I need,” he says. “We won’t be able to begin until next spring, we are fully booked for this year.”

Jim is insulted by the man’s comment on the repaired window.

“I don’t like the guy,” he says.

We guess he’ll quote around $15K, but a few days later I get a quote for $20K. By now, I have already begun painting the windows on the south side of the house.

“It’s probably a pretty good price,” Jim says. “This is going to be a tough house to paint, even with the scissor lift.” We decide that we will just paint the trim, and leave the exterior shingles for next summer.

With the help of a series of men we pick up at Home Depot, we spend the rest of the summer shifting between pulling brambles and painting trim. With each stroke of my brush I am reminded that we are saving $20K by doing it ourselves and with Jim’s meticulous prep work, we feel as if we are taking greater care than hired painters might.

The derelict-looking scissor lift that I assumed would have to be chopped up and hauled away as scrap metal has now been equipped with 3 new car batteries and has sat for 2 weeks in the driveway plugged into an orange extension cord that snakes its way into the garden shed. Jim has it running and stands on its platform as it squeals its way to a height of about 20 feet. A week later he has it lurching fitfully against the back of the house where he stands (bravely) on the platform with an electric grinder that sprays sparks from hot nail tips that fall into his shirt as he slices through all the nails on the underside of the eaves of the roof, prepping them for painting. Later he builds a platform above the lift’s platform so he can get up even higher to get at some of the higher peaks and eventually sets a ladder on top of that to reach even higher peaks. I can’t even look at him without feeling nauseous.

Proof that I actually painted while standing on the scissor lift. The first and only time.

The many platforms and ladders of the scissor lift

Starting on the painting.

I get into a routine of working in the mornings and spending afternoons at the firehouse. I buy a pair of white painter’s pants with a “Sherwin Williams” label sewn on the back pocket. The sun is warm and I become ever-braver on the ladder reaching the top corners of the windows and trim, though 1 hour on the scissor lift painting is all I can handle. My brush hand shakes as I try not to look down or breathe for fear of making the lift wobble, a dizzying sensation.

It takes a week or two to figure out how to tackle the blackberries. We get excited about the prospect of hiring goats, until we find out that it costs $700 per day and the property would take 6 days for the goats to clear it. Instead, we rent a bobcat with a “brush hog” attachment for a day for the same cost as 1 day of goats. Jim is like a 4-year old with a new Tonka truck, tearing around demolishing everything in his path.

By the end of the day, not a shred of green remains. What we haven’t yet realized is that we have turned the hillside into a dust bowl. I source a place to buy straw which we spread over the hillside to keep the dust down. Later, In the fall, it takes two weeks of a Home Depot guy to get it cleared, placed into bags and hauled away.

Shingles repaired, trim painted

Shingles repaired, trim painted

Straw covered hill

The hill post-bobcat

The hill post-bobcat

Some mornings begin with picking up Home Depot guys who pull out creepy crab-like blackberry roots that the bobcat didn’t munch while we prep and paint. I head to local fast food places for lunch which we eat while sitting in the sun on cheap green plastic Adirondack chairs. We soon have our favorite guys – Raul, who we first see because he almost leaps in front of our car, so eager and energetic to get work. Louis, who we barely understand, is a workhorse. We guess he’s somewhere in his late 50s but is sinewy and lithe and doesn’t like to quit. A Rasta hat hides his dreadlocks and he speaks a sort of Spanish that even the Spanish-speaking guys don’t seem to understand. Louis only eats chicken teriyaki, so we all eat a lot of chicken teriyaki all summer. In the evenings when it gets dark, we realize it’s 9 pm so we light up the BBQ and grill sausages or steaks and eat them off paper plates washing it down with lots of Coors Light.

Jim and I have our first sort-of fight as I am up on a ladder painting a window, where I have gotten a few splotches on the glass. In my experience splotches on glass are easily taken care of by a glass scraper with a razor blade.

“We can take that window out if you want,” Jim says. “Might be easier to paint and you won’t get as much paint on the windows.”

“Taking the window out seems like a ton of work,” I say. “Why would we take it out?” It would never have occurred to me to take a window out to paint it.

“Well, you do it your way. I just hate it when there are smudges of paint on the windows.”

“But you can just scrape the windows later,” I say, aware of the pout in my voice. I am surprised to feel a sting of tears. I feel as if I have just been slapped, criticized for doing a bad job. I don’t know why this affects me so much and it’s only much later that I remember Arron’s voice: “Jesus, bird, stop hitting the ceiling! I don’t want to have to go over it again!” Arron was incredibly meticulous with painting and we painted a lot of houses together. From him, I learned to “cut” the edges, to paint without a dropcloth, to drag the “bead” of paint slowly to create a perfect line. He had been a College Pro painter for a summer and had high standards. Through this project, I learned that Jim had similar summer work experience and I have once again assumed the role of lowly apprentice.

Jim removes some of the windows and I perch them onto saw horses and lean over them with a circular sander, fill holes with wood filler, primer, and finally paint them. I see the advantages of removing the windows, especially for those in really bad shape. Joyce, Jim’s mother sits in a chair in the office where I have the windows propped and talks at me as I work. I hear stories of her youth, her family, Jim as a child, his dad. She seems happy to sit there and talk.

By the fall, we are getting close to having all the exterior trim painted and the house transforms. Heights and I have never been friends, and 9/11 did nothing to lessen my phobia. I am not a fan of tall buildings. It’s a surprise then, to find myself leaning out of windows, paintbrush extended trying not to picture my crumpled body on the ground below. I keep my gaze up. In the cooler weather, my fashionable working uniform of white painter’s pants has been swapped for a highly sexy, gray “Dickies” worksuit that zips over my clothes.

The “Dickies” make me invincible!

One day in late September, one of our Home Depot guys tells us that he found something while digging for blackberry roots. We follow him to a small area that has been cleared, exposing some brick, perhaps part of some kind of patio. We spend another 30 minutes clearing the rest of the bricks of soil. It feels like an archeological dig. The area gets larger and appears to be round. Eventually, we reach the edges. The “patio” is about 8 feet in diameter with one corner area clearly meant as the entry.

