Yesterday was a very sad day. My husband called me in the morning because he had heard from a mutual friend, that our handyman, whom I’ll call Dan (not his real name), had a heart attack while training this weekend for an upcoming bike race for charity and had died. He was a very fit guy, and only 44 years old, so it was a total unexpected shock. I just kept saying “no” to my husband through most of the phone call.
We’ve known Dan over fifteen years. The friend who called to tell us of his death had recommended him years ago, just after Dan had gone out and started his own Construction company. We hired him to do some minor repairs. Dan’s specialties were carpentry and masonry and the man did dry wall like nobody’s business. He did such a great job the first time that we have just continued to hire him through the years whenever we needed work done. We sold our first home around seven years ago, because we were building a new house with an in-law apartment for my mother-in-law, and he was the one who got it into shape to sell. And he’s still who we call, when we need anything done. Or at least he was.
He doubled the size of the deck on our new house, when we realized it was too small. He painted my great room the deep lemon yellow everyone thought I was crazy to pick until they saw it finished. He built an access hatch that was a work of art and blew in new insulation over our garage when we realized we had a bad icicle problem. He repaired the siding that had been damaged by the bad icicle problem. Most recently, we found a leak in our girls’ upstairs bathtub. In order to repair it, we needed to replace the tub/shower enclosure. So of course, we called Dan.
Actually, we called him when we realized we had a leak and that there was water dripping from our breakfast nook ceiling. So Dan came over and cut a big rectangular hole in my ceiling, which is how we figured out (after several tries) that the tub was cracked. So he’s been over a lot the last few weeks and just finished repairing my bathroom last week. Which is part of why this is such a shock. I mean, I talked to him days ago, how can he be gone?
Of course, replacing the tub/shower enclosure meant he had to do new drywall around the tub, which meant he had to paint the bathroom. A fact that should have been obvious to me, but which I managed to overlook. So he asked about paint and I was like huh? So I had to decide very quickly on a color. This bathroom actually has a black and white checked tile floor and I thought it would be really fun to go with a bright red. So I went to a local paint store and bought the paint Dan had recommended (which actually happened to be my favorite brand of paint). He called to arrange the schedule and I told him I had bought red paint. To which he said “red paint, you bought red paint?” So I said, “yeah, is that a problem?” And he replied “red is absolutely the worst color to work with, I painted my daughter’s bedroom red and could not believe how many coats it took.” I offered to change the color, but Dan being the man he was, told me he would give a shot. So we agreed if he went over two coats, he’d add a charge. He went over. Actually, I ended up having to get another gallon of paint. But I have to tell you, the bathroom looked fabulous. And the hole in my ceiling? I KNOW where that hole was and I can’t find it. I had to send him a check to cover the balance on the job, and the extra coats of paint 🙂 and usually I would just pop the check in an envelope and mail it. But I was so happy with the bathroom, I wrote a note thanking him for tackling the red paint, that the bathroom looked fantastic and what a great job he had done on my ceiling. My close friends would tell you that I am absolutely terrible about writing thank you notes, so this was a rarity. I am now very glad I took the time. I hope he read it before he passed.
He was always a meticulous workman, who took a great deal of pride in his work. He was also possibly the neatest human being I’ve ever met. He ALWAYS cleaned up after himself, including sweeping wherever he had worked. Sometimes I was tempted to make up repair jobs in rooms that needed some attention. 🙂 I also told him a few times that if he ever started a cleaning company, I’d hire him in a heartbeat. He very graciously acted like my house wasn’t really that bad. Diplomatic as well as skilled with his hands. 🙂
Dan had two daughters very close in age to my two girls, so over the years we often compared notes. This job was no exception. His oldest and my youngest had left for college this year. The day he was repairing the hole in my ceiling, which turned out to be the last time I saw him, we had a good laugh about how hard it had been to let them go but how clean our houses had subsequently turned out to be.
We had a little ritual when he showed up in the morning and I was home (I sometimes work at home); I would offer him a cup of coffee and he would tell me he had some in the truck. That last morning, the doorbell rang and when I opened it, there was Dan on my front porch and he smiled and said good morning. I said “I’m guessing you have a cup of coffee in your truck?” He smiled and said yes, he did. So I told him that “in that case, I’m not even going to offer this time.” We both laughed and he got to work.
Dan was almost an archetypal American male, in the best sense. Competent, self-reliant, laconic almost to a fault (I always felt a certain pride of accomplishment when I got him chatting :)), proud of his workmanship and even prouder of his family, with a wonderful dry, almost arid sense of humor. He often spoke of his wife and girls and even if he was complaining about something, there was always love in his voice (although he probably would have been embarrassed if I told him I heard that.) I really liked him, he was a good man. I could trust him alone in my house, and even more importantly, I trusted him enough to be alone in my house with him. Not all that common an experience for me. And he was patient and gentle with my dog, who always, always barked at men. Dan used to slip him a biscuit from the supply in the pantry if he came over and I wasn’t home. But even so, part of our morning ritual was me telling the dog that it was only Dan and if he was going to murder us, he would have done it a long time ago
I saw BN today and it helped to be able to speak of my feelings. (Things, thank goodness, feel very solid between us again. He patiently stood still until I could recognize he was still the same. I was having a deep perception problem, seeing the world through pain-tinted glasses as it were.) Especially since I was feeling a little weird, which when we explored it, turned out to be me feeling like I wasn’t entitled to my feelings, that I was making it all about me. I talked about how horrible I felt for his family, losing him so suddenly. BN pointed out that I felt self-centered thinking about my own pain, when theirs was worse. I said that was it exactly. Then I started laughing and said “of course it’s self-centered, it’s my feelings.” BN told me exactly, but that it was ok for me to have my feelings and to attend to them; that this was part of an old pattern for me. So I told him that this was self-centered in the literal sense, but not the pejorative sense. That Dan’s family’s pain was not altered or added to because I was also in pain. We were able to recognize the dread that gets triggered in me of “don’t trust it when things are going well, because as soon as you’re not paying attention, something horrible happens and someone leaves you.” That ultimately, we like to believe we are in control, and death has a way of forcing us to understand we aren’t. That my experience led me to believe that pain was all there was, instead of learning the good that came from connection. I admitted that I had spent a lot of my life not letting anyone close so I wouldn’t have anything to lose. And BN told me that it made total sense when you considered my experience but now I had learned the power of connection and could live more fully. I realized that I have come to believe that the inevitable pain of loss was worth it in order to enjoy what you can have while its yours.
So even though Dan wasn’t a close friend, or even someone I saw all that often, and I am sad to think I will never ask him if he wants another cup of coffee only to have him tell me no or see his bright red, meticulously kept pickup truck in my driveway or ever see another amazing piece of his craftmanship, I am grateful that I did know those things. Our connections, however unlikely or infrequent, enrich our lives. It was a privilege to know what little I did of Dan. And I am diminished by his death. But I was enriched more by his life and what I did know of him. RIP
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