The house at 936 Thermal: a story about the disintegration of a home and a marriage

Abebe saying goodbye to house

Abebe says goodbye to his home before leaving for Japan in 2009.

This blog post is the first part in a series of personal, interconnected stories that are about loss and new beginnings.

It’s not about running, other than the fact that tearing my ACL and losing my ability to run was one of the life-changing events that happened to me during a difficult period in my life between 2008 and 2012. So if you are a blog follower who wants to read only about my competitive running life, feel free to stop reading now.

Why am I writing about my personal life?

Partly it’s because writers are compelled to write. It’s a kind of therapy for us to impose a narrative structure on our lives. It helps us create order from chaos, to discover patterns in the endless choices and non-choices that life throws at us.

Writers usually like to have readers, too. Although this story might seem depressing to many, I want my readers to also feel my hope and excitement about the changes in my life. Maybe some readers will be comforted to know about the mistakes Paul and I made: to know that even well-educated, smart, talented people who once loved each other very much can blow it all.

These stories will not only be about loss. I’ve managed to start a new career in writing and editing, after becoming a student again for two and a half years. I don’t know how I could have survived everything without the support my partner Keith constantly gave me.

I also want to write about what no one can take away: memories; love; and the written, digital, and photographic records I’ve chosen to keep. Most importantly, I’ve kept myself. I’m more than a runner, more than a wife and a mother, more than an English tutor. I’m a person who is still the same “me” I was at age fifteen, when I first fell in love, and at the same time I’m still open and changing—I hope.

What will I not write about?

I’m going to leave out a lot. I can’t tell a story without writing at least some personal things, but I’m going to protect Paul’s privacy as much as I can. I will also conceal the identities of other people when appropriate.

My unconventional family

In the summer of 1990, Paul, George Gluppe, Joseph Kibur, and I left Toronto and drove two Honda Civics laden with exercise bikes and road bikes across the country. Six workout-inclusive days later, we arrived at our new home at 936 Thermal Drive in Coquitlam. It was a big house with four bedrooms; the huge downstairs “rec room” was initially our gym. The previous owners had taken good care of the 24-year-old house, and the manicured lawns and shrubs looked almost like a golf course.

Joseph started going to nearby SFU in September. In March 1991, my son Abebe (named by Paul after a certain Ethiopian runner) was born. Joseph moved out a few months later, unable to tolerate Abebe’s constant crying, but our basement gym was soon converted into a huge office that Paul and Joseph shared for many years while Joseph was starting his NetNation Internet hosting company.

Dave Reed became part of our "family" in 1995. My brother Alan and other friends are in this photo too.

Dave Reed became part of our “family” in 1995. My brother Alan and other friends are in this photo too.

Our unconventional family occasionally included various SFU students who stayed in our spare bedroom. Dave Reed arrived from Toronto in 1995 and became part of our “family” for the next six years. He was our Phoenix teammate and a great companion for Abebe. Dave had the patience to play a child’s games and watch children’s movies endlessly, and he taught Abebe many sports and outdoor games. Dave was also a good handyman who did repairs on our house, cut the lawns, and kept my “beater” cars alive.

Happy families

Happy families

Paul’s daughter Paola (from a previous relationship) lived with us for two tumultuous years. She was a young teenager and got into lots of trouble—the less said about that, the better! She eventually had to be sent to stay with her grandparents in the country of her birth, Ecuador. She was forced to attend a strict religious school, where she got straightened out. Paola visited us a few times after that, and we are all on friendly terms now.

kittens in bedroom

Cats have always been part of our family. This was the kittens’ room before it became Abebe’s.

Another person who joined our “family”, in Abebe’s final year of high school (2008–2009), was Abebe’s best friend Jung Dae. Jung Dae’s family lived in Seoul, and he was unfairly kicked out of his homestay family’s place in the summer of 2008. He was a smart, polite, athletic young man who fit into our family perfectly. He and Abebe led the breakdancing club at school, were part of the successful school cheerleading squad, and participated in track together in the spring. Jung Dae trained with weights regularly and enjoyed discussing his workouts with George.

Paul, Jung Dae, and Nancy

Paul, Jung Dae, and me.