We speculate what it might be. The patio of some sort of shed? A stand-alone patio? A part of a garden room? The floor of a gazebo? It will be fun, at some point to find more info about the house to see when the patio might have been added and for what.

Joyce watches as we work, and then inadvertently takes a series of photos when she holds her finger down to take our picture, which. Google obligingly turns these into small “movies.” I’ll end this episode with kisses.

Clearing "Stonehedge"

Clearing “Stonehedge”

kissing on Stonehedge – click for movie effect.

 

 

The Firehouse Chronicles – Episode 7

This post is the next in a series of posts I have dubbed “The Firehouse Chronicles.” See Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6.

Jim and I meet at the house on Saturday morning, the day after closing. It’s his birthday and we’ve planned a party for that evening, both a birthday party and a house-warming. Turning the key in the lock and opening the door feels like we are opening a door into a new life. Chloe rushes in sniffing corners and I smile, thinking we are all, more or less, doing the same thing, walking from room to room trying to take in the space, the smells, the light.

In the kitchen, I pop the bottle of champagne I’ve brought and Jim and I hug and kiss, in awe that we are actually standing in the kitchen of a house we now own. Together.

I realize I have forgotten to bring glasses for the champagne, but we find a box of old canning jars, filled with dead spiders that I wash out and we drink our champagne, laughing. I snap a picture of the moment.

“We really did this!” I say. “Where do we start?”

“I think we need to christen this place,” he says, pushing me against the counter and kissing me again, hands reaching under my shirt.

<X-rated content>

I give Jim his birthday gift of garden gloves and machete which he immediately presses into service, tackling the blackberries with gusto. I’ve brought clippers and a battery-powered hedge trimmer and do my own wrangling. Before long, I have uncovered a stone wall along the side of the house, and untangle a hidden Japanese maple, planted in a half barrel. It’s like unburying treasure and hard to stop, but we need to get ready for the party. Jim continues while I head off to pick up his mother, Joyce and then the food from the Mexican food truck that Jim ordered from.

West side - pre excavation

West side – pre excavation

West side - pre excavation

West side – pre excavation

West side - mid excavation

West side – mid-excavation

West side mid-excavation

West side mid-excavation

Jim feeds the chipper

Jim feeds the chipper

Joyce and I arrive back at the house to find the first guests, Jim’s uncle, aunt and cousins already having a tour of the house. Soon, the house is filled with people, and we conduct tour after tour. Thankfully, some of the guests have brought folding chairs, as there is no furniture. Many of Jim’s firefighting colleagues offer construction ideas and a few seem as excited as we are, perhaps the house representing a vicarious dream. The bifold living room windows are original to the house and most are slid open so people perch on the window ledges. The Mexican food is quickly devoured. People bring fire house themed housewarming gifts (an old fire truck nozzle, a CD of the band, “Fire House,” firemen figurines, and a kid’s fire engine book) and I realize that we will likely wind up with a collection of fire house kitsch in the years to come. The party has the effect of cementing our excitement, seeing other people’s reaction to the house, their imagination about it’s potential makes us both feel as if our rash, impulsive purchase was a perfect choice.

The next morning, we are excited to get back to our clearing, but our pile of brush is out of control.

“Should we get a chipper?” Jim asks. This question comes up every time we do yard work together and for the first time, I find myself saying yes. I leave Jim to continue working while I head off to McClendans, our local, family-owned version of Home Depot and choose a monster which one of the staff helps me try to lift into my Prius. When it doesn’t fit, he calls another staff member on his radio to bring a wrench and they remove the feeding spout so that it will fit into the car. The chipper is immediately pressed into service.

Jim trots down the hill dragging an odd assortment of the trash he finds in the brambles. Apparently, they have been a convenient dumping ground for our neighbors on three sides.

There are countless shoes and balls, tires and entire seats from a car, a broken wheel barrel, rusted cans of paint, rotted timbers, dried up rolls of sod, moldy tubes of carpeting, and full garbage bags that we don’t dare open.

 

South side - before excavation

South side – before excavation

 

South side - mid excavation

South side – mid-excavation

Uncovering tree in a barrel

Uncovering the tree in a barrel

South side - post excavation

South side – post-excavation

At 9pm, we are exhausted, filthy, scratched and bruised, hungry and thirsty. The sun has yet to set, so we light up the grill we have found in the old garden shed and grill a steak and eat as we sit in a couple of rescued lawn chairs (still entwined with vines) and the sun go down, admiring the transformation we have manifested.

“We could continue the stone wall to create a little patio back here,” I suggest, imaging the entire area covered in stone, a grill and little retaining wall, maybe some steps up the hill.

Jim reins me in. “I think it’s going to be plenty of work just to clear all these brambles, never mind building walls and patios.”

“I know, but it’s fun to fantasize. I can’t wait to see it all cleared, so we can see what we actually have.”

“Those branches touching the house have to go,” Jim says pointing up and before he takes his next bite of steak, he has the chainsaw in hand and is climbing a ladder where he reaches up and lops off a branch.  It’s fun to see Jim’s excitement, to revel in our common purpose, to begin the process of working together to uncover our mutual dream.

 

 

 

 

The Firehouse Chronicles – Episode 6

This post is the 5th in a series of posts I have dubbed “The Firehouse Chronicles.” See Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3, Episode 4.

jimandabby

Making an offer – June 10th, 2016

We head to another local restaurant to write our letter to the sellers, a recommended accompaniment to our offer. The scene is surreal: two fire trucks parked outside and a whole group of firefighters and medics inside attending a patient. We take a table out of the way and I open my computer to start typing, all the while, watching as the firefighters and medics do their thing. The ironies are laughable: I’m a 9/11 widow writing an offer letter to buy a firehouse with a firefighter as I watch firefighters do their job only feet away.

Jim and I slide the computer back and forth, trying to figure out what details about each of us might be pertinent to the sellers: Our love of the house; Jim’s job as a firefighter, our willingness to clear away things that they have left behind; my architect father who specializes in updating historic libraries; our love of gardening and our intention of maintaining the whole instead of selling off the second lot; Jim’s ability in home renovation projects; his kit plane and love of the workshop.

Our letter needs appeal to the people we know only through their home. Our waiter takes our photo and we add it to the document which I then email to our realtor. I drop a deposit check off at his office on my way home.

