Archive for November, 2010

Painted Red

This story begins with a 2’x3′ section of unpainted siding, way up high, and a colleague’s premonition that Julie would fall off her ladder. For the sake of drama, I should point out that there was a rush to get the painting done before driving the kids off to choir practice, and that this was the very last section to be finished before putting the brushes and the five-in-one tool away for the winter. Julie was dressing the house up in bold red–something you’d expect to see in Trondheim or Qaqortoq, if not in Kirkland.Painted Red

Teetering Against the Tired House
To complicate matters, our house is not shaped conveniently for maintenance. It is shaped like, well, that’s a bit hard to describe. In 1976 a craftsman began assembling what would eventually become our house out of the most unlikely materials and in unorthodox ways. Panes of glass were wedged between 2x4s for skylights jutting out in odd places from the first floor. Cedar siding that should have been installed vertically was installed at an angle. Sometimes but not always. Windows were rectangular, or octagonal, or diamond-shaped. Pick your polygon and it is probably a window here. The house is not two stories or three stories, but somewhere in between. And that is not counting the garage that is halfway below the first story. So if I had to describe the shape of our house, I guess I would say it is a bit like a squished pagoda. Or maybe the Michelin Man with osteoporosis. When it was on the market, we brought my parents out for a tour. After ascending and descending stairs to four levels in two floors, my mother finally sank into a couch in the living room (which is on a level all its own) and declared, This house makes me tired.

So to get to the last unpainted section for 2010, Julie set her ladder at an obtuse angle with its feet in soil next to a heavy concrete planter. In this way she could get over one of the makeshift skylights and up to the second story to paint the 2’x3′ section of unfinished siding. Do not, by the way, forget about the concrete planter. It came with the house and, at the time of the accident, was filled mostly with shotweed.

The premonition, as it turns out, was an oversimplification. Julie did fall off her ladder as soon as it began to slip out from under her. But then, after bouncing off and cracking one of the unorthodox skylights, she managed to catch the ladder and get back on to continue the ride down. No doubt she made sure to hold on to the container of red paint to keep it from spilling out and going to waste. I found it the next day, still full of red paint with a brush neatly set beside it. She would remember later that she was also concentrating on her legs, and that she must keep them above the ladder so they wouldn’t break. Soccer season coming.

Inside the house, 10-year-old Tom was upstairs (doing homework, we’ll assume), while William and Nick were downstairs (also surely doing homework). They did not hear the ladder slide, or the skylight crack, or what came next.

Back on the ladder, Julie gripped and slid and tumbled down until at last she struck the concrete planter hard enough to fracture her spine, break her ribs, and puncture a lung. Literally out of breath, she gasped for attention and crawled a few yards before collapsing. If you are counting, you know that she fell off the ladder, then onto the ladder, then off the ladder again.

Tom did not hear sliding or scraping or any thud, but by some miracle he heard the faint gasping and he called for help. The older boys quickly set about taking care of their mother, with one on the house phone for a medic and the other on a cell phone to me. Tom peered out of an odd-shaped window from the second story as the medics came and put his mother in a neck brace, on a gurney, and into an ambulance. The medics would also leave a neck brace behind, which Nick tried to return to the hospital a few days later. In case they needed it.

Painted Red
Thanks to the level-headed work of three incredible sons, I reached the hospital before my wife even arrived. I heard the announcement of a trauma pulling in and was able to be there when she emerged covered in splatters of red blood and paint from head to toe. The doctors carefully assessed her injuries, the nurses caringly addressed her needs, and a technician who was trying to clean her up said, “I can’t seem to get this blood off… Wait, what were you doing?”

While the x-rays were being reviewed a social worker came by and thoughtfully asked Julie if perhaps she had fallen off the ladder while painting in a drunken stupor. The social worker was wise enough to have me step out of the room before asking this question. Which is why there was only one trauma case that day.

Titanium Wife
The first assessment failed to identify the severity of her injuries, and the first surgery failed to fix them. After a second surgery, with eight screws and two rods comprising “not more than a pound” of titanium, Julie is finally home, mostly off pain medication, and able at last to engage in physical therapy such as cleaning dishes, lifting laundry, and other activities that seem natural to a person who would try to keep paint from spilling while falling off a ladder. As far as coping with the broken ribs and punctured lung and titanium back goes, she says, “You know exactly how many times you have sneezed every day.”

For the record, I was able to paint the 2’x3′ section of unfinished siding by leaning out of a second-story window with a paintbrush fixed into a long bar clamp. Please don’t tell my wife.


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