Friday, March 22, 2013

Welcome to the Aqualab

I've been up to something. Lying my ass off, actually. Keeping a secret. But now, I can come clean. And it sure is clean, let me tell you.

Aquaman shipped out on a shrimp boat in the Gulf over a month ago. About two weeks after he left, the boys told me casually that they would need pictures of their baptisms for their confirmation class. In 24 hours.

Before I panicked, I went looking through all of my containers where I put things I want to save. I easily found the invitation to the twins' baptism, but no photos. I walked to my bedroom and patted myself on the back when I realized pictures from The Redhead's baptism were right on the wall. Framed. Sweet. Then I remembered that there were a few boxes of photos in Aquaman's "office" (I use this term loosely, folks.) that is really just an enclosed porch off our bedroom. This is what I was faced with:

The pictures. Buried. Can you see them?

Right. So I looked through the boxes that I could see had photos in them, but they were from the wrong years. How could I have framed pictures of one child's baptism and no pictures at all of another? (Because twins change everything, that's why.)

I began to panic. I felt claustrophobic in that little room where I could hardly walk. And where I could. not. find. those. damn. pictures.

I made a vow. Cause that's what I do.

I would clean up and organize that office. I would be able to walk. And find things.

I was frustrated and angry. I decided to just walk away for a while. But I kept thinking about it.

I talked to a good friend and neighbor the next day and told her that I was thinking about organizing Aquaman's office for him while he was gone. "What do you think? Should I do it?" I asked her.

Her response was swift. "No! Don't touch his stuff. Danger zone."

"But I'm not going to throw anything away. I'm just going to organize it so he can find things. I won't get rid of anything."

"Bad idea. Don't do it."

So I put it out of my mind. Until the next day when I got an email from The Container Store about their office sale. And their free design service. I found myself in the store. It was beyond my control, really. The organizational gods were directing me.

I was assigned a woman named Charlie who did not faint when I showed her pictures of the space I needed to tackle. She hardly blinked an eye. In fact, she was excited.

"Oh. Oh my. Okay. Um, this is great. We can do some really neat things here. All right. Let's get started."

"You mean, it's not like 'Hoarders' or something? We can fix this? And not get rid of anything or make him feel like he's being attacked or told to throw things away? I don't want to hurt his feelings. I want this to be something nice for him."

Charlie actually teared up. "You love him. That is obvious. And we're going to give him this gift. And it's going to be a wonderful space for him. This is what we do for people we love."

Jesus. I think I love Charlie.

The next two hours are a blur of measurements being entered into the computer and being led around the store picking shelves and filing cabinets and containers. I was then sent home to confirm where electrical outlets were and that a strip of wood could be removed so an Elfa shelving system could be installed flat along two walls.

I stood in that room with the design that Charlie printed for me. I couldn't even imagine that this space, stuffed from floor to ceiling, might be able to look like she envisioned. I couldn't sleep. Should I do it? Should I not? Would Aquaman be mad? Would he be happy?

I asked the boys. "Should we clean and organize Daddy's office for him while he's gone?"

"You mean get rid of his stuff?" Thing 1 asked.

"No. Just organize it and make it nice."

"I don't know..."

The other two said yes right off the bat. Majority rules.

I made the friend/neighbor come over and showed her the design. "Oh. Well, this would work. Do it."

Back to The Container Store I went. I would prep the room. They would install it. I had one weekend to unload the room, clean, and paint the walls. I felt confident.

All three boys and I began moving out boxes and stacking them in my bedroom. I could only get to my bed from one side and the curtains stayed closed for a week because they were blocked by boxes and crates.

The Redhead and I pried off old pieces of wood, pulled nails and removed the chalkboard. Merely learning how to use Aquaman's drill was an accomplishment.

The Redhead with the drill.

We ran in to some trouble when we removed what we thought was a decorative strip. It was actually covering the joint where two pieces of wallboard met. A very deep seam. We peered behind it and could make out beautiful wood planks. The Redhead decided we should just rip off the wallboard and let the wood show, like we've done elsewhere in our house. I was scared the wall might have holes or not be finished and then where would we be? "Let's just do it, Mom! Don't be scared!" The Redhead is one hell of a cheerleader.

So we did. And we found beautiful wood planks.

It was still tough to get the wallboard off from the top and bottom trim pieces. I cursed a lot. The Redhead was understanding and promised to not repeat anything escaping his mother's sailor mouth. We got pretty good with the crow bar. We failed at learning how to use Aquaman's sawzall. That weekend, I learned how to mud drywall, thanks to the friendly dude at our local Ace Hardware.

Before: With the chalkboard on the wall.

