Nonfiction by Gayle Brandeis

The Grief Diaries is pleased to publish "A Mourner’s Guide to Home Renovation" by Gayle Brandeis, whose powerful new memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press), comes out on November 14th.


A Mourner’s Guide to Home Renovation

You can barely see through your safety goggles, the plastic fogged with heat, your eyes a teary blur. Your face is wet beneath the paper respirator, too, breath condensed against your skin. You blindly bang a hammer against a pry bar, feel a piece of floor tile chip away. Not the same satisfying release as when a tile lifts whole from its moorings, but still, progress. Still, grief.

Your dad will never see this house.

You remember crying the last time you and your spouse bought a house, too, crying because your mom would never see it.

It’s a strange coincidence, buying and renovating a house around each of your parents’ deaths. You and your spouse made an offer on your first house a few weeks after your mom committed suicide; this time, you signed escrow papers when your dad was in a coma. Your husband brought the stack of papers down to your dad’s assisted living place, where you and your sisters had been sleeping on the floor next to his bed for almost a week. The bed where he would take his last breath. You signed each arrow-sticker-marked line in a fog.

You’re still in a fog, but at least now you can break things. With your first house, you put your vision into the renovation, but didn’t get splinters in your hands, didn’t feel walls give against your weight. Your spouse did the demolition then, tearing down cabinets, dismantling toilets and the disgusting shag carpet around them. You stayed back at your rental house with your baby, born a week before your mother’s death, worried about noise, dust, fumes, worried about everything. You became a germophobe after your mom’s suicide, a fearer of stairways you could fall down, bathtubs the baby could drown in, cords that could cause strangulation. Your body hyper vigilant, constantly bracing itself for the next disaster. 

This time, you don’t have a newborn to fret about. This time, you go into the house whenever your son, now six, is at day camp and your spouse is at work. This time, you rip every inch of goddamn carpet off the floor yourself.

You are committed to doing as much demolition as you can now, as much of it alone as possible. It helps to be alone. You can smash and shatter and tear and bang as loudly and recklessly as you want. You can let yourself and your muscles scream without scaring anyone, except perhaps your new neighbors.

You pry more tiles off the floor, yank up tack strips, aware you are undoing someone’s hard work, their dreams for this house. You know someday someone is going undo all the work you will pour into this space now. This house will outlive you and your mark upon it. Still, you feel an unfamiliar, welcome, surge of power when the baseboard pulls cleanly off the wall, nails popping out one after the other, pleasurable as vertebrae cracking during a twist or a good hug.

A few days after your dad died, the day after your sisters left town, you had to attend the inspection for this house. You weren’t ready to face the world, but your spouse was at work, and one of you needed to be here. Your realtor had known your dad—his wife was one of your dad’s caregivers; their family had joined yours on a catamaran for your dad’s 95th birthday. He gave you his condolences when you arrived and you lost it, sobbing against his shirt. You pulled yourself semi-together by the time the inspector showed up, but your body was still like jelly—jelly electric with frayed nerves. You longed for some sort of armor, some new protective skin. Maybe that’s what this house is for.

Some of the baseboard is stubborn; some of it breaks off in pieces, requires extra force. Some of it is so stubborn, you leave it for later, for a time when you hope you’ll feel more strength.  It seems to be especially stubborn near corners and around doorways, the nails holding on for dear life. You don’t usually have the mouth of a sailor, but you swear at the baseboard, kick at the door.

In another weird coincidence, this house has the exact same front door as the first house you and your spouse bought, one you haven’t seen anywhere else—slightly medieval looking, solid wood, with a small hinged square at the top that makes you want to say “Hark, who goes there?” whenever you open it and peer through its iron grate. Everyone who comes by the house comments upon the door, but you can’t wait to replace it, to have a door you’ll be happy to open. This door is like a time machine, a portal back to bad times.

Your marriage imploded inside that other house. Your spouse’s mom died unexpectedly four months after your mom’s suicide and you became zombies of grief, incapable of comforting each other in the way you each needed. You drifted apart and then drifted apart some more. The main things that gave you life were your beautiful boy and your home renovation. Thank goodness for babies and fixtures—they fix you to this world. Unfortunately, they didn’t fix you to each other; you separated for a few months, then reconciled around the same time you were invited to be a writer in residence at a college in a beautiful mountain village. A deus ex machina stroke of luck. It feels like a do-over of epic proportions even though the new house is a third the size of the one you renovated before.

That house had been a faux mountain lodge plunked in the middle of the desert, large funky photo murals of the forest on many of its walls. Now you can look out your windows and see a real creek, real trees. Maybe your other house was preparing you for this one. Maybe your other grief was preparing you for this one. Grief from death by natural causes is simpler than grief after suicide, you find. Not easier, but simpler.  More pure. Like the clean mountain air all around you. Like the clear, cold water of the lake.

You fail to wedge the pry bar behind a new stretch of baseboard, tearing a patch of paint from the wall, and it hits you: you’re an orphan now. The thought has occurred to you before, but you dismissed it—a middle aged woman shouldn’t call herself an orphan, should she? But you feel it now; you feel it all the way through your bones. It hits you so hard, you drop your tools and crumple down to the subfloor, tile grit encrusting your sweat pants. You shove the goggles up onto your forehead, pull the respirator from your mouth, try to catch your breath. You are crafting your own orphanage here, you realize, tearing everything apart so you can create something new, a place where you can try to figure out how to raise yourself. You tilt your head toward the beamed ceiling, high and peaked above you. The house is small, but there’s plenty of room for grief. For ghosts. You let dust fall upon your face, the house speckling you with its restoration, marking you, making you its own.