In a normal year, February is my least favorite month – colds and flu, lousy weather, you’re sick of winter and it’s too early for spring.
This, however, has not been a normal year.
Or at least not a normal January.
The month began with abnormal precipitation. The first to notice was our granddaughter Chloe.
“Papa, there’s a big wet spot on the rug by the downstairs bathroom.”
Thinking it was her way of confessing to a spill, I blotted up the water with an old towel.
It did seem like an awful lot of water, though.
About an hour later, our older daughter said I might want to take a look in the bathroom. She said this with the sort of expression Titanic passengers had when saying, “Captain, you might want to check below decks.”
A corner of the bathroom ceiling and the top of a wall were starting to buckle, and the wet spot by the bathroom door was spreading to the bedroom. Casa Woodward had sprung a leak.
Leaks are cunning. They almost always happen at the worst possible times in the worst possible places – like an upstairs toilet five minutes after you leave on vacation. That way they have time to destroy the house while you’re happily sunning yourself on a beach.
Luckily, I know a good plumber. There was a time when, as a younger man remodeling a North End house of horrors, I tried to fix plumbing leaks myself. Now I know better. I call Harold. He said he’d be over in the morning, and to shut off the water immediately.
Luckily, the shutoff valve at our house is conveniently located. All you have to do is wriggle the length of the house on your belly in a claustrophobic crawlspace teeming with deadly spiders. Though I’ve never actually seen one there, I know they’re lurking. Spiders are sneaky that way, like leaks.
Crawlspaces are not noted for cleanliness. I emerged bearing a striking resemblance to my grandfather Tom, a coal miner.
Harold’s face in the doorway the next morning was more than welcome. The source of the leak, however, proved to be something of a mystery. Nothing is ever easy at our house.
The suspects included the never-to-be-trusted upstairs-bathroom toilet. Sure enough, its shutoff valve was bad. Harold had a new one installed in less time than it would have taken me to find the tools. But he wasn’t satisfied. He isn’t one of the best plumbers around for nothing. For the next hour or so, he prowled the house like Sherlock Holmes on steroids. He tapped here, poked there, measured distances as carefully as a referee on third and inches.
“I don’t think that valve was the problem,” he concluded. “I think the problem could be in the wall behind it.”
This, obviously, was not what we wanted to hear. A plumbing problem inside a wall is like your only set of keys being locked in your car. Something has to get broken.
“I hate to bust into walls,” Harold said, “but we’re going to have to do it. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Another night without water. The leak, meanwhile, had accelerated its assault on the bedroom, where the carpet was doing a passable imitation of a bog. The bathroom wall and ceiling were bulging like a Chuck-A-Rama waistline.
In the morning, Harold began poking holes. The first was in a wall under a bathroom sink.
“That’s what I figured,” he said. “It’s wet back there.”
The next hole was in the bathroom ceiling.
“I feel the leak,” he announced. “It’s a pinpoint-sized hole in the pipe.”
More ceiling came down, exposing the culprit. For a pinpoint-sized hole, it was spraying a surprising amount of water. To me it looked more like a geyser.
“When they built the house, they crimped the pipe where it shouldn’t have been crimped,” Harold said.
A mistake that was certain to put a crimp in the family budget.
Harold had the leak fixed in no time. Fixing the hole in the ceiling and drying out the bedroom carpet, however, took over a week. Despite blotting and vacuuming up a shocking amount of water, the carpet remained terminally moist. Worse, it was beginning to smell like a mildewed dog.
By the time the carpet was replaced and the sheetrock damage was repaired, the leak that had begun innocuously with a small wet spot had devoured two weeks and a goodly portion of the winter travel budget. The silver lining was that we needed to replace the carpet anyway, and we could stop lying awake nights worrying about the plumbing.
For three days – specifically until the morning I got out of bed, headed for the bathroom and stepped onto wet carpet in almost exactly the place where the trouble had started before.
Could I be still be in bed, dreaming? Was this a recurring nightmare?
It wasn’t. This time the leak was coming from the furnace room, where the hot water heater was launching a lively new flood.
Following Harold’s instructions over the phone, I shut off the water to the hot water heater and used a hose to drain the tank. The floor dried up immediately.
“Okay, you need a new hot water heater,” he said. “I’ll be over with one the day after tomorrow.”
Having no hot water is only marginally better than having no water at all. Nothing feels quite like a cold shower on a morning when the temperature is near zero.
Harold was as good as his word. Back as promised, this time with an assistant, he had the old water heater out and the new one in in a couple of hours. The rest of the winter travel budget was gone, but we had hot showers again. Life was good.
Until the morning of the wakeup call from hell.
“Sorry to wake you, but we don’t have any water.”
“No hot water?”
“No. No water at all.”
It was two below that morning. To the ceiling leak and mutinous water heater, we now could add frozen pipes.
Following Harold’s advice over the phone, we turned up the heat in the house to sweltering, blew warm air into the crawlspace, opened up the bathtub faucets. Still no water.
This time the water wasn’t just gone for a couple of hours or overnight. It was gone for almost three days … No showers, no laundry, no washing dishes. You can’t even wash your hands properly. After one flush, the toilets are out of commission. It’s like camping without the fun.
Relatives let us use their showers and brought us jugs of water. We melted snow to fill the toilet tanks, wore a path from our house to the restrooms in a nearby park.
Then, a sliver of hope. The evening news reported that water meters had frozen all over the valley. The house and crawlspace were hotter than the hubs of hell and the water still wasn’t running – it had to be the water meter.
A water company crew reported promptly the next morning, Sure enough, the meter was frozen as tightly as John Boehner’s Obama face. Half an hour later, water was flowing from the kitchen faucet again.
“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” my wife said.
It was. When we count our blessings, we should include clean, running water that stays where it belongs and helps us through every waking hour of every day. At our house, we’ve come to appreciate it every time we turn on a faucet.
Best of all, the Siberian January is over.
February never looked so good.