Our offer in.

That night, as we tuck into bed, my phone rings.

“They approved your offer! Congratulations!” EJ says.

We lie awake, in shock. That they accepted our offer without letting what certainly would be a heated bidding war to happen seems insane. That night, my emotions swing between terror and excitement, sadness and jubilation. I know that Jim’s enthusiasm will match my kids’ despair in intensity. I am both thrilled to take this first step into a new chapter in my life and reluctant to close the old one. Jim leaves for work early the next morning giving me the weekend alone with the kids to break the news.

“I thought money was tight,” my son says when I tell him the next day. “How can you have enough money to buy another house?”

He has a point. I don’t want to think of my depleted nest egg that will now most certainly depend on selling our house to be replenished. I do my best to explain the finances as I already had for Olivia.

“I will probably need to sell the house when you go to college next year,” I say. “But if I can swing it financially, I will just rent it,” I say.

“I really don’t care what you do after I leave,” he says.

Conversations with 17-year-old boys tend to be short, and he shrugs, disappearing upstairs. I know is words mask his true feelings.

Olivia heads out of town for the weekend to visit her boyfriend, so I am spared the conversation with her for the moment.

We are set to close on June 24th, the day before Jim’s birthday, only 2 weeks away. Because there are no banks involved in the transaction, the time for closing is sped up to whiplash speed.

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Landmark approvals

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Landmark office, June 13th, 2016

On Monday, as Jim comes off his shift, we meet at Seattle City Hall, at the Municipal Landmark office almost as soon as it opens. We want to meet with the woman in charge of historically registered buildings in Seattle. We are ushered into a small room where she pushes a thick file of documents across the table. We flip through the file filled with permits and plans submitted by the sellers for the work they planned to do over the years. There are copies of their architectural plans, exterior paint colors, copies of the Historical Board’s approvals. We see, for the first time, copies of the original architectural plans dated 1913 and I immediately start taking photos of each one with my phone. We learn that to make any changes to the exterior of the building, we will need the Historical Board’s approval. This includes paint colors, changes to the roof, balconies, and decks.

I pour over the plans as Jim reads through some of the documents pertaining to the renovations that the previous owners applied for. We discover that a historian, Jim Stevenson has supplied quite a bit of historical information in his bid to have the station historically landmarked. We learn a little bit more about the house.

screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-12-58-57-pm

Jim Stevenson historical detail in Landmark application

When we’re done, we find the office of the city archives, one floor below and are soon opening a huge folder containing the original, hand-drawing renderings of the house, on the old linen vellum that was used in those days for architectural drawings. They are stunning and give every measurement and flourish in

Front Elevation

Front Elevation

meticulous, hand-printed detail. Again, I take a photo of each one with my phone, though I’m dying to roll them all up and steal off with them.

The following week, while Jim is at work, I meet with one of the sellers, the wife, who I learn is a designer and has done the plans for the renovations herself. We stand in front of one her drafting tables in the office as she pulls plans out of a large chest. She is a tiny woman, wig slightly askew, but I can tell she is a determined type. I am thrilled to discover she has many of the blueprints of the very drawings I coveted from the archives. She has collected a few other tidbits for us: the book on Seattle Firehouses, by the same Jim Stevenson who applied for the landmark, and his hand-drawn elevation cut out of the house, showing the firefighters and horses and how the firehouse worked. Jim Stevenson’s book contained front elevations and a short history of each fire house in Seattle, but this drawing is not in the book and is ideal for showing the workings of the station in its heyday.

Side elevation of station in action

Side elevation of station in action

Together with her oddly doting realtor, we walk around the house as she explains that she and her husband bought the house in 1974 when the city owned the building and it housed a destructive renter who did some catastrophic renovations such as trying to connect the stairs to the office. The stairs had to be completely rebuilt by her husband. I learn of her plan to have a circular stair go all the way from the ground floor to the attic. I hope my face remains neutral as she tells me this, which, in my mind, is nothing short of insane. She explains that a carpenter spared her husband all the cabinetry work in the kitchen, but that he took over the work in the attic when the contractor wasn’t completing the job to his satisfaction. I’m dying to ask where they slept all those years, given there is no discernable bedroom, but this seems rude. She proudly points out the elaborate array of copper pipes jutting from the new furnace that her husband installed himself and assures me that the radiators throughout the house keep it very toasty in the winter. As I follow her around the house, trying not to stare at her wig, it is hard not to feel sad, realizing that so many of their planned projects didn’t come to fruition. She leaves with the promise of providing the paperwork and the keys to the old Toyota MR2 parked in the driveway, which I envision as a fun project for my son and Jim.

EJ stops by my house the day of closing to drop off the keys. I am dying to dash to the house and run around, but Jim is working until the next day and so I decide to wait for him. That night, Carter and I go out for dinner to our local Vietnamese and after dinner, I get a fortune in my cookie:

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Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.

 

The Firehouse Chronicles – Episode 5

This post is the 5th in a series of posts I have dubbed “The Firehouse Chronicles.” See Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3, Episode 4.

Bird's eye view of Rainier Beach, 1895. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives.

Bird’s eye view of Rainier Beach, 1895. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives.

Flung into needing a fast decision about buying this firehouse, we discuss our future commitment in a way that feels like a spur-of-the-moment Vegas wedding. I am both giddy and terrified. It feels impulsive and dangerous and financially risky and exciting to be buying a house with Jim.

That night, we discuss issues that most married couples take years to figure out: what happens to the house if one of us dies, each of our responsibilities toward the house, what happens if he is unable to repay me for his half, what happens if we break up. I become aware through this conversation that Jim has already proven his commitment to me in so many ways – his determination to make my house his own, as flawed a situation as that was for him; the care he took to fold himself into the complex and intertwined relationship I have with my kids in his quiet and unobtrusive way; his unflinching support of me and his acceptance of the ever-present ghost in the room. It was my turn to show my commitment to him. By stepping fully into this endeavor, I would be showing him my intention of spending my life with him.

Still, it’s scary given our angsty adjustment moving Jim into my house. Are we ready to make this leap together?