Chalkboard removed.


Yes.  I did that.

We painted the ceiling and the trim and the walls. There was more cursing. The light fixture would not cooperate, but I found a cover for the air vent.

The carpet isn't my first choice, but no way was I ripping up that to reveal who knows what. I could see original beadboard under the wallboard ceiling, but I wasn't going to take on sanding and painting that. By the end of the weekend, we were all exhausted. But we were ready.

The Container Store guy showed up at 8:00 a.m. Strangely, he was able to install everything without cursing once. Not once. Superhuman, I tell you. Three hours later, we had this.

I sat down in Aquaman's new chair at his new desk and cried. And over the next few days as I unpacked boxes and put things on shelves, I realized that Aquaman had never had his own desk since we've been married. Almost eighteen years and four houses. There were a few garages with workbenches, but we have no garage in this historic home. I always have a desk - to me, it is a necessity. I've squeezed one in to every bedroom we've had. And Aquaman has never complained. And as I was sorting through coins and keys and business cards, I realized that all I have ever done is complain about the fact that Aquaman is a packrat. I have encouraged him to throw things away, but I have never helped him to just organize a space without making him feel like he needed to get rid of shit. I'm not so nice.

I found a box labeled "Bone Collection" and remembered seeing it in the garages of two prior homes. It had never been opened. And I remembered looking at it and thinking, "Who has a box labeled 'Bone Collection'???!!!!! Why do I live with this man?" I felt put upon. Like I endured so much because if I let him, Aquaman would be buried in stuff that he couldn't bear to throw away and we would eventually be the subject of an A&E episode of "Hoarders: Buried Alive." So I was somewhat reluctant to open the box. But I did anyway.

There were carefully wrapped bones, labeled with their location and date. An otter skull. A bear skull. A whale vertebra. They were beautiful things from Alaska that had not been seen since 2003, packed for ten years. Ten years!

Aquaman is a marine biologist. These were all things collected legally and catalogued and saved. And with each item I thought about the trip in which it was found and the adventures we'd had and the places we've seen. And I was glad he'd saved them. I carefully placed things on shelves and I felt love for my husband. Gratitude that he is so unique. That he looks at the natural world and sees beauty and surrounds himself with it. Thankful that somehow, my anger and resentment over a box of bones had transformed to love and respect and admiration. And I don't know how. I'm just glad it did.

The boys and I unpacked every crate and box we could find. We found shells and seabeans and photos and spirals from college and textbooks and letters and t-shirts. We sorted and organized all of it. And it felt so good to do something nice for someone else. To create a physical space to match the space in your heart that is just for them. To polish and dust and display just so. Thing 2 untangled a fish mobile that I thought could not be rescued. Thing 1 would come in and check on me and look around at what else had been unpacked. "Dad sure has some cool things," he said. The Redhead even found directions to how to create an underwater robot with Legos and Otter Boxes. He took it to school to show his Engineering class.

I was nervous when Aquaman returned home. The boys and I had been very careful during weekly phone calls to reveal nothing about our project - to not let anything slip. So when he walked into our bedroom at midnight two nights ago, I watched him closely. He walked towards his office to set down his bags and then stopped. "Oh, shit."

"Everything's there. Don't worry."

He looked back at me. I knew he didn't believe me. But he walked in and turned on the light. He just stared. Turning around in circles.

"It's your space. Your office. I think we should call it your Aqualab," I said.

"It's awesome," he finally said. We stayed up late into the night, me telling him how everything had come together and him sharing stories about his latest adventures in the Gulf. We eventually fell asleep, but I woke up to find him standing in the middle of the office at one point, looking around.

I keep finding him like that, just standing in there. I think he likes it.


Aquaman in his Aqualab


  1. Dammit, Kate . . . you made me cry AGAIN!!
    Love it.
    Want to come make an office for me and Jeff, now?

  2. You are an amazingly loving person. I know Aquaman is very grateful for your words here as you transformed your resentment into love and admiration. Every time I read a post, I hear your voice. Accent, pauses, laughter, emotion. This made me cry thinking about how far you two and you all as a family have come. Also seeing some familiar things in there made me a bit melancholy. Congratulations to you and the kids for pulling this off. And congratulations to Aquaman for the Aqualab!

  3. OK, he told me you "organized it" but he didn't say you cleared the whole thing out, redesigned and decorated it for him as well!! It looks amazing!!

  4. Kate, this is awesome! I love surprises like this. It's a beautiful room and a beautiful post about Aquaman. Bravo.

  5. kate,
    thanks. i feel there are some real fine parables in this story that can help us all. all ya all did a great job, brent