The house we bought in Madison came with a dilapidated screened porch, just off the dining room. The realtor and I spent several minutes working to pry open the sliding doors. No one had touched it in years. The screens were pocked with holes, the crossbeams rotted and bowed. I could press my finger through the wood of the support posts, the ones that kept the roof from falling down—they were that far gone. The home inspection noted the porch’s condition, but said the room wasn’t integral to the house. The easiest thing might be to tear it down and turn the slab foundation into a patio. We moved in September and I was busy, so, like the people who’d lived here before us, and the people before them, I turned my back to the porch and pretended it wasn’t there.
Winter came and with it a sickness I never expected. I thought at first we could manage it, but as the snow piled up and temperatures dropped to forty below zero, it started to look as though the illness would take us all down. At night, I lay watching the shadows creep across the wall and the funereal glow of the streetlamps through the blinds. I stood outside my boys’ rooms, locked now whenever they were inside. My younger son almost never came out any more; my older son had punched a hole in his wall. Twenty years of memories—camping on the shore of Lake Michigan, climbing the Rock of Gibraltar, swimming in the ocean on Christmas Eve—all the days and nights I’d counted on to hold us together, now felt like useless cargo being heaved overboard in a desperate effort to keep us afloat. And still we were sinking.
On my knees, I promised that if we survived I’d never take anything for granted, ever again. I’d give thanks for the mayflies clinging to the light posts and clumped in the spiderwebs beneath the eaves, the dirt the boys tracked into the house from the garage, the cold mud in March, the broken porch. I promised I’d find a way to save it, even though I wasn’t very handy. I didn’t own any tools besides the basics: an orange plastic toolbox I’d bought at Home Depot in my twenties, a drawer of screwdrivers and drill bits my uncle sent me when he moved to Florida. When I was in college, my dad used to tell me it was a good thing I planned to use my head, rather than my hands, to make a living. I thought, maybe I could use my head to figure out how to use my hands. That is, if we survived.
We survived. At first, just barely, but better as summer came on. I stripped off the torn screens, cut away the crossbeams, replaced the sodden posts one by one. I bought an angle grinder and a sawzall and asked a friend if I could borrow his chop and table saws. I taught myself to cut dado grooves and installed hog-wire railing panels. I cut and painted every board and drove every screw, sweating, hot, mosquito-gnawed, but grateful. We’d come through. Or we were coming through. I strung lights from the ceiling, invited friends for dinner, and gave thanks.
All of this happened last year, not this year. This year, I spent a lot of time thinking about last year, where we were now compared to where we’d been. The thing about survival is that it’s hard to see while it’s happening. Surviving and not-surviving, resurrection and apocalypse, they feel the same, right up until you see which way you’re headed. Then everything is different. A hammer pinging against a nail sounds like nothing but work until the moment it sounds like thank you, and then it sounds like thank you all the time.