Yet it does feel right to be buying a house that so ideally represents the two of us. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past 15 years, when things happen quickly and easily, it’s usually the right path.

But still. I am terrified. Will this new house resolve his home needs? Will it suit mine? I have spent 15 years making all the decisions in my world. Will I have trouble accepting the fact that I will now have to share these decisions and, heaven forbid, make compromises? Will I have to sell my dream house? The thought still causes me to swallow back tears. I love the house so much. Everyone who walks in the door loves it too. I bought the house 4 years after Arron’s death when the kids were 6 and 10. For both of them, this house is the only one they know. I wanted a home that would console us while at the same time offer us a new life, one without Arron. The house became all that and more.

Which is why I know the kids will be devastated at the idea of selling our home. But the truth is, financially I am barely holding on. Property taxes are rising substantially every year and I don’t have a reliable income. From a financial perspective, selling my house is the only option if we buy the firehouse, but I still hope, in the back of my mind, that perhaps I’ll be able to rent it, hold onto it as an investment.

The other issue is that the firehouse has no real bedrooms. Given that the sellers owned the house since 1974, and there is no obvious bedroom, it’s a mystery to us where they actually slept. We grapple with how to create bedrooms from the partially renovated rooms: A hayloft with a stair to the attic plunked in its center; a horse’s feed room and stables with grooved cement floors and giant barn doors that open directly to the backyard; an attic space that will require a new stairway to provide access. Persuading the kids to move to an incomplete house will be a challenge without the carrot of beautiful/cool bedrooms.

The neighborhood is also a mental hurdle. Am I willing to give up my proximity to friends, shops, downtown by moving a 20-minute drive further south? Is the neighborhood as scary as it purported to be? Will I miss the tree-lined streets, beautiful houses, winding streets of my neighborhood and move to an area that has fewer of these aesthetic qualities?

I expected the process of melding all our lives to be gradual, allowing me and Jim and my kids to adjust to the new situation over time. Making the decision to combine our lives in a 24-hour period is daunting. Of the questions that swirl in my head all night, the one I return to is: Am I ready to take this leap with Jim?

The next morning, still trying to overcome our misgivings about the neighborhood, we stop in at the local funky coffee shop where I ask a man in line buying a coffee if he lives in the neighborhood and what he thinks of it.
“I love the neighborhood,” he says. “I’ve lived here for 8 years now, and it’s been great. There are tons of artists, musicians, and creative types here, because of the lower home prices.” Other people in line chime in with similar sentiments.

We hustle off to do the home inspection. The inspector tells us he grew up in the neighborhood and that he loved it. Everything about the house is sound, despite the incomplete renovations and the lack of bedrooms.

After the inspection, we spend time kicking around the neighborhood, trying to get our bearings. The views of Lake Washington are spectacular, and although from the firehouse, the views of it are peek-a-boo, it’s beautiful from almost any vista around the neighborhood. Our optimism grows as we traverse the streets, take a walk in the local ravine. We already love the oven-fired pizza place. People at the local Safeway seem friendlier than at my local one. Through our tour, I can see Jim’s excitement grow and the feeling is contagious. I too am getting excited. We end back at the house and stand in the driveway looking up at the house as if trying to see our future selves in the windows.

“Should we do this?” Jim asks.
“I need to call the kids,” I say, pulling out my phone. He wanders away to stomp down overflowing blackberry bushes to determine the property’s boundaries.
“But what about my room!?” my daughter laments, bursting into tears. I hate making the kids sad, rip them away from their comfort zone. I try to explain my dwindling finances to my daughter, why the firehouse is a good investment with its double lot and renovation potential.
“And with us doing a lot of the renovations ourselves…”
“It’s all about you and Jim now. You’re just doing this for him. You’re buying him a house.” I realize the crux of her statement. There will be a shift of power in this house. Rather than Jim being a guest in their house, they will be a guest in his.
“I’m not buying Jim a home. He’ll be paying for half. It will be half his house. But it will be your house too. You’ll always have a place wherever I live. I want you to know that.”
“I know,” she sniffs.
“And besides, you’re talking about moving away.” She couldn’t argue, having recently told me of her plan to move in with her boyfriend next summer.

Next, I call my son.
“I’m not moving my senior year of high school,” he says, defiant. I can’t argue. I had been forced to do just that in high school, and it changed the course of my life.
“Ok,” I say. “I promise that we won’t move until you leave for college.”

This means we won’t be able to move into the firehouse for a year. In truth, I am relieved. I too need time to say goodbye to my house and neighborhood. It’s a compromise I’m willing to make. I hope Jim will understand and see that my investment is now both with him and my kids.
Our decision has to be quick in Seattle’s hot real estate market. If we’re going to avoid the bidding war and offer cash, then we need to put in our offer by the end of the day.

I find Jim hacking at a thicket of blackberries.
“If you’re OK with not moving for a year,” I say, “then I think we should make an offer.”

The Fire House Chronicles – Episode 4

This post is the 4th in a series of posts I have dubbed “The Fire House Chronicles.” See Episode 1Episode 2 & Episode 3

We stood in the middle of the apparatus bay admiring the thick, old beams and high ceilings that was traversed by pipes and electrical conduits. The room was still filled with boxes and odd bits and pieces of a life. A pile of photos, some loose, some contained within broken-paned frames littered the large built-in workbench. I wandered over to a box of old records and began to sort through some of the top ones. I lifted a copy of “Peter and the Wolf,” the same children’s classic that I had grown up with and it seemed like a sign. I know these people, I thought.

EJ explained to us that sellers were elderly and that the husband had done a lot of the work in the house himself until he was diagnosed with kidney disease and wound up on dialysis. The wife was now ill as well. It was clear that moving out had been a difficult process and there was  still a lot of stuff around that they clearly either didn’t want or didn’t know how to get rid of. The scissor lift was a case in point.

“They will be accepting bids on Tuesday, but they have said that if a cash offer came through they would seriously consider it. I get the feeling this will become a bidding war.”

I looked at Jim. I could tell he knew what I was thinking. It would deplete my nest egg, but I could conceivably come up with a cash offer. The thought was terrifying.

“I might be able to do the cash thing,” I said, in what felt like a whisper. Could I really be considering buying another house?

“Would you want to do that?” Jim asked.