I remember the spring months of 2009 very clearly—it was the last time 936 Thermal was a completely happy place. Abebe, Jung Dae, and I were up by 6 a.m. every schoolday because the boys had a 7:15 a.m. math class. While I cooked their oatmeal, I could hear Jung Dae singing lustily in the downstairs shower. Usually I drove them to school and then went to my gym, which was close to Port Moody Secondary.

Having two 18-year-old boys in the house kept me busy; every day I cooked meals for eight people (eaten by the five of us). On the rare days there were leftovers, they disappeared sometime during Abebe and Jung Dae’s nocturnal studying sessions.

Jung Dae left in July of 2009. He would spend the summer with his family in Seoul before going to an American university on scholarship. In the downstairs bedroom, he left his cheap Ikea furniture and a few motivational posters on the walls. The house seemed empty without him, but I knew it was only a faint foreshadowing of how I would feel when my son left.

Abebe had been enraptured by video games, especially Japanese games, ever since he was about nine years old. He had discovered a university geared to foreign students where he could learn Japanese and study business at the same time. It would be very expensive to live and study in Japan, but Paul and I had made one smart financial decision over the past eighteen years; we had invested a significant amount of money every month in an educational savings fund for Abebe. In addition to that, he got top marks and won an 80% tuition scholarship; plus he had worked hard at Pajo’s Fish & Chips for several summers and had good savings of his own.

Abebe leaves.

Abebe leaves.

Before he left, Abebe took several photos of the house and said goodbye to George. Paul and I drove him to the airport. Flying to and from Japan is expensive; we’ve only seen our son twice since then, in the spring of 2010 and the summer of 2011. Abebe didn’t know it then, but in September of 2011 he said goodbye to both George and the house forever.

By the time Jung Dae and Abebe left, Paul and I knew our marriage was over. We were already both involved with other people. Why didn’t I leave him when Abebe left?

Some people stay together “for the kids”. Paul and I continued living together because of George, whose health and mobility were starting to worsen significantly. In addition to that, I had a year and a half left in my Print Futures Professional Writing diploma course. I was now a full-time student with a very heavy homework load. There was no way I could fathom the upheaval of moving.

The house decays

When Abebe first left, I felt an ache whenever I went into his former bedroom. He had neatly packed all his treasured belongings (mostly games and Japanese manga books) into boxes. The room became my writing office. Gradually, I got used to the loss of youthful energy in the house.

With Abebe and Dave gone, and George’s health deteriorating, the disrepair of the house and yards accelerated. Paul did little to maintain anything, indoors or out. He had other priorities, and our financial situation was always precarious. Paul (who has multiple post-graduate degrees) had worked over the years at many engineering consulting jobs, teaching jobs, and a few other contract positions. Sometimes he made a lot of money, but he spent it quickly too. He was a risk-taker and I was unhappy about that, while he despised what he called my “negativity”. He was a compulsive bargain shopper, leading to an ever-increasing accumulation of what I considered junk throughout the house. Our house became so cluttered that it was difficult for me to even clean anywhere.

The reasons why our marriage broke down were many, and I’m going to stay quiet about most of them. But I can summarize a key idea: we need to pay attention to and nurture what matters most to us: whether that means a spouse, a child, a house, or a garden. Even a single flower requires care if it is to flourish.

At a certain point, Paul and I began to neglect our marriage. In addition, there was the matter of denial, of not facing what was happening. That happened in our marriage, and it was also a big issue in George’s reaction to his hip arthritis and his heart condition. I’ll write more about denial in another post.

In the winter of 2010–2011, George’s hip arthritis and heart condition both worsened dramatically. This was very stressful for me, because I was trying to complete my final assignments in order to graduate from Print Futures. George’s health was in crisis, but he refused to see a doctor or go to the hospital. I worried about him day and night. Finally, shortly after I graduated in April 2011, he was hospitalized for a month. He was advised to have heart surgery but was not willing to risk it.

George and I leave the house

By the fall of 2011, George’s hip arthritis and his weak heart were making it increasingly difficult for him to navigate the stairs in the house. I started to look for a seniors’ residence that he could accept, though he fought the idea of having to move. But I also wanted to move out, to escape the shackles of this domestic routine where I was still doing all the cooking and cleaning for the three of us. It was a farcical arrangement when there was no intimacy left between Paul and me.

Watching George’s struggles to move around was heartbreaking. We still went to the gym together many mornings, but the main part of George’s workout had become getting to his car, then getting out of his car at the gym parking lot and walking slowly in with the help of his walker.

