8. Accomplishment Fantasy
The idea of my dad and me battling the rats in the attic didn’t seem overly daunting. Perhaps somewhat oddly, I looked forward to the adventure with my 79-year-old father who had given me a lifetime worth of “remember when” stories. Since my childhood, we had bonded over hard work, sweat, and plenty of (my) tears.
Like me, my dad has difficulty sitting still. We’re driven by chaos, deadlines, and physical labor. When anyone asks us the definition of a good day, for us, it means a productive one.
Benjamin seems to think I have an undiagnosed disorder called “accomplishment fantasy” in which I believe I can conquer a To-Do list that is humanly impossible. As such, he often reminds me that the world runs on a 24-hour clock. But that’s never stopped me, or my dad, who may also suffer from AF.
So when the attic bids rolled in at $7,000, we wrote off the battle of the rats as child’s play, and started making our Mission Possible supply list. As a realist, Benjamin thought it was a horrible idea. He knew how cramped, dark, hot, and infested that attic was. At 1,100 square feet, it wrapped the entire second story of our house, and was completely void of light and ventilation.
When we opened the tiny door for the first time, it nearly singed our nose hairs. The attic reeked of free-flowing rat bladders, age, and dust, all soaked and saturated into a thick blanket of pink insulation. Tossed at the attic entrance was a pile of “keepsakes” like a rusty Christmas tree stand, wrapping paper, broken glass, and rat traps that obviously had served no purpose at all.
Still, I thought it was a good idea to deep clean the attic on our own.
That night as we lay in bed, Benjamin rolled over and made me promise to throw in the towel if the project went south.
“I promise,” I told him, yanking the covers in my roll-away toward the wall. “But, I also promise it won’t go south. We’ve got this.”
The following morning, Benjamin left for work, and my dad drove into the war zone with battle gear in tow: hazmat suits, masks, gloves, booties, headlamps, and four gallons of Simple Green. His truck was piled high with 60 rolls of insulation, two shop vacs, six boxes of trash bags, and two spray pumps. At this point, we had practically reached Frequent Flyer status at Home Depot.
My dad and I suited up, eager to tackle the attic and have it finished by the time Benjamin came home from work. I was pumped, motivated, and determined until my dad started climbing the flight of stairs in his socks.
“Wait dad, where are your shoes?”
He looked down at his feet, and then back at me, as if I had asked a question unworthy of an answer.
“The protective booties don’t fit over my boots. I’ll be fine.”
Suddenly, I could feel my heart beat, not necessarily in a good way. I reminded my dad of the shards of glass, the exposed nails, the fiberglass insulation, and most of all the rusty traps and rat feces. He listened, but didn’t hear me, similar to how I did as a child (oh how the tables have turned.). That’s when I knew my 79-year-old dad could not go into that attic.
“Change of plans,” I announced. “Dad, you stay at the attic entrance, and Israel and I will go inside.”
Israel is my dad’s right-hand man, a stand-up guy who has saved my dad’s back from breaking since they met in 2013. Israel is a hard working machine who refuses to give up, despite the curveballs life has thrown his way. Most of all, he protects my dad, which means the world to me and my family. Even before I laid out the new game plan, Israel was suited and ducking into the crawl space.
Despite our headlamps, the attic was nearly pitch black and challenging to navigate due to the sporadic beamed flooring and mounds of trash. The plan was for Israel to start at the entrance, roll up the old insulation, bunch it into a trash bag, and hand it off to me. I would then drag the bag to the attic entrance where my dad was instructed to double bag it and throw it out the second story window. Meanwhile, I would follow Israel with a dust broom to shovel up the piles of rat poop, and then vacuum any left over debris. Once that was all done, we would retrace our steps with cleaning aid, and then finally lay out new insulation.
Since the job seemed bigger than anticipated, my dad called in a second worker named Jack. Unfortunately Jack had a severe case of claustrophobia, which meant his sole contribution was to catch the trash bags from the second story window.
Less than an hour in, it dawned on me that we were in over our heads. To streamline the job, Israel grabbed a second shop vac, which seemed like a good idea but in reality, made communication virtually impossible.
“I NEED ANOTHER TRASH BAG!” I screamed out the door.
There was a long pause before my dad answered, “WHAT LASH BACK?!!!!”