“I don’t know. But I think I could. My financial guys won’t be happy though. They will want me to sell Pine St. (my existing house).”

EJ got on the phone and found us an inspector who could do an inspection at 10am the next morning. We bid farewell, and drove away in a daze.

“Are we really seriously considering doing this?” I asked Jim.

“I don’t know. Are we?”

“The house is perfect for the both of us. It has a huge workshop for you, a double lot, historical interest for me…”

“But I don’t know much about the neighborhood,” Jim said.

“No. It will be a haul to get downtown. It’s a long way from my place.”

“But close to my work, and to the highway.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah, it’ll be a 5-minute drive for me to get to work, and it’s only about 3 minutes to the highway.”

“Well, that’s certainly a plus.”

Our conversation mimicked the circles around the neighborhood we were now driving to try and better acquaint ourselves with the area. The local houses were generally non-descript, mid-century homes, interspersed with a few lovely old craftsmans. Along the main drag, a Safeway, RiteAid, MacDonalds and a handful of other fast food restaurants offered a kind of convenience not available in my existing neighborhood.

At home, we poured over Google maps looking at the house from every angle, researching the history (see the 2nd photo under “horse-drawn chemical Engine #1 for a picture of Fire Station #33), finding old photographs of  the Firestation and Rainier Beach. We hunted the online archives and found that the city had some of the original architectural drawings. We discovered snippets of history about the fire station and grew more excited. I browsed the listing again and again, looking at the photographs, trying to glean as much information as I could. I set up a Pinterest Board to contain all the existing photos and to collect inspiring decorating ideas; everything from stair designs to what it might look like if I painted the interior all white to attic bathroom ideas.station-33

I called my financial advisor.

“I like the idea of your downsizing,” he said. “I assume this means that you will be selling the Pine St. house?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m hoping that maybe I can rent it.”

“I’m not sure that will pencil out,” he said cautiously. “But we can talk about it in more detail if this works out. In the meantime, we can put the money together if you decide to move on it.”

His next question was inevitable.

“If you do buy it, you will need to decide how you are going to purchase it with Jim. Will it be Tenants in Common or Joint Tenancy?”

“I have no idea.”

“Do you have any kind of agreement between you and Jim as to the payment of the property, what will happen if something happens to your relationship, that sort of thing?”

“No, not really. I guess we better think about that.”

“Well, you will need to be very clear what happens to the property if something happens to you. Do you want your kids to get the proceeds? Does Jim have heirs?”

“God, it sounds like we need a prenup.”

“It’s not far off. You need to get all those questions answered before you buy a house together.”

“Yeah, I guess we do.” It was beginning to dawn on me that buying a house with Jim demanded a deeper look into our relationship together. Buying this house was going to mean a lot more than just buying a house with Jim. This was going to take our relationship to a whole new level. Were we ready to make that leap?

 

The Fire House Chronicles – Episode 3

This post is the 3rd in what I expect will be many episodes I have dubbed “The Fire House Chronicles.” See Episode 1 Episode 2.

South side of house with blackberries.

South side of house with blackberries.

The house is surrounded by blackberries that creep within 3 feet of where we stand, just outside the barn doors. They disappear up a slope at the back and side of the house and it’s impossible to see how big the property might be. Two huge maple trees covered in ivy, serve as giant columns that flank the rear of the house, shrouding the area in dappled sunlight.

The barn doors are old and in poor repair, but it’s possible to  imagine that this was where the horse came in and out of the station, with a area in the back for them to graze.

We head back inside and make our way upstairs.

To the left, there is what looks to be a closet with no door. The walls are lined with an array of pipes, that look like the arms of an octopus.

“What is this room? And what’s with all those pipes? I ask.

“Some sort of heated room? EJ suggests.

“Maybe it’s where the firefighters dried their gear,” Jim suggests.

“Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Very cool.”

We continue into the bright living room that we have seen from the pictures. The room is enormous and sunny, painted the same off-white as the rest of the house. The ceiling light fixtures are the first thing we notice – a row of five simple brass fixtures each holding a large clear, round bulb. Although not original to the house, they suit the space well.06-qu0vqzv

The brass fire pole in the corner of the room goes from ceiling to floor, but the hole in the floor is a false one, a circle of the fir flooring a foot below the living room floor blocks the way down.

“No sliding down that,” Jim says. “That would have to change.”

We move a circular cover on the floor not far away to reveal the hole where another firepole had been. We peer down into the apparatus bay, a dizzying height.

“Maybe we could put this pole back too,” I suggest. “Though landing down there would be awkward. Those cabinets  down there are in the way.”

At one end of the living room, behind the closet with the pipes is another closet-like room, but this one has a window. It seems cozy and I immediately imagine a single chair and shelves full of books.

“This could be the library!” I say, excited.

08-hiujqa713-p43rf6dA wooden bar-height counter opens into the kitchen. The cabinetry is lovely, but the kitchen itself is awkwardly laid out. On one side is a stovetop that, when standing at the stove, looks out to the living room, but there is no oven in sight. Behind the stove is a counter with a brass bar sink at one end and a fridge at the other. This counter is topped with a tall hutch that cuts the room in half. The hutch has several shallow cupboards with glass fronts, pretty but not big enough to hold more than a few glasses. On the other side of the hutch, another larger stainless steel sink and countertop, with a dishwasher beneath creates a galley-like kitchen. I find the wall oven built into the hutch, but on the side with the dishwasher, far from the stove.

“It’s hard to believe this kitchen was actually planned this way,” I say.

“Maybe this side was for entertaining,” Jim says waving his left hand at the area with the bar sink and stove, “And this side was for the servants to clean up,” he says, pointing with his right.

“Servants? You think the owner had servants? It’s all so weird,” I say.

 

As we walk back into the hallway, a man, obviously another realtor is making his way up the stairs with a youngish couple following. They head to the living room and we all smile tensely at each other.

14-s7roinaIn the enormous bathroom, the original shower stall made from beautiful Carrera marble takes up one corner. Beside it, the original white porcelain urinal, and a newer toilet. An antique armoire, obviously not original to the house, houses a sink and wall lighting.

“Do you think it still works?” I ask no one in particular pointing at the urinal.

