A One-Year Progress Report

AUDIO VERSION

This post includes metaphysical speculation. Readers are encouraged to draw their own conclusions.

I’d like to finish this series of posts about my relocation to Pittsburgh by telling the story of something interesting that happened while I was packing up the house. (In the future, I plan to share more stories of God’s endless mercies, particularly of God’s faithfulness to Priscilla and me during our years of pastoral and student ministry. But I’ll be taking a break for a little while to catch up on some other projects.)

As I was sorting through my bookshelves for the move, I came across Priscilla’s yearbooks from Bible school. A photograph I’d never seen before fell out of one of them. The picture was of some sort of panel discussion, with three panelists seated in chairs at a low table. A moderator was standing behind and above them so that she could address both them and the audience. Priscilla, a first-year student at the school and probably only 17 years old, was one of the panelists.

In the photo, Priscilla has a triumphant grin, as if she’s just said something completely unexpected but also virtually impossible to counter. But her demeanor is still friendly and cooperative. One of the other panelists seems to be trying to formulate a response. The moderator can barely contain her smile, as if she’s delighted with the moment.

I liked the picture because it showed a young Priscilla whose engaging personality was already emerging. I shared it on Facebook, and her friends and family were glad to see it as well.

Over the next couple of days, however, I couldn’t shake a nagging question about the picture. Why had I never seen it before? Those yearbooks had been lifted off the shelves many times in the same way, for example, when we moved, or when we relocated our books within the house. But the picture had never fallen out until now.

It was almost as if it had been withheld from me previously and only delivered to me at this time for a specific purpose. I felt as if heaven was sending it to me as a one-year Progress Report to the Family on how Priscilla was doing. The image was emblematic. Heaven was saying, “She’s still young and new by our standards, but we’ve already discovered that she’s irrepressible!”

That was some months ago. In preparation for writing this blog post, I decided to see what more I could find out about the event that was pictured. I had one lead: The photo was signed and dedicated to Priscilla on the back. There was only a first name, but it was a distinctive one, and I was able to look through the yearbook and match the name with a face. It was the moderator of the panel discussion.

Priscilla’s family had given me the letters she’d sent home from Bible school, and I found a description of this person, by name, in them. She was a fellow student. Priscilla reported that “she plays all sorts of instruments” and “speaks French.” The two of them had become fast friends. They were preparing a musical duet to perform together with guitars, recorders, and vocals at the freshman class Christmas celebration.

According to the yearbook, this student’s parents were on the faculty. It made sense to me that if the school had wanted to put together a panel that included students, they would have approached her and asked her to invite some of her fellow students to participate. It also made sense that she would have specifically invited her friend Priscilla.

I still wasn’t able to find out what the discussion had been about, and so for now the trail has gone cold there. However, a further interesting thing happened.

I also learned from Priscilla’s letters that the students were each assigned a “secret pal” who would pray for them and give them small gifts. In a letter early in the semester, Priscilla reported happily that her secret pal had slipped her an apple—fresh fruit was a prized commodity in the dormitories. Just before Christmas she wrote, “From my secret pal I got a book, If by Amy Carmichael. It looks good.”

I was amazed and pleased to discover that Priscilla had actually been introduced to Amy Carmichael and her writings so early in life. This might help explain why, as I described in an earlier post, she said “let’s take that one” when she saw Amy’s biography among the books being offered from the InterVarsity library at Michigan State. “I’ll be she and Amy are good buddies by now,” I thought. “But I guess we’ll have to wait many years to find out for sure.”

Two days later, I got an email from my niece. She had no idea that I’d been reading Priscilla’s old letters. But she’d been going through the books that had been on her grandparents’ shelves and she told me she’d found one by Amy Carmichael. Knowing how much I appreciated her writings, she wondered if I’d like to have it. The book was entitled If.

This might not be the same copy of the book Priscilla was given in Bible school. I’ll have to examine it to try to determine that. But it’s at least the same book, and that’s remarkable enough. Moreover, there’s much to suggest that it is her copy. It makes sense to me that she would have left it on the family shelves because she made several short-term moves in the few years after she returned from school. I can’t think of where her parents might have gotten a different copy.

In any event, I first learned in a 45-year-old letter that she’d been given this book by Amy Carmichael, and two days later it, or another copy, was independently offered to me. I wonder if someone is trying to tell me something.