“NO!” I hollered, “I NEED A TRASH BAG!’”
Matters only worsened once Israel and I rounded the dark corner. From that point forward, we had zero light and Israel’s headlamp burnt out. I handed him mine, meaning I had to feel my way back to the entrance over beams and trash bags left in our wake. That May we had record heat, leaving us dripping through our masks and suits. Both our goggles were fogged and we had absolutely no communication with my dad or Jack on the outside.
What seemed like minutes later, I popped out of the attic entrance and told my dad we needed high-powered work lights. He grabbed two from the garage, plus an extra extension cord, and back I went into the abyss.
Meanwhile, Israel kept pushing forward, one soiled insulation roll after another. Buried deep within each roll were dead rats and nests from live ones.
Suddenly my legs and arms starting itching uncontrollably from the micro-shards of fiberglass pushing through the suit, down my jeans, and into my skin. My heart started racing, beads of sweat had no escape, and the already-tight crawl space seemed to get smaller around me.
All I wanted to do was to reach the light. Turning the corner back toward the entrance, the heat was unbearable. That’s when I noticed that both work lights had tipped over and were laying facedown on blankets of insulation.
Sudden visions of an inferno engulfed my mind, sending me into a panic attack like no other. Crawling toward the tiny door on hands and knees, I moved as fast as my body would go without falling through the rafters into the living room below. I ripped the mask from my face and encountered one of the worst possible scenarios imaginable.
At some point, while I was deep in the pit of “hell,” my dad and Jack switched places. Now in the stairwell, Jack had accidentally attached the shop vac hose to the blower port. This meant that everything we sucked from the attic blew back into the air and directly into the staircase outside our bedroom.
Every single square inch of the passageway was covered in dust — the windows, the floors, the walls, the handrails, and beyond. Unbeknownst to me, my dad thought he would save us some money on trash bags, thus refusing to double bag or single bag for that matter. Instead, he emptied the debris into the back of his truck and reused one single trash bag to haul away the old insulation from the attic to the ground floor.
Since most of the contents included nails and boards, the “master” trash bag looked like someone’s target practice. There was literally a trail of rat poop leading from the attic, down the stairs, and out our front door.
With one hard yank, I pulled the shop vac cord from the wall. “Everybody stop!” I screamed. “This is a total disaster.”
I threw my mask on the front lawn and started ranting at the top of my lungs. “That attic is a fire trap. There is no light, no air, and we don’t have any of the right equipment to get this job done.”
Needless to say, my dad and I went head-to-head, battling over his desire to help his daughter and my frustration with the way we were handling the job. He meant well, and so did I, but there are some things that are simply outside our scope of work. My dad is a remarkably talented landscaper, and by trade, I’m a journalist. When we both veer too much outside our lanes, we inevitably crash.
My dad and I may butt heads but we always link hearts, making us one heck of a father-daughter pair.
After the big blow up, I called Benjamin on his lunch break. “I tapped out,” I admitted. “You were right. The project went south.”
He thanked us for trying and suggested we just pay the $7,000 and hire someone else to do the dirty work.
“Well,” I pushed back. “Funny that you mention it, I talked to Israel and he didn’t seem to mind the job. It was just a bit challenging for me, really. I think if Israel had some help, he could probably knock it out in a day.”
There was a long pause. “So,” Benjamin asked. “Are you suggesting that I tackle the attic with Israel — As in clearing, disinfecting, patching holes, and laying insulation?”
“Umm . . . ” I was waiting for him to process his own thoughts.
“How far did you two get today?” he asked before I could speak.
“Pretty far.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were less than 1/8 complete.
There was a deep sigh on the other line. “Can we talk about this when I get home, Love? I can’t deal with this at work.”
“Yes, of course,” I said in my most chipper voice. “And just so you know, if you do this, we can earmark the $7,000 for something fun like a fireplace insert!”
The fact our home had no central air or heating left us racing the seasons for predicted relief.
“Great,” Benjamin said sarcastically. “You know our priorities have changed when ‘fun’ is defined by the purchase of a heat source.”
He hung up and I knew he would do it, because that’s the man I married, one of determination, passion, vigor, and enough strength to choke out defeat and hold possibilities high.
Next story on "Channeling Betty" coming soon.