In December I found a luxurious seniors’ place in Port Coquitlam and George reluctantly agreed to move there in January. He was too ill to help me with the task of packing all his belongings and discarding what he no longer wanted. It was a huge job. George’s brother Milt helped by buying some furniture and a huge TV that George wanted. Late in January, soon after George’s 79th birthday, he moved with the help of Milt, Milt’s footballer son Kris and another burly friend of Kris’s. Now I was free to look for my own place.

A month later I moved to a high-rise in Port Moody, bringing all my possessions plus all of Abebe’s treasured belongings including his collections of games, Manga books, and comic books. It would be the first time in my life I was living alone.

For the first time I could choose furniture and set my apartment up according to my own taste. I loved the brightness of my place with its windows facing Burrard Inlet and the North Shore mountains.

I didn’t feel as bad about leaving my home of 21 years as I thought I would. I loved the backyard ravine and the afternoon sun that poured into the master bedroom, but the house had become a prison for me. It was a place that Paul’s clutter and neglect had made impossible to take care of, a place I was ashamed of.

Paul alone at the house

Paul wanted to stay at the house—we never had any disagreement about that. He planned to stay there for the rest of his life. His goal was to find SFU students to fill the empty bedrooms and help pay the mortgage.

However, he wasn’t able to get desirable tenants. The house became a place of rotating troubled people, mostly recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

I still saw the house sometimes because I typically met Paul there once a week and we went to the local pool to do a swim workout. It seemed very strange to have my relationship with my husband reduced to such a trivial level, but he’s the father of our child, and I wanted to maintain some kind of connection to him. I’ll write more about this in another post when I examine the contradictoriness of emotions that erupt when a long-term relationship ends.

Seeing the house made me feel sick in a way. It had become so ugly and foreign after George and I left. Paul had bought cheap furniture for all the rented bedrooms. The house was always cold, dark, and gloomy—no one even bothered to open the tattered curtains.

Then, in December of 2012, a terrible thing happened. It turned out that one of Paul’s tenants was a professional con man and drug addict. Although Paul had taken the precaution of putting locks on all of the separate bedrooms and his office, this man managed to sneak into Paul’s bedroom and office during brief times when the doors were unlocked. He robbed Paul of almost everything valuable he had: expensive cameras, bicycles, jewellery inherited from his mother, and old coin collections worth many thousands of dollars. Even worse, the safety deposit box containing the jewellery also held Paul’s ID and all of his personal family documents from his parents and grandparents, dating back almost a hundred years.

This happened near Christmastime, during the darkest days of the year. For a while, Paul was (understandably) severely depressed. During that time, we had the closest talk we had had in years. Paul said that the soul had gone out of the house after George and I left. He realized he didn’t have a home anymore, without us. I think he understood more fully, then, what losing me meant; how dependent he had been on me to create a home.

He had been working for a long time to get a new business off the ground. He had been putting all his money and energy into that. Now he realized that his financial situation had become dire, and he had to sell the house.

Sold sign on property.

The end of almost 23 years.

In March he found a buyer who agreed to let him live there for three months while he went through the monumental process of selling, packing, and sorting through the contents of a large house that was jam-packed (literally to the ceilings, in some rooms) with over twenty years of accumulated papers, books, magazines, earthquake food supplies, furniture, and countless other possessions.

936 Thermal being renovated

The house looks bare after the new owner removed all the vines and bushes from the front yard.

My journal entries from Paul’s last week at the house

Paul was given the deadline of June 16, 2013 to have all his possessions out of the house. Despite months of sorting through papers and books, throwing things away and giving away others, the task of emptying the house’s remaining contents was overwhelming. Two things made it ten times more difficult; Paul had decided to downsize to a tiny basement suite on the north shore of Burrard Inlet; and he was determined to do the whole move without the help of professional movers. I agreed to help him in limited ways, but with my own busy life, I couldn’t be of much help. Eventually Paul had to give in and rent a moving van and hire two professional movers for a day; his task was impossible.

For me, the past two weeks have seemed very sad, even though I didn’t help very much with the actual move. It turned out that my mourning for the house came now, rather than when I left it last year. Below, I’ve copied some of my recent journal entries:

June 10, 2013
Last night I felt very sad about the house—yes, sadder than I’ve been ever since I first decided I was going to leave it. The irrevocableness of it hit me. I’ll no longer ever have the right to go in that house or in that yard to look down into the ravine again.

