It began as an innocent project. Well-meaning. Possibly heroic. My wife Joy was out of town and I thought I’d have a little Mother’s Day surprise waiting when she returned.
Our bathroom floor was in a state of worsening decay, getting spongier by the week. I’ve got five days before Joy returns, I calculated. I’m going to redo the bathroom!
We lived in what some refer to as a “Delta Box”—a term of affection for those who live in one, and a bit of a slur for those who don’t. Our “Delta Box” (named for the Vancouver suburb where we lived), was a raised bungalow.
The main floor, accessible up a few steps from the front door, featured the usual kitchen, living and dining rooms, along with three bedrooms and the main bathroom.
A short flight of steps down from the front door led to the basement, half-way below ground level, which contained a family room, a small fourth bedroom inhabited by our nineteen- year-old son Mark, and a laundry room that led to the garage.
The basement also included a very small washroom, also claimed by Mark, with a sink and a toilet featuring a headshot of extreme skier Glen Plake, sporting his distinctive mohawk haircut, taped to the fixture’s lid.
Two other boys rounded out our family of five: seventeen- year-old Tim, and twelve-year-old Jonathan, who had accompanied Joy on her trip to Florida to vacation with her mother and sister.
Our home was 25 years old. The upstairs bathroom contained the only tub and shower in the house.
During years of enthusiastic showering, bathing and splashing by three growing boys and their parents, water had surreptitiously leaked through a crack in the caulking where the linoleum met the base of the tub, causing the sub floor to rot.
It was becoming harder to ignore that sinking feeling when you stepped from the tub onto the disintegrating floor. With two of our home’s five inhabitants out of town, I decided to seize the day.
At first, all went well. Ripping things apart gives a man a sense of accomplishment. But even that wasn’t peaches and cream. To fix the floor properly, the tub had to be removed. But in order to access the tub, I had to rip out the wall tiles and underlying drywall.
While I was at it, I noticed the wall opposite the vanity, to which the previous owner had nailed tongue-and-groove cedar strips.
Few things can match the warmth of Western red cedar, but through the years it had accumulated enough coats of paint to disguise its original identity. In short, it was ugly, and my wife had often wished out loud that we could get rid of it.
Aha! The time is now, I thought as I grabbed the wrecking bar.
Removing the cedar resulted in the annihilation of the drywall beneath it, and more hauling of rubble down the stairs and out of the house.
Behind the drywall, a rotten stud needed to be replaced. And so on.
In the deep recesses of my mind lurked the realization that this bathroom project was somehow becoming more than I had anticipated. But my unfailing optimism, coupled with the satisfaction of daily adding to the growing pile of debris beside the house, lulled me into a sense of complacency.
Abruptly, without warning, it was the day before my wife’s return. I became desperate.
A friend joined me. We worked feverishly past midnight cutting out the old flooring, treating our neighbours to a bedtime cacophony of the grating rasp of a reciprocating saw, the tortured shriek of nails being wrenched from floor joists, and the thump of pieces of plywood being tossed out of the bathroom window onto the ground below.
Morning dawned. The nightmare was real.
The hours before Joy’s arrival were a kaleidoscope of activity. Removing the latest bathroom debris. A bit of laundry. Dishes. Vacuuming. And the clock—that relentless clock—each tick kicking the pieces of my shattered dream and reminding me that all too soon I would be bringing my wife into the middle of it.
Suddenly it was time to leave for the airport. And my Mother’s Day gift? A bathroom with bare studs for walls. No floor—just the supporting beams. No tub or shower. No sink or toilet.
Somehow, the knowledge that we did have a toilet and a sink in the basement did little to console me. It wasn’t the sort of place where you’d want to spend quality time.
We had a pleasant trip from the airport. I really was glad to see my wife; why spoil the moment by telling her what I was up to?
My pulse quickened as we pulled into the driveway. Bravely, I swung open our front door. Hmm—not bad. Fairly clean, considering what had transpired, added to the fact that the place had been deprived of any feminine influence for a week.
As we climbed the stairs to the main floor, I positioned myself in such a way as to shield Joy’s eyes from the hulking new tub and shower enclosure sitting in the middle of the living room.
Summoning up any courage still remaining in my battered ego, I led my good wife down the hall to the bathroom doorway— the door itself lay on its side in Jonathan’s bedroom—and uttered the rehearsed words, “Happy Mother’s Day!”
It’s hard for a spouse, even a kind, loving one like Joy, to act grateful when part of her world has been destroyed. Phrases like, “I know you meant well,” were mixed with sentiments such as, “I don’t want you to ever do anything around the house again!” (Some husbands might welcome the latter declaration.)
Things got worse. I tried to gently break the news that I was scheduled to leave the next morning for a three-day staff retreat. I quickly added, “But I’ll be off work for two days after that.”
It didn’t take me long to figure out that my marriage was more important than going on a staff retreat. I hoped my boss would agree.
I awakened him with a phone call around 11 p.m. to plead my case. Fortunately, he too is committed to the biblical concept of marriage, and we agreed that it would probably be prudent for me to stay home and finish what I’d started.
I took Joy out for breakfast the next morning. The food was good—and it was a pleasure to use the restaurant’s sparkling facilities.
Then we looked at new bathroom vanities. I believed it would help re-orient our thoughts, creating a vision of things as they would be. Neither of us realized how long that would be. I was about to learn the terrible truth that destruction is much quicker than construction.
The adventures continued. There was the night I took a mis-step and put a foot through the basement ceiling. I was kept from falling completely through by a floor joist conveniently positioned between my legs.
