Saturday, March 20, 2010

Healing Houses

Walking to my final United Way site visit on Friday, I ran into my friend Don, who said, "You know, Nora really likes that little house."

I replied, "I'm so glad! I always liked that little house."

Don nodded. "I think it's a real good house for her to be in."

Nora is a recently divorced mother of young children. She is in the process of reassembling her life and moving forward.

"That little house" is a post-war bungalow, one floor, on a quiet little street, just a block away from the neighborhood elementary school. About 1100 square feet; three bedrooms, one bath.

It is the house into which Sam and I moved in 2005, as I was starting my cancer treatment, and in which we lived, eventually joined by Warren, until the fall of 2008.

It was a healing house.

When I left my marriage, my life in pieces, my children's lives in shambles, my older son Ben and I moved into a newly renovated, spacious 1920s era apartment on the top floor of an 1889 commercial Italianate building in the heart of downtown Delaware.

Ben, a sophomore in high school, fled the house for some of the same reasons I did - peace, quiet, safety, our inalienable right to own our own lives.

Sam, only in 6th grade, was torn and hurt and shattered. It would be a year before he would agree to stay overnight with me, and only then because he missed his big brother, who refused to stay overnight with his father, so much.

The separation and divorce marked a terrible time in our lives. We all needed healing, but the apartment, while great space, was not a healing house. It held us together, temporarily and loosely, while we each started to reassemble the pieces of our lives. The divorce became final. Ben went to college, which became his great healing experience. Sam floated between his parents' respective addresses.

And then I got sick. Really, really sick. And the apartment, which was a 3rd story walkup up two flights of really steep, 1880s style stairs, became not only unaffordable but also unlivable.

Enter that little house. I found it driving around town looking for small places to rent. It was only three blocks from the high school. It was only 1100 square feet. It had no stairs. It had a Dutch door on the front and sunlight flooding every room.

An army of friends and family moved us in on a cold, wet March day. At some point, I whispered, "thank you so much. Now please go away." Sam and I were left alone in our new space. I was very ill. Sam was scared and anxious. The house wrapped itself around us. We stood there, listening to the silence. Sam smiled a little crooked smile. "This house feels really good." I nodded.

We didn't know it yet, but it was a healing house.

That first summer there, I had tandem stem cell transplants, each time returning to that little house to recuperate and grow well. Some days my biggest activity was walking to the rear sun porch and sitting down for the afternoon. Ben came home for college and he and Sam ran the household with and without me.

It was a healing house.

Sam's dad, who'd pledged never to abandon him and who had vilified me as the one who abandoned the family, moved abruptly out of state. Ben headed back to college. That left Sam and me together, creating a whole new family again.

It was a healing house.

It was while living in that little house that Sam rocketed through anger and depression before finally deciding he needed professional help, asking for it without any prompting.

It was a healing house.

My healing was physical and emotional. Badly battered by cancer, somewhat banged up and bruised by an ill-timed and worse-fated brief relationship, I needed that little house to retreat to, to reflect in, to grow strong again.

It was a healing house.

Later, when Warren was fleeing his own marriage, he moved in - severely underweight, unable to sleep more than a few hours at a time, scared for his emotional and physical safety. Slowly, he started to gain weight, sleep again, and take steps to assemble a new life.

It was a healing house.

After we married, after Warren regained possession of his own home, we made plans to move. Sam found an apartment. We gave up that little house.

I cried when that day came. It had been a healing house. It had become a healing home.

So I am not surprised one bit that Nora is finding it to be a good house. My hope and wish is that it is a healing house for her and her children too.

A friend, about to be divorced, is moving this weekend out of the house that she and her husband bought 18 years ago and in which most of their now adult children were raised. Like me, her long term marriage were marred by serious mental health issues that, ultimately, destroyed the fabric of the marriage and the family.

I wrote her: May we forever dwell in places that make us strong, ready to be surprised by joy.

That is a line from Around the House and In the Garden: A Memoir of Heartbreak, Healing and Home Improvement by Dominique Browning, written in the aftermath of her divorce. I have always loved the hope in that sentence.

May my friend's new apartment be a healing house.


I am the working poor. said...

April, this was the most beautiful post ever! Seriously, I'm wiping tears out of my eyes.

Arlene said...

April... you continue to surpass yourself with your thoughts and words. What a blessing you are...

Sharon said...


Wish I had that house when I first divorced..I believe homes carry vibes that affect us.

I'm glad Nora was able to move into it, and that it is doing good for her as well.

But I'm especially glad it helped you and your family heal...:)!

Donna said...

I remember that move well. I was in charge of putting all your wonderful books in order on your book shelf. It took longer than it should have since I stopped to thumb through many of them. You kept telling me "go ahead and borrow what you want". You meant "I love you but hurry up & get out" :)

Jackie said...


This post had my crying. What a special story you have. I'm checking my library now to see if the Dominique Browning book is there.

Thank you for sharing a little of your heart today.


April said...

Thank you all for your warming and heartfelt comments. For those intrigued by Dominique Browning, there is an article written by her reaction to losing her job in this weekend's NY Times Magazine: