In 1998 my wife and I were foster parents and took in the younger brother of our now youngest daughter who was about two years old at the time. The baby boy came to us in the middle of December. By the end of the first week of January he had died of SIDS. Come July, we were sued by the biological family for wrongful death, along with the County of Los Angeles for a total of 31 million dollars. Two years would pass before the lawsuit was finally tossed out and dismissed, having cost us close to twenty thousand dollars in attorney’s fees by then.
Emotionally, this was a difficult period of time, and certain things sort of went by the wayside; we managed to keep functioning, taking care of our three children who we adopted during this period of time. We went to work—my wife teaching third grade and me writing and teaching seminary courses. But our garage became the sort of place where we put stuff that we couldn’t think of anything else to do with, that we didn’t have time to put away properly, that we couldn’t find room for. Think of the crowded messes you might see on the television show Hoarders, though dial it back just a tad.
The biggest thing in the garage was (and remains) a 1986 Honda CRX that my wife—prior to our foster son’s death— had been working on: she had replaced the engine and was in the process of hooking everything back up; mostly it was just a matter of getting the transmission back in place (my wife enjoys working on cars and is quite good at it; she learned it all from her father). When our foster son died, she stopped working on the car and it ended up being buried in the boxes and detritus of our life that we piled in there. By the time the lawsuit was done, the garage was out of control and a daunting mess.
Over the years since then we have made stabs at trying to do something about it; occasionally we’d get some of it cleared out, only to find ourselves overwhelmed. Then another year would pass and with it, more layers of stuff had piled up: we would get new items at Christmas or on birthdays, the children would outgrow clothing or toys, and out into the garage they went, supposedly only a waystation on their way to Goodwill or something. But the old furniture, the old toys, the tools that never got put away after a project—they didn’t move on. They became ever-growing piles.
And then, five years ago, as our youngest daughter’s mental health deteriorated, things in the garage became a reflection of our distraction. The piles once again took on lives of their own. It seemed we’d never overcome our ever-expanding messy place.
But, in the last two months, with my daughter’s new medication and her generally better behavior, the stress has eased. A few weeks ago a bundle of energy appeared in a corner of my being. I hadn’t had such a feeling in years.
I suddenly decided to tile the space above the Jacuzzi tub I had installed in our bathroom four years ago—just before my daughter’s mental health deteriorated so severely. I repainted the girls bathroom.
And I tackled the garage.
My middle daughter helped me go through my tools. We organized them. I cleaned out the drawers in my tool chests. I gathered all the screws and nails that were scattered about randomly and organized them into little bins. I found all the camping gear. My daughters were in Girl Scouts and my wife was a Girl Scout leader: the elements of camping—tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear—had spread across the garage. Thanks to my newfound energy, they are now all piled in one spot. Not perfect yet, but an improvement.
The empty boxes that Christmas gifts past came in have found their way to being recycled. Old broken electronics have been donated. The floor has been swept. I am building shelves above my tool case and above the washer and dryer so that things that are now sort of piled in the way can be put away properly.
The garage is not yet perfect, but the trash is gone, and there is an order to the piles. But the old CRX is now visible and accessible. One can walk from the front of the garage to the back. You can see what you’re doing: I actually replaced all the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling.
Our garage was a symptom of our disrupted lives. Perhaps we are finally moving past that painful time. I never imagined it would have taken us so long.