Then there was the cat episode.
I had almost finished laying the new plywood flooring in the bathroom when I discovered our neighbours’ cat checking out our kitchen. I must have left the front door open while I was sawing plywood on the driveway. When the cat saw me, it took off like a shot down the hall and through the open bathroom door.
Ordinarily a cat in a bathroom would be easy to spot, but it was nowhere to be seen. There was, however, a three-foot by four-foot opening in the floor where I had yet to fasten the last piece of plywood to the floor joists. It didn’t take much figuring to guess where the cat had gone.
I went outside and left the front and back doors of the house open, assuming the misdirected feline would be sufficiently motivated to find its way out.
I returned—after what seemed a reasonable length of time—with the carefully cut final piece of plywood flooring under my arm. No sign of the cat, so I triumphantly fastened the last piece of the floor in place.
At 5:00 a.m. the next morning, my wife and I were awakened by a horrific racket. I sprang from my bed thinking an intruder was in the garage stumbling over the garbage cans. I bounded down the stairs to the basement.
By the time I reached the laundry room that led to the garage, the truth stabbed through the fog in my brain like a bolt of lightning—That cat is trapped under the bathroom floor!
It was true. Having passed the dark hours of the night in silent despair, the neighbours’ cat had reached a state of panic, and in a frenzied scramble for freedom, had begun to flail around amidst the metal ductwork beneath the floor.
The boys—living proof of the propensity of the typical adolescent to sleep through anything—were blissfully unaware of the pandemonium.
Fortunately, the basement had a suspended ceiling, so I didn’t have to face the unthinkable prospect of tearing up my precious new floor. Perched on my old aluminum painter’s ladder, I gently lifted one ceiling panel in the laundry room, which is directly underneath the bathroom.
The panel seemed heavy… about the weight of a scared cat. I carefully set it back down and removed the panel next to it. Slowly, slowly, I raised myself until I could peer through the opening into the blackness.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw the cat… crouched, and glaring at me with a wide-eyed stare that gave me the impression it was blaming me for its predicament.
The cat wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t quite reach it and wasn’t sure I wanted to.
I resorted to the same tactic that should have prevented the cat’s dilemma in the first place—leaving the panel out, I walked away, giving it time to make its escape. Actually, I went back to bed for an hour or so to contemplate, while my wife twitched and turned beside me.
My wife didn’t like cats at the best of times, and knowing there was an emotionally distraught one sitting in our basement ceiling had altered her state of mind. I did make sure our bedroom door was firmly closed in case the cat carried a grudge.
As morning dawned, the solution arrived in the form of our white short-tailed cat Bonkers. Unsure of what might transpire, but wanting to create options, I opened the front door, then retreated a safe distance.
Bonkers must have talked the traumatized fellow feline down, because a short time later, the two of them strolled sedately out of the laundry room, up the stairs and out the door.
At breakfast, the boys enjoyed a good laugh as I told them what had transpired while they were sleeping. By the end of the day Joy was even speaking to me again.
At last, three weeks after the adventure began, it was time to install the shiny new acrylic tub and shower enclosure. I couldn’t wait!
But first I had to re-configure the plumbing.
Mark and Tim began showering at their girlfriends’ parents’ homes. And my wife, in desperation edged with vague anger-like emotions, began to shower at the local swimming pool.
The plumbing went quite well, considering I had to cut out the side of my bedroom closet so I could lean the whole network of copper tubing away from the bathroom side of the wall to allow me to slide the new unit into place. Fortunately, the debris field was confined to my closet alone, as Joy’s closet was located on the other side of the room.
It is with particular sadness that I recall the Saturday evening I proudly announced to my family that they could shower in their own home before church the next morning. I tried so hard to fulfill that promise.
Working into the wee hours of the night, I finally surrendered to reality, crawling wearily and humbly into bed, only to arise a few hours later to break the news to my family that they had better secure alternate arrangements for washing.
By Sunday night, the plumbing was done (I’m sure that God has forgiven me for working on the Sabbath). I wish I could describe in triumphant tones the moment I turned on the water supply valve for that first shower. But even that moment was tarnished by one tiny jet of water that squirted from a single flaw in all those carefully soldered joints.
When I discovered that the jet was reduced to a drip when the shower was turned on, the solution seemed obvious—simply turn off the supply valve when no one was showering and turn it on when someone was. That idea grew old very quickly, and I repaired the offending joint.
Finally, we could all shower with a joyful abandonment known only to those who have been deprived for so long.
I have to admit that everyone’s joy was somewhat tempered by the long list of other things I still had to install, including drywall, a light in the shower, and a switch on the wall, not to mention a toilet, a sink and a faucet.
Yes, I had completely underestimated the scope of the project. My proposed five-day job cost me two weeks’ vacation and the investment of every spare minute after work and on weekends— usually at the expense of sleep—for two additional weeks.
But I learned a lot. Among various lessons in marital harmony, I learned that a fully functioning bathroom is an integral part of everyday family life. And I learned that cats hate small spaces.
How do you put such memories behind you? You start another project. That fall, I cut a large hole in our dining room wall to build an extension to hold our china cabinet.
It took only a week of fresh autumn breezes blowing through our house to redirect our focus. I haven’t heard a word about the bathroom since.
Author’s note: I embarked on this bathroom project on May 5, 1993. My story was printed in “A Second Cup of Hot Apple Cider… Words to Stimulate the Mind and Delight the Spirit.”
This collection of stories by Canadian authors was edited by N.J. Lindquist and Wendy Elaine Nelles, and published by “That’s Life! Communications” in 2011.