Update: My niece mailed me the book, and I discovered that Priscilla’s father’s name and the date Dec. 22, 1947 were written inside the front cover. So he got this copy of the book many years before she was born and it’s not the one she got in Bible school. Still, I find this an intriguing adventure.

Consider the Birds of the Air, Part 2

AUDIO VERSION

I shared in an earlier post how watching the birds at our feeder taught us many spiritual lessons over the course of Priscilla’s illness. Jesus told us to “consider the birds of the air” because they could show us much about God’s character and love for us, and this was certainly our experience.

For that reason, I was eager to bring the bird feeder with me here to Pittsburgh so I could keep “considering” and learning. I was delighted to discover that a previous resident had installed small hooks in the four corners of the concrete roof of the deck for my apartment (actually the bottom of the floor of the deck above). These were apparently used for hanging plants, as some still had small, rusted chains dangling from them. Shortly after I moved in, I cleared the chains off one of these hooks and hung the bird feeder from it.

Very soon I got a variety of visitors: chickadees, house sparrows, house finches, cardinals, tufted titmice, slate-colored juncos—the same kind of birds we’d had in Michigan. I knew they weren’t the same individual birds that had come to our feeder there, but I was encouraged by the thought that they had relatives here in Pittsburgh just as I did, and that we would now become acquainted.

However, as I continued to settle in, I read through the list of supplementary regulations for the building and I was devastated to discover that we were not allowed to “feed the birds.” Knowing it was a long shot, but willing to try anything, I went and asked the building manager if this meant simply that we weren’t to leave crumbs of bread out on the deck, or whether this also applied to neat, clean tube feeders like mine. The answer was that unfortunately they were included as well. This was because any seeds the birds might scatter from them, as well as the droppings they’d leave, would attract rats and mice. (Eew.)

I was already grieving the way I’d had to leave behind so many other parts of my life in Michigan, so it took me a while to process this further loss. But eventually I walked over to the nearby woods and poured all the remaining seed from the feeder out for the birds there. “Wait till you see what I’ve got for you!” I called out to them as bravely as I could manage.

The next morning around dawn all the birds started singing. I don’t think this was because they’d just discovered the seed, since they’ve continued to do this each morning. Rather, it was the “dawn chorus” of distinctive morning songs that the various birds sing.

When I heard this, I suddenly had a realization. I could learn the songs that each bird sang and enjoy their presence that way. I could still tell which ones were around by hearing them and identifying them, even if I wouldn’t be seeing them up close.

I went online, found recordings of bird songs, and gave myself a crash course in the songs of the species that, from my brief experience with the feeder, I knew were out there. Around dawn the next morning, I decided to try out my rudimentary knowledge. I could already hear muffled singing with the door to the deck closed. I slid it open.

In that moment I came to understand, in an experiential way, the answer to a question I’d been asked many times as a pastor: “How can God hear everyone’s prayers at once?” I’d always answered the question correctly, I hope, but still theoretically. (In effect, “Because He’s God.”) But now I found that I myself could listen to and recognize many different bird songs at once. It wasn’t just that I could concentrate on one song and say, “That’s a cardinal,” then concentrate on another song and say, “That’s a house finch.” I could hear the totality of the singing and know what birds had to be contributing to it.

There’s still an infinite difference between my being able to recognize a group of bird songs and God being able to give loving attention to billions of prayers at the same time. But I was able to share enough of the experience to make it real for me, rather than just theoretical, that God was doing this.

When I moved in, I’d playfully informed God that my prayers would now be coming to him from a new set of coordinates and that heaven should update its files accordingly. I saw now that I hadn’t needed to mention this. Just as I could continue to recognize a given bird by its song even when it flew to a different tree, so God “knew my voice” even when hearing it from Pittsburgh rather than from East Lansing. That was very encouraging.

I continued to learn bird songs. When I heard ones that weren’t familiar from my initial crash course, I investigated them. I quickly discovered that video was more effective than just audio, because it immediately associated the image of the bird in my mind with its song. I learned that a given species typically has several different songs that it sings. The morning songs were the most characteristic ones, but I began to be able to recognize birds even when they were singing alternatives. I found that each individual bird introduced some variation into them, and this allowed me to begin getting to know them one at a time. Once I learned a bird’s voice, I could tell when it was improvising.

I also learned that some of the songs were being sung by “ground feeders,” such as robins and towhees, that would never come to a hanging  feeder. So identifying birds by sound enabled me to get to know even more of them than before.

