Photograph by Dietra Reid
They’re Digging Dirt in My Family Room
Yesterday they used a jackhammer (two jackhammers, to be precise, the first too weak to break the slab of concrete separating civilized living from the dirt on which this fifty-year-old house was built). Despite the curtain of taped plastic cutting diagonally across our foyer, gray dust invaded our kitchen and coated the quartz counters and the tile floor. At the end of the day, the men removed their earplugs and emerged like snowmen, their hair aged by the concrete dust. Then a massive dump truck hauled away the foundation of our lives.
My husband huddles in our bedroom, which is no longer a sanctuary. Yesterday the jackhammers shuddered until our bodies vibrated long after the sound stopped. This is what it feels like when your life is dismantled.
I peer at the hole that will soon be twelve feet deep, reaching the offending sewer pipe that decided to tilt and crack after fifty years. The hole that resembles my mother’s grave as her coffin was lowered.
They remove our front door with dirt streaks, exposing our house for what it is—a temporary structure built by men. Loud voices in Spanish reach the second floor. The intensity of those voices in a language I don’t know shatters my temporary calm. What have the workmen found? A snake? Immovable rock? Ancient bones?
Earlier they found their first surprise. Another pipe, higher up than the one captured by the snaking camera that found the problem requiring the excavation—a pipe with a hole. It, too, had tired of its job. It rests now on what was only hours ago our plush green lawn, next to the growing mound of dirt. The second surprise, likely the reason for their excited voices, is the contents of what remains in the higher pipe. Water and refuse are dripping from it. Is my husband showering? Or doing something else? Can he stop for a while? How long is a while? I ask and am told a couple of hours.
My husband goes out for errands and mental rehab. I return to the computer, the gentle tap, tap, tap, of the keyboard creating a sense of normalcy, these words on the screen creating the illusion of control.
For forty-six years this house has sheltered our family, facilitated our gatherings in joy and in sadness, anchored our lives. Through births, graduations, b’nai mitzvah, weddings, deaths, even our daughter’s cancer, the constancy of this house, this place sanctified by our life cycle, has come to symbolize our marriage and all my husband and I have built together with hard work and love. For forty-six years we have treated it with respect—kept it clean, made repairs and updates to keep it strong, hallowed it with beloved items from our deceased parents’ homes. This house tells the story of our lives.
Now to save it, our house is under assault.
During the never-ending night before day one of the dig, I toss and turn. When I finally succumb to sleep, I dream of dirt tumbling into the excavation, men screaming, soil smothering them, smothering me. I awake to the forlorn wail of the one a.m. train in the distance.
That will never happen, the job foreman tells me on day one. We know what we are doing. We’ll build a wooden containment structure to hold back the dirt as we go further down. Then we’ll use ladders in the pit and lift buckets of dirt to men standing on the rim. Don’t worry.
On day two, I watch one worker cut the wood, its fresh fragrance signaling progress. An hour later I marvel at the wooden cage within the soil pit, relax as the men descend, take a picture of them smiling and waving, text the picture to my children and grandchildren. At four p.m., the second pipe, tilted and warped, is revealed. The men cover the soil outside with a blue tarp, pinning it down with wheelbarrows and shovels and go home for the night, the height of the mound filling me with hope.
At 10 p.m., we hear a thud—even my husband, who needs a hearing aid. We rush to the first floor and stare at the dark pit room, sealed from the rest of the house by its plastic curtain. We see nothing but shadows. Has a squirrel or bird invaded the open window? Did a bucket or a shovel slip into the pit? Has part of the metal holding the curtain collapsed? To enter the sealed room requires exiting via the kitchen door, navigating the debris outside in the dark, opening the front door, and with faith, stepping into an area possibly on the verge of collapse. My husband looks at me. I look at him. Should we try it? Then a cascading thunder shakes us, and the floor. We race upstairs, huddle in our bedroom, and pray that the foundation of the whole house remains strong. I stare at the ceiling, listening to the creaks in this old house, fearing more thunder from below.