“One way to find out…” Jim says. I shake my head and follow EJ to the next room.

Back room with doors to nowhere

The back room is bright despite one window boarded up and the other covered with a very worn out blue tarp. It looks as if has been there for many, many years. Light comes from a pair of old doors, and there is a window in what appears to be a tower. Jim slides the lock and the doors swing outwards. There is no railing or balcony, and the drop below is easily 20 feet.

“I think this may have been the hayloft,” Jim says. They would’ve hauled the hay up into this room. There was probably a davit over the door at one time.”

“This definitely needs a railing,” I say, standing well away from the opening, trying not to look down.

“There is an opening in the floor in this corner,” EJ says, pulling a board away to reveal a hole cut into the floor. I bet the hay was dropped through it to the stable room below.”

We find a similar hole in the opposite corner of the room.

A set of makeshift wooden steps in the middle of the room leads to the attic above, creating a loft, under which, illogically, are a washer and dryer.

“Do you think they always intended for the stairs to the attic to be here? It doesn’t make sense. This is the nicest room in the whole house, with that view of the property.” I can see it being a perfect bedroom, except for those steps. We would have to find another place for them.”

Double Sinks

Jim and EJ are already climbing to the loft. As they reach the top, there is no railing, and they step gingerly onto the floor above and disappear. I hesitate, not liking the height, but then step bravely into the dark space. The T-shaped area is huge. We enter what was clearly intended as the master bathroom. At one end is a room, not much bigger than a closet with a door. Jim already has it open, and there is nothing but a toilet that faces the door.

“How odd,” I say.

Beside the toilet room, there is a single pedestal sink in front of a rectangular mirror and on the opposite side, another identical sink and mirror.

“It’s the dueling pianos of bathroom sinks!” Jim says.

Beside the sinks, nestled under the slope of the roof, is a waist-high, framed out structure that is too short to be a shower, but that has a fan and light fixture above it.

“What the heck was this supposed to be?” I ask.

“No idea. It’s like they started the renovation, and then just put the hammer down and walked away,” Jim says.

“Maybe some sort of bathtub?” EJ suggests.

Attic room

Attic room

The rest of the room is empty and enormous, as it covers the floor area of the entire house. The ceiling and walls are all sloped, but there is a tall peak in the center. At each end are windows that seem tiny compared to the giant room. From one window there is a view of Lake Washington through trees and houses.

“Looks like this was going to be the master bedroom,” EJ says.

“So sad that they weren’t able to see their dream realized,” Jim adds.

I am busy scoping out the room, trying to figure out where a set of stairs might go.

“Maybe if we take them up through the bathroom downstairs? or those closets by the living room? They must be right about here,” I say, stepping to the area I imagine the closets to be.

Making our way back down the stairs is frightening, first, because there is no railing at the top and also because we have left the ‘doors to nowhere’ open, and one misstep would land you 20 feet down. I am shaking when I finally step onto the floor.

Back in the hallway, I look up, trying to imagine a set of stairs in the bathroom.

“Stairs could go here,” I say waving my arm above, pointing at the spot.

The other realtor and his clients are now just leaving the kitchen, and EJ signals for me to be quiet.

“Don’t want to show too much excitement,” he whispers, smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fire House Chronicles – Episode 2

Front door

Front door

This post is the 2nd in what I expect will be many episodes I have dubbed “The Fire House Chronicles.” Episode 1 is here.

Hands cupped against glass, we peer into dusty windows. Given the photos in the listing, we know the place is empty, so we sneak our way around the perimeter of the house, squeezing past tendrils of blackberries and a huge rusted orange lift of some kind parked against the back of the house. The lift partially hid holes in the shingle siding and blue tarps covering some of the upper windows.

Inside, the “apparatus bay” as Jim calls it, is enormous. There are boxes and piles of junk. The walls are lined with workbenches and tools.

“This is your dream workshop!” I say. Jim appears speechless.

“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” He finally says.

Before we have even gotten around the whole house, I am pulling my phone out of my pocket.

“Should I call EJ?”

“Yeah, let’s take a closer look.”

“You’re sitting in your car in front of a house you want to see right now, aren’t you?” EJ says. I laugh.

“Uh, yeah, maybe,” I say sheepishly.

We arrange to meet after lunch for a full tour. Over lunch at a local wood-fired pizza place that has become one of our favorite date spots, given it’s close proximity to Renton airport, where Jim sometimes keeps his small amphibian plane, we talk about the house excitedly. It seems like a perfect fit: A sublime mix of workshop, property, old house and off-the-beaten-track neighborhood that seems to epitomize the nature of my and Jim’s relationship.

“But do we want to live in Rainier Beach?” I ask. I love my beautiful neighborhood, it’s 10-minute proximity to downtown, Captial Hill (an area where many of my writing events take place), Lake Washington, and highway. I know the location is going to be the hardest hurdle for me to get my head around. For Jim, the new location will put him closer to his work and is a 3-minute drive to the highway. Still, Rainier Beach does not have a great reputation. It is perceived as being a hub of gang activity, shootings, and crime. That said, my neighborhood is no better for similar activity.

We meet EJ on the front lawn. He is wearing a suit, which gives him a professional flair, surprising me for a moment, since I am used to seeing him in t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. I realize I haven’t seen him in quite a while, and I have forgotten how he is both formal in his posture yet extremely friendly, quick with a laugh and smile. He shakes my hand and then Jim’s.

“This is so cool!” He says looking up at the front face of the house.

Captain's office

Captain’s office

We enter into a large room, the original “captain’s office.” The ceilings are 15-20 feet high. There is a worn gray carpet on the floor, two old drafting tables in each corner, one covered in business cards of realtor’s who have already visited, the other with pictures of the house. There are old shelves, empty of their contents, huge windows, with transom windows above them. The room though dilapidated is full of light. I mentally adopt it as my eventual office.

From the office, we pass into a hallway. The floor is old, grooved cement. To the right are a set of steps to the upper level, to the left, a huge french door leading into the apparatus bay that we had seen from the windows. We step inside, and gasp at the enormity of the room. It is approximately 50′ x 25′. Three huge windows line the south wall, but the overgrown trees outside let in only dappled sunlight. The front face is a giant garage door, that following the tracks up, folds into the 20′ ceilings crisscrossed with a byzantine array of pipes and beams and electrical conduits. Gigantic school house lights bathe the room in soft yellow light.