There are still a lot of songs I don’t recognize. There’s a bit of a “chicken and egg problem” (so to speak) with this: if I don’t know what kind of bird is singing, I can’t look it up on the internet to learn to associate it with a particular song. But bit by bit I’m adding to my repertoire.

And to my surprise, birds have kept coming to the deck, even though there is no longer any food set out for them there. I think its floor and railings rival any branch for safety and as a vantage point, particularly since the woods are down a steep slope from the back of the building so that even my second-floor deck is higher than most of the trees.

One bird in particular, a wren, likes to perch on the railing and let loose with a full-throated song. He varies the melody often. I think he’s checking up on me: “Do you know this one yet?”

Update: I’d also brought our hummingbird feeder with me. It dispenses just sugar water, through openings that only hummingbirds can access, so I knew it wouldn’t create a problem of scattered seeds. Hummingbird droppings, if any, would have a trivial ecological impact. So I filled it and hung it from the hook where the regular bird feeder had been. Hummingbirds have been visiting. The first one came on Priscilla’s birthday.

One of my video tutorials.

Interior Decorating

AUDIO VERSION

The curtains Priscilla had custom-made for all the windows in our house were one of the hardest things for me to anticipate leaving behind in East Lansing. She’d chosen beautiful fabrics that matched the décor in each room, and she’d lined all of the curtains so they’d keep the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Every time I opened or closed them, I felt as if she was still taking care of me.

I talked to my realtor about bringing them with me, but she discouraged this. It was expected that appliances and window treatments would be left in a house for the buyer; any exceptions were matters of negotiation that could complicate a sale. Particularly since I didn’t know exactly what I’d need on the windows in the next place, though I was sure that in any event I wouldn’t need a whole houseful of curtains for an apartment, I reluctantly agreed to leave them in place.

And then it turned out that the buyer of my house had other plans for all of the windows. It was actually written into the sales agreement, since this was exceptional, that “seller will remove all window treatments and hardware.” I could take all of the curtains with me.

This was wonderful news, but it was also far more curtains than I would need. However, I spoke with Priscilla’s sister, who now lived in the family home and was renovating a whole floor of it, and she assured me that they’d be able to use several of the curtains there. They’d offer any surplus ones to the extended family.

This was the house in which Priscilla was living when we got married. One of my favorite pictures from our wedding day is of her standing in her bridal gown, just before leaving for the church, next to one of the windows that will soon be decorated with her handmade curtains from our home.

But I did have two windows in my new apartment. Which curtains should I keep myself and use there? I got the answer to that question in an interesting way.

My parents came to see us for a few days late in October 2011. They visited a Graduate InterVarsity meeting, attended our church, and in general shared our lives for that time. Priscilla was then experiencing the first mild symptoms of her disease, but they hadn’t yet caused any serious concern.

She didn’t want my parents to have to go up and down the basement steps to our guest room, so she asked me to help her carry the queen-size mattress and box spring upstairs to her studio. (Clearly her symptoms had not progressed too far by that point.) We also brought up the bedding. Priscilla realized that the white and purple duvet cover didn’t match the red and gold curtains. She didn’t want my parents to have to spend even a few nights in such a visually unharmonious room, so she went to a discount store and found some gold pillow shams and a light brown bed skirt with a gold pattern. The shams came with a runner. She took it apart, added it to some other matching fabric she already had, and sewed a new duvet cover out of the material.

I’d forgotten all about this until I came upon the ensemble again as I was packing up the house. Now I’d never had a problem sharing a bedroom with my wife that was decorated with pink and red rose fabric and had a white lace bed skirt. You know, “Let my beloved come into his garden.” Very biblical. But now that my situation had changed, let’s just say I was open to a new look. And this bronzed bed set with embossed paisley designs was just the thing.

Since it was now going to be on my bed, it only made sense to keep as my apartment bedroom curtains the red and gold ones that the ensemble had originally been created to match. And this also told me which curtains to use for the other window (actually a sliding door): the ones that went on a matching decorative curtain rod of solid brass. Interestingly, though these curtains had been in my office, their blue and red design complemented the red and blue carpet I could use in that part of the room.

Now I just had to put the curtains up. I’d done a multi-year apprenticeship to a capable and fearless do-it-yourselfer. This was the time for that to start paying off. The information I’d gotten about the apartment was that the walls were concrete. I knew Priscilla had a concrete bit in her drill case, but I wasn’t sure how I’d ever identify it. No worries—she’d put it back in the little package it came in!

