A couple months ago I overheard my wife talking to a neighbor about how devastating it was to watch me go through all this: the cancer, the chemo, and then the surgery (I haven't written much about this but I know it's true). She said that what saved her was the 'sudden' realization - after it was all over - that nothing had changed. I had been cured and all was right with the world once again. And this is true.
Around the same time I was visiting with our grand-kids' other grand-father (the first time we'd talked since my surgery). Many years ago he had barely survived a serious accident, and he said; "Everything has changed, hasn't it?" I said; "Yes, it has."
After a couple days at home in the city I once again made the journey to the Haunted House in the country. There were many more things to fix and I was anxious to finish. Having it sit vacant in the winter was both risky to the property and hard on our cash flow. But this story isn't only about fixing things (or cash flow). In the days I was away from the farm, I realized that I actually missed the place. I was glad to be heading back and I was looking forward to 'camping out' again, even for a short time.
I pulled in the driveway and everything was just as I'd left it. I unlocked the house and walked in to find the radio was still playing (my son lives in Chicago and he says it's considered a good idea to leave the radio on loud when you are gone to discourage burglars). The furnace had kept things at a chilly 55 degrees (it had not failed and nothing had frozen) and all my 'camping gear' was just as I'd left it. (What did I expect?). So I turned up the thermostat and drove into town for lunch while the house warmed up.
While in town, I wanted to do some scouting; have a look around. It's been 40 years since I've really looked at this town and during that time many of the businesses have closed - driven out of business by big-box sores and national franchise restaurants. I have my farm account at the bank that is still in town (now a branch of a regional bank). There is a nice restaurant where we usually eat when working on the farm. But what else is there? Two bars, a bowling center, convenience store/gas station, and the same churches we had when I was growing up. And there was a library where I could hook up to Wi-Fi If we are going to move here we need to know what and where things are and one of the reasons I had for doing this was to get a feel for living here - an immersion technique. While at the library I got myself a library card. What better way to connect to a community.
In the city we have access to Cable TV, Internet, and a telephone in every room of the house. We all have laptops and PDA's and are connected to Facebook, e-mail, web, etc. at all times of the day and night. The TV is turned on first thing when we wake up (or arrive at home) and turned off last when we leave (or go to bed). If I can't sleep at night, I turn on the TV and watch an old movie or old episode of a sitcom to put me back to sleep. This is the background to our lives; someone is always talking, singing, or playing music for us. We never need to be alone. We never need to be bored.
The Haunted House has none of these. No 'access' at all to the outside world - not even a newspaper. (I do have my cell phone but only marginal service in this area.) All I have in this house is a boom box that sounds terrible in this empty house with the high ceilings and the bare wood floors. So after a day or two I just didn't bother to turn it on anymore. Better to have quiet than to listen to that cacophony of echos from speakers that were tinny in the best of acoustics. Since the music sounded so crappy I tried listening to talk but I just found it annoying that they were intruding in my thoughts - and in my life. So the house was now quiet.
Well actually - not really. Because now that I'd shut off all this noise I could hear the sounds of the house, itself. Not haunted sounds but normal things like the sound of the furnace - it made a certain sound when it came on that was different from the sound it made while it was running, and then it made a shudder sound as it turned itself off. And the house had creaks and other little noises that I could barely hear (I wear two hearing aids that do only a fair job of making me hear) but pretty soon I got used to these sounds and even found them comforting. The house was 'talking' to me and now and, finally, I was listening.
One of the first things this house "told" me was that the refrigerator was running all the time. I put some water in the freezer to see if it would freeze. It didn't freeze so now I had to find an appliance shop and buy a new fridge. I thought about Craigslist (I've had good results with this for buying and selling in the past) but I wanted to use this excuse to shop around the area's stores (more immersion). First I checked out the local ReStore but they only had one, it seemed expensive, and it was already sold. We'd bought this refrigerator second hand. It had only cost a few hundred dollars but now it has failed after only a couple years. Maybe a new one would be a better bet. A fellow we used to kind of hang out with owns a small appliance store in the next town. He and I only kind of remembered each other but he did have a sale on some basic new models that were only a couple hundred more than the used. He said that maybe the Menard's could under cut his price but he offered personalized service after the sale. I like Menard's but I believe in supporting small business if I can. He delivered it the next day and took the old one away - easy-peasy.