June 14, 2013
The house is pitiful. I took some photos. I have the nice dining room furniture that Paul inherited from his mother. All of George’s living room furniture, and Paul’s mother’s assorted tables and beautiful bedroom suite, are gone, sold for little or nothing. There are still many relics of our old life strewn around, but Paul is having to give away or throw away almost everything.

Christmas cards over fireplace.

Christmas cards I put up in 2010.

I notice the irony of some odd items still strewn around. A string of Christmas cards from 2010 is still hanging over the fireplace. Last year I didn’t take all my old trophies when I moved. Paul wants to keep the Hopi Indian trophy that I won in the Continental Homes 10K in 1984, when I ran 32:14 to outsprint Midde Hamrin of Sweden. With his Métis background, Paul believes that trophy is good luck for him.

an Indian trophy

This is an unusual trophy I won in Phoenix at the Continental Homes 10K in 1984.

There are some bright photos of Dave Reed beaming with happiness after winning the Whonnock Lake 5K in 2001.

Dave Reed racomg

These photos show Dave Reed after winning the Whonnock Lake 5K in 2001, and racing the Ambleside Mile (probably the same year).

The poor old house has fallen apart physically in so many ways that we didn’t even suspect. Just like the relationship rot of our marriage, it was mostly covered up. Only when the carpets were removed and the furniture moved did we find the mould and decay underneath, the rotted wood and the carpenter ants’ work. The drainage system was completely clogged by tree roots. The rampant fertility of the natural world asserts itself: it’s beautiful, powerful, destructive, uncaring of its consequences for humans. The natural world is chaos. It can be evil if it’s not controlled.

For years we had water and oily-looking ooze on our driveway, but we ignored it. Sometimes you see the festering on the surface, but you’re afraid to look any deeper fearing you will find cancer as well as infection. My observations and intuition warned me about the festering problems in my marriage, but I didn’t push hard enough to get down to the roots until it was too late.

I think about what a huge thing it is, to completely break apart a house, a family, a marriage.

June 16, 2013
I’ve felt very sad for the past weeks that all that remains of my former house and my former life has now been completely dismantled. All the people, furniture, photos, artwork, kitchen dishes, and other individual or shared personal things have been dispersed, many of them thrown away, given to strangers, or sold for a tiny fraction of their original value.

My apartment holds the only remaining pieces of Paul’s mother’s expensive furniture: her dining room set. The remnants of George’s life have been pared down to his computer and a few boxes in my spare room closet. The big old comfortable chair where he spent most of the last year of his life watching TV and working on his laptop has gone to Paul’s new place. Abebe’s treasured belongings are in my storage locker in the apartment’s basement.

The people who were once part of our house’s extended family are all dispersed now, too. George and Dave are in a place from which there is no return. Abebe is in Japan. Paola lives in California. Joseph is in Ethiopia. Jung Dae divides his time between Washington and South Korea. Our lives in the house at 936 Thermal Drive exist only in our memories now, and in a motley collection of photos, videos, furniture, and my printed and digital stories.

***

Note about follow-up articles

1. The above story only touches on the intensity of the emotions surrounding the breakup of a marriage and the death of a close friend. I’ll write more about this–and how denial is part of a coping strategy–in a post to come.

2. A related post will be about how death and moving/downsizing force you to confront how you store your life’s treasures and preserve your memories. What is worth keeping; for whom; and what is the best way to do it? Today’s digital world has changed everything.

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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2 Responses to The house at 936 Thermal: a story about the disintegration of a home and a marriage

  1. dashen says:

    Very moving story Nancy! I felt like I was watching a 10 min movie summarizing twenty years of events. I can see how difficult it is to tell a story without offending anyone. I believe you’ve done that. That is a testament to your writing skills.

    • Thank you “dashen”! Much has to be left out, obviously. One of the difficulties of writing as an art is that any story can expand and contract almost infinitely. It’s hard to put boundaries on a story to meet expectations of an audience, the format, etc. Most of my blog articles are far longer than blog articles are “supposed” to be, but since no one is paying me for them I have the freedom to write what I like!
      I know that there are times, maybe later in writing if I have the courage to write and publish a book, when I WILL offend or hurt someone. But as Usher says in one of his songs, “Truth hurts.”

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