I went to the local hardware store to get some concrete anchors the size of the hole that the bit would make. But when I drilled a hole and screwed in an anchor, it seemed awfully loose, as if it would just pull out if it were made to bear any weight. Then it dawned on me. The walls actually weren’t concrete. They were plaster.

At that very moment I noticed two plaster/sheet rock plugs in the drill case. I’m not sure why they were there, because Priscilla had always put any extra plugs in a plastic jar that had another plug duck-taped to the lid for identification. (She also had separate plastic jars for other supplies such as screws with various type heads. She had put a thin slice of duck tape on the lid of the jar of standard screws, an X in tape on the jar of Phillips head screws, and a box in tape on the jar of screws with Robertson or square-hole heads.) I’d donated all of this to Habitat for Humanity. But these two plugs had escaped because they’d been in the drill case.

I tried one of them in the hole and it was a perfect fit. I screwed the original metal screw for the curtain rod into it and it held tightly. I was in business. I went back to the hardware store and exchanged the concrete anchors for plaster plugs. In that way I got both curtain rods attached tightly to the walls using their own screws. When I put the curtains up on them, I thought they looked great.

I already had carpets, artwork, etc. from our home, but it was the curtains that established the “color ways” (as they say in the trade) for each room and made sure everything got into the right place. So when Priscilla created a new bedroom ensemble for my parents even though they were only going to be visiting us for a few days, she set in motion a chain of events that effectively decorated my whole apartment for me five years later, more than a year after she’d gone to her own new home in heaven.

The red and gold curtains in my new office/bedroom, with the duvet cover in the foreground.

Making the Move

AUDIO VERSION

During the weeks leading up to my move, various friends from the church I’d pastored in town, the campus ministry we’d volunteered with, and my current church had me over or took me out for meals. It was wonderful to have these opportunities to affirm and celebrate the warm relationships I’d formed during my years in Michigan.

The Sunday before I moved, I gave a testimony during worship about how God had provided just the apartment I needed for just the time when I needed it. Then people came forward and prayed for me, and at the pastor’s invitation I prayed for God’s blessing on the church.

Late in the afternoon of my last day in town, a family we’d been especially close to came over to say goodbye and pray for me. The husband prayed specifically that God would show me signs of his presence so that I’d know He was accompanying me into this next adventure in life.

After the family left, I went to gas up my car for the drive to Pittsburgh the next day. I went to a nearby station as usual and discovered that they’d gotten brand new pumps with unfamiliar digital readouts. I tried to follow the sequence I was accustomed to, but the pump wouldn’t take my credit card. It just told me to select a grade and start filling the tank. “Maybe you pay at the end now,” I thought. I placed the nozzle in the tank, started the gas running, and secured the trigger so the flow would be continuous.

After a while the flow unexpectedly slowed down and then stopped at an exact value. No “click” as if the tank had filled. But the pump clearly believed it had finished. So I tried to pay. Now the pump was acting as if I was back at the start of the usual sequence, not at the end. So I went in to the office to describe what had happened.

The clerks listened to my story and after asking a couple of questions they declared, “This is your lucky day. Free gas.” Apparently somebody had prepaid for a certain amount of gas but then left without pumping it, and I’d been the next person to use that pump. The prepaid amount was $7.

The move went better than I could have hoped. Two men and a truck from Two Men and a Truck came and loaded everything up on March 31, the last day I could stay in the house in Michigan. After spending the night at a hotel en route, they unloaded everything on April 1, the first day I could get into the apartment in Pittsburgh. The company had told me they would have considered this a two-day job anyway, and they had a crew available for just the right two days.

The two men had moved dozens and dozens of fragile items for me, many of sentimental value, some irreplaceable—framed artwork, sets of china dishes, keepsakes from travel. Once I’d dug down through the piles of boxes and unpacked everything, I discovered that only two things had broken: an off-the-shelf casserole dish and a decorative plate I believe we got at a thrift store. Somehow both of these had shattered into pieces, showing the possibilities, but even the things packed with them were intact. I still had the use of virtually everything I’d wanted to bring with me to create continuity in this new expression of my life.

The Monday after I arrived, I met with the property manager to get oriented. Among other things, she gave me a code that I could punch into the keypad at the main door for entry whenever it wasn’t convenient for me to