Apparatus bay

Apparatus bay

The house has the personality of an old man, very strong and solidly built, dressed in his best suit, which is well cut, but frayed a little on the sleeves. He’s full of wonderful stories, and the sound of his voice is soothing as he tells them, deep and resonant. You feel safe with him, but want to help him at the same time, sensing in him a desire to keep up with his colorful life.

“That must be the old fire pole,” Jim says. In one corner, there is what remains of a brass pole, hanging about 3 feet from the ceiling. Copper pipes are threaded up through it. “Too bad they cut it off.”

“Oh, that is too bad,” I say. From the pictures, the pole was clearly visible in the living room. What wasn’t clear was that it was cut off below.

“We can put it back,” Jim says with certainty. “We are definitely having fire pole!”

As we marvel at the room, EJ tells us what he has learned from the listing realtor.

“The owners have owned the house since 1974. They did quite a bit of renovating, but a few years ago, he got sick and was unable to continue. She told me they will be accepting bids on Tuesdays, but that if a cash offer came in before that, they would seriously consider it.”

I look at Jim. He gives me a look that tells me he knows what I’m thinking. My mind is spinning. My finances are precarious as far as my financial advisors are concerned since I am overleveraged in real-estate. This seems to be a genealogical financial state in my family. I think of each of my parents, and realize I was educated to love and invest in houses from a young age, having traipsed around old houses and buildings with my father as a kid. Standing in a room with him, he’d point to the walls that could be torn out, floors that could be easily repaired, kitchen cabinets that could be renewed with a few coats of white paint. I learned to see through cosmetic imperfections and focus instead on “the bones” of a place. The structure, the layout of rooms, the soundness of the foundation, the “location, location, location.”

Potentially, it’s possible for me to put together enough cash, with the caveat that in the long-term, I pay myself back with the sale of my present house. My heart clenches suddenly at the thought of selling it. Perhaps I rent it for a time and pay myself back slowly? I’m not sure how the finances might work between me and Jim, but I’m sure we can figure it out.

At the back of the bay, there is another room.

Weird room

Weird room

“What is this room?” I ask no one in particular. It appears to be another workroom. There is a strange half-loft, with an opening in the wall that we discover later is a hidden cavity (with a painstakingly tiled floor) created by a dropped ceiling built over the next room over.  A built-in cupboard with a false back that opens into yet another secret cavity, a plank supported by two tall old radiators that may or may not be hooked up with bulletin board on the wall above, to which is pinned ziplock bags filled with tiny screws and nuts and who knows what else are the only furnishings. In my mind, despite not knowing what lies beyond, I am tearing down the wall between this room and the room at the back of the house, to create a larger space. We dub this room “the weird room.”

We continue to the back of the house, into a dark room filled with a collection of old wood, stacked in one corner. In one corner is an incongruously pretty bathroom, painted yellow with lace curtains, and white, hexagon-tiled floor.

Stables room

Stables room

From the grimy cement floor, it is necessary to step up into the bathroom and we guess that the owners were planning a new floor above the cement one. The back windows are shrouded in sheets, covered in dirt, dust and hundreds of fly carcasses and cobwebs. There are is a giant double door, of barn door proportions, windows now missing and covered over with plywood. Jim reaches up and pulls a chain that connects to a spring locking mechanism, but the door doesn’t open until he lifts another bolt-like lock that slides into the cement floor. Suddenly the room is flooded with light and the doors are open to the back yard, but it is impossible to step outside, due to the giant lift blocking the way.

“What is that thing?” I ask.

“Some sort of scissor lift, I think.” Jim replies.

“Doesn’t look like it’s worked in years,” EJ adds.

“What on earth do we do with it?”

“You could probably have it carted away by one of the junk haulers,” EJ suggests.

“Or we could fix it. Could be useful,” Jim adds. If anyone could fix it, it would be Jim.

“The place is very tall. It must have been used to get up onto the roof.” Jim doesn’t hear me, as he is already clambering on the machine to check it out.

Jim on the scissor life

Jim on the scissor life

“Could he really fix it?” EJ asks me.

“Oh, I have no doubt he could,” I say, smiling.

 

15 Years

img_3810It’s a day I don’t care to remember but one we are implored to “Never Forget.”

I spend a morning visiting Vashon Island, giving a tour to a woman who is in town to attend the launch of a biography about Betty MacDonald  and given that she lost five years of her life to intense Betty-ism and research, I am only happy to oblige her with a tour of Betty’s house. The day is beautiful, sunny. She is in a state of euphoria as we walk around the house and along the beach. We drink special tea and eat miniature pies at the kitchen table with “the boys,” to whom I have rented the house and who maintain it with such adoration.

Driving off the ferry, a call lights up my phone with a 416 area code, Toronto. CTV News. Can I do an interview in an hour? “We use Facetime now,” he explains. At the fire station, I find myself answering familiar questions as I stare into my blank cell phone as it sits propped up on the kitchen counter. I am unclear why I have agreed to do this.

The following evening, the eve of 9/11, Jim and I fly above a twilit Seattle and it feels like freedom from the chaos below. As we fly over the baseball stadium, we can see people projected on the giant TV screen. I realize that it’s Jamie Moyer and his wife, and I reminded of all the grieving kids that their foundation has helped through Camp Erin, and shake my head at the irony.

At dinner, a family walks by the window, and I watch as a man swings his young son onto his shoulders, his wife looking on, smiling. The son’s face is painted blue, and I know they’re coming home from the fair, which we can still hear. My heart grips for a moment, as I place myself in that scene with them, not so much remembering, as imagining Arron hoisting a similar sized Carter, face painted, onto his shoulder.

As I crawl into bed the phone rings again. My brother. I assume it is the beginning of the many phone calls and emails I will receive over the next 24 hours, but he calls to tell me how he got down on one knee in a restaurant and proposed to his girlfriend. I wish I could join them in dancing joyfully around their kitchen, drinking champagne.

15 years and this is how it goes. Beauty, soaring, irony, reminders and joys.