Another thing that I noticed - that I wouldn't have known without living here - was that the yard light didn't come on automatically at night (it gets REALLY dark in the country.) In fact it didn't come on at all. Somehow when we had the wires moved off the old barn, the yard light had been disconnected. I was able to track down the wiring problem and reconnect the circuit so that it was once again controlled by a switch in the kitchen. From then on I kept the light on all night. I noticed that all the farms and most of the houses in the area had yard lights that stay on all night. And I know that they are controlled by a photo-cell to turn off during daylight. My photocell was apparently broken and to fix it I'd have to climb the pole and work ABOVE the power lines. This was NOT an option for me so instead I installed a timer in the basement to turn off the light if the kitchen switch is left on (like when I go back to the city).
Even now that I had a yard light, I still hung the sheets over the windows at night and left a couple lights turned on inside the house when I went to bed. I kept all the doors locked - day and night - and locked them every time I went out. One day my brother came to help me and he laughed at all my locks, my lights, and my sheets. He said; "Stuart, there's nobody out here." That night I didn't bother to hang the sheets and when I turned off the lights inside the house I realized that it wasn't really as dark outside as I had thought. With the lights off inside the house I could see OUT through the windows very well. And since it was actually lighter outside if there was anything (or anybody) out there they would have a hard time seeing in. Once my eyes grew accustomed to the dark I could see to get around inside the house just fine. And since I was now used to the normal sounds of this house I was quite comfortable in this quiet (quote - unquote) darkness.
In all I spent the better part of the month of November in this Haunted House; alone and in a form of sensory deprivation (relative to normal). I tackled one project after another from my original 'list' along with the added things that the house told me about.
Because I was there all the time, I was able to take breaks from the work; during which I had time to do things like take walks up and down the road; picking up trash and 'checking out' the neighborhood.
By the last week in November I could see the end of my projects and I was ready to put the house up for rent again. I took out an ad in the regional 'advertiser' paper - where I'd found renters in the past. And this time I posted it in Craigslist with a couple pictures. I'd planned to head back to the city while I did the initial screening of prospective renters. I never know whether I'll get any takers, I was starting to miss my wife, and I value her instincts when it comes to people.
But the morning I had planned to head back to the city I woke up to find the house was colder than normal. As I lay there, under the warm covers, I could hear the furnace doing it's startup sound but after a minute it would go quiet again. Something was wrong. I checked the thermostat and went down to take a closer look (and listen) at the furnace. I double checked the fuel tank. There was something wrong with the furnace.
It was Saturday morning so I expected all the service departments to be closed for the weekend. I called the number on the sticker on the side of the furnace and got a recording that, yes, the service department is closed and I can leave a message and someone will contact me ASAP. The house was cold and I was worried about it freezing up so I called my former renter to ask he they had ever had this problem. He said; 'No', but he knew a guy who was very good at furnaces and did this kind of work-on-the-side. He'd give him a call and have him come out if he could. About an hour later - as I was driving to get lunch - I got a reply (from the recording) from the technician who was currently sitting in a deer stand with his son. I apologized for the interruption and described the problem. He proceeded to describe what was wrong and very carefully 'walked' me through the process of fixing it - for when I got back home. No charge. When I got back to the house I opened up the furnace and but it was not the configuration that he had described. I was just closing it up when the second guy (called by my former renters) walked down the basement stairs. After checking the furnace he said the basic problem was what the first guy had said but this was a little different model. He didn't have the part but I could a generic version it at the hardware store in the next town. He was on his way to another job so he couldn't run for the part but he was fine with me replacing this myself and left me his number in case I had any problems. Again, no charge.
So after a short drive for a $45.00 part, I put in the new part and the furnace fired up perfectly. It's amazing how good that warmth makes you feel. Even thought the generic part worked, it didn't fit exactly the same as the original. This made me nervous so I used this as an excuse to stay a couple more days - just to assure everything was okay. On Monday morning I drove to the HVAC store - from the sticker on the furnace - and showed the service guy what I'd done. He said the new generic part was actually much better (more reliable) than the original and everything should be just fine. So the whole furnace failure on a weekend only cost me $45.00 to fix. How lucky it was that I was there when this happened; nothing froze and no pipes burst. And even if there would have been renters, would they have had to pay full price (time and a half?) for a service call on a weekend? Most likely.
I was starting to feel a real attachment growing - both to this house and to this area. It was hard to show the house to perspective renters because I knew it meant that I would have to leave. I had only lived there for a few weeks but I have more of a stake - more attachment - than ever before.
This house will still haunt me but I am no longer afraid. The prospect of moving to this area will haunt me more now that I've spent some serious time here. And I'm no longer afraid of that either. This is a subtle change but, like a tree seed planted in fertile soil, it will grow into larger changes to come. And it is now the season for this tree and for this change. This is a beautiful season and it is time to stop being afraid of haunted houses.