In the morning we survey the damage. The wood structure has collapsed against one side of the pit, and soil ripped from the other side has tumbled into the hole. I call Trey, the project manager, with the bad news. But it is Leon and his team, the men who labored, whose faces reveal the price of the setback. More workers appear, including a young woman who picks up a shovel like the men.
My husband sends me to our son’s house, where the sounds and sights won’t remind me of the collapse and my pre-dig nightmare. The rhythm of a family starting the day calms me. Still, I envision Leon and his team. Do they tremble as they re-enter the trench to repair the wood brace and remove the loose soil? Do they pray in thanks for having been spared, then pray again that the brace will hold today? Do they consider walking off the job, then stay because they can’t afford to leave?
Two hours later I return to our house. The metallic buzz tells me that the pipe repair has started. I sit at the kitchen table, feet away from the sealed room, as if my vigil will protect the men and our house. Later I survey the bowed pipe, arthritic like me, which has joined the corroded pipe on the lawn. I watch the soil mountain get smaller as men with their wheelbarrows reverse yesterday’s path.
The men who are restoring this house are different from me. They use their bodies to support themselves and their families, risking their health, even their lives. They don’t fear dirt on their shoes, on their hands, on their clothes, on their hair. Sweat-streaked, they rest beneath the tree casting the largest shadow to drink cold water and Gatorade, then return to shovel still more. They have fled other countries, confronting injury and death along their journey, for this—a chance to work a dangerous job in my family room. A chance to hope for more for their children.
Leon and Trey, who lead the team, are different, too. They work with their heads and their hands, translate a problem into physical solutions, calmly adjust when things go wrong, mediate between the men who dig and us, the nervous homeowners who lack the men’s skill and courage. There’s a Trump sign inside the bed of their truck that lugged the wood and the equipment. I’m pure blue. The sign is MAGA red. But these men are not deplorables.
A gas odor permeates the house. A portable generator powers a device that pounds the soil, compacting it so the new pipes won’t move and air pockets don’t threaten stability. Bam bam bam bam bam bam. The odor and the body-shaking sound don’t stop, but Trey tells me we have no choice. So I open the upstairs windows to air out the house and run the upstairs fans. When the odor doesn’t dissipate, I beg my husband to join me on our backyard patio, where the smell and sounds are less noticeable. Still, the men remain inside breathing the gas.
A truck pulls up with a couple of tons of stones. The men top off the soil with the stones, then blanket it with cement that eventually sits drying like a massive surgical scar in the middle of what will become again my family room.
Their work done, the men and woman leave. I am grateful beyond words. Still, the lawn has remnants of soil. The brick path in front of the house, despite power hosing, has a residue of dirt. Tiny nicks dot the room where a shovel or wheelbarrow scraped the wall. But the house, with all its imperfections, is ours again. For a while.
Centuries from now, our little white house will have disappeared from the earth, and we will be buried in dirt miles from this spot. The trauma of this past week will not be even a blip in the story of the universe. All that we built, all that we were—long gone.
I imagine other people or creatures from another galaxy working the soil where our house once stood. As they begin to build something or grow something, they see sunlight flicker on a metal box that I asked Trey and Leon to bury in the soil. They wrest the box open and find inside pictures of my husband, our daughter, our son, and me, and a typed passage about who lived here, what this place was called, and what happened at the start of the big dig.
The new owners of this place may struggle to understand the foreign language I’ve used. Even the characters may seem inscrutable. Perhaps they will send the contents to linguists or archeologists to decipher the message like a Rosetta Stone. Even if the language remains a mystery, I imagine the pictures reaching across time to reveal the love of the people who lived here. For one brief moment, we again dwell in this blessed, fragile place. This place we called home. This place where brave men (and one woman) dug dirt in my family room.