My facebook lights up as I write this, so thank you all for thinking of us today, for all the emails and phone calls and facebook posts. They are certainly one of the many joys we receive on this day.

 

Capturing a Unicorn

Fire House #33 in 2016 and circa 1916.

Fire House #33 in 2016 and circa 1916.

After four years together, Jim and I were trying to combine our lives and were experiencing some turbulence. Jim had grown tired of living between his bachelor basement in Georgetown, Seattle’s gritty, hipster neighborhood, his fire station and my house, in the more gentrified, though still quirky neighborhood of Madrona. When I moved from New Jersey to Seattle in 2005, I had found my dream house. Full of light, a view of Lake Washington, in a fun, beautiful neighborhood. It was a perfect place to raise the kids, but I assumed when they left home, I would downsize. Now that time was drawing near, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave. Finances, however, looked to be making the decision for me.

Plus, I didn’t account for Jim in that vague downsizing plan. In my imagined relationships, dreamed up before Jim came along, I never considered the move-in together phase. Or if I did, I just assumed he’d move in with me. I had no any idea what it would mean to combine two well-established lives.

No matter what way Jim tried to fit himself into our house, he just couldn’t quite settle in. It was like squeezing a puzzle piece into a hole that looks to be the right shape, but isn’t quite. You turn it one way and then another, and finally just try to jam it in there with your thumb. Jim was feeling the squeeze. His desk was under the stairway in my office, his wheelie chair often rolling into the middle of the room, where it was necessary to walk around it or try and shove it back in place. With nowhere to put the picture of fighter jets his father flew, he placed it in front of the large mirror, but would come home to find it pushed out of the way, whenever my daughter needed a full-length view of herself.

The garage, which I had given over to him in the midst of our compromise was slowly being fashioned into his dream garage, with large metal cabinets to which he attached wheels, tools moved into them, plastic tubs organized.

In its new pristine state, the garage became a lure for my son who was rebuilding a motorcycle engine, a project that Jim had introduced him to. After two years of Jim mostly working on the engine by himself, my son finally discovered that having a motorcycle was cool and had taken a new interest in the project. Jim now returned to his garage sanctuary to find his tools in disarray or lost, plastic bins dumped and filled with old oil, garbage littering the floor. How to both encourage my son’s industriousness and teach him responsible tidy habits?

Jim and I went for brunch one morning, trying out a new, trendy spot located in a renovated warehouse. We forked chorizo hash, sitting in a loft area overlooking a large ground floor, filled with rusty September sun.

“Look at those huge glass garage doors,” Jim said. “This would make an awesome workshop.”

I looked around more closely. Two sides of the large space were walled with giant glass garage doors that clearly rolled up in the warm weather. We sat beneath thick, old growth, roughly hewn beams, surrounded by exposed brick walls. My imagination took over. An old warehouse, with a large garage area below and a funky renovated second floor for living. For the first time, I could see how Jim and I might combine our disparate lives. He with his planes and motorcycles and tools, me with my books and writing and cooking.

“Maybe we should look for an old warehouse,” I said. Looking back, I laugh thinking about how many young, hipster, Seattle couples have likely uttered the exact same sentence. Excited, I took it a step further and right then and there called a realtor friend. I’m glad I couldn’t see him roll his eyes when he heard my request.

We drove around after brunch, looking at warehouses in various semi-industrial areas of Seattle. At home, I hunted the Internet. We wandered around a strange old place with what looked like a few cool, white-washed and brick apartments with a working train track that ran along building with barely four feet of clearance.

I quickly realized we were looking for a unicorn in the hot Seattle real estate market.

So I set up a series of Zillow searches, providing glimpses into houses, workshops, and garages, and tried to picture a life combined with Jim’s. For a year, the emails came every morning. Sometimes I’d look at them, but more often I’d delete them, not having the time.

But that Thursday morning in June, I clicked. The first property listed was a tall, tutor-style house. The price was in range. I clicked further. Jim at his under-the-stairs desk was right behind me.

“Oh, my God,” I said aloud. “Look at this place! Jim, it’s an old fire station!”

And thus the saga began.

 

A letter to the Orlando Families

Dear Orlando Families,

I write to you full of compassion for the grief you are enduring right now. When my husband was killed – murdered – in the World Trade Center, I too was flung into a spotlight I didn’t want, didn’t expect, didn’t know how to cope with. I had people, strangers, the whole world mourning with me. People I barely knew arrived at my door crying, and I embraced them, comforting them with the vapors of my compassion, numb in my grief.

IMG_3600There are no words. There is no understanding someone who commits the vile act of purposely taking another’s life. You will find no comfort in vengeance. There is none to be had.

Today, I attended “Camp Widow” in San Diego, a place where people know loss. In memory of your loved ones, we were each given a stone bearing the word “hope,” a symbolic token meant to ground us, remind us of the love we once shared, to remember you in your grief and your loved ones. One of the slogans of this camp is “Hope Matters,” and I can think of no better message to impart to you in these dark days of your grief.

To each of you, I offer my rock of hope to hang onto, to ground you in the dark days ahead, to remind you that you are not alone.

I can tell you that it gets easier. The pain of grief never leaves, but it gets easier to breathe, to smile, to laugh.

You have the option to choose one of two paths in your journey of grief: you can choose to shut down, curl up in a ball, be angry, bitter, lash out. And you will do all of these things. But then you will get tired. So tired. It is exhausting to hold onto a ball of fire and eventually you will need to let go before it burns too badly. The other path is to find meaning in your grief, to release that burning ball you hold as you begin to see a little light breaking through the cracks in the darkness.

There is something different about this shooting, sadly, another among many, but Orlando is different. Can you feel it too? This country is tired of the shootings, the guns, the violence, the bullying, the terror. Enough is enough. The crack is getting wider and you, families, and me, and all the other families of innocent victims of terror around the world are poised to usher in the shift.

Your power lies in your ability to forge ahead in life, to make your loved one’s death and your own life meaningful, to teach others how to turn tragedy into love and joy, to help others through their own tragedies, to love again.

There is life after unimaginable loss, and I just want to shine a little of that light in your direction, so that you can find your way out.

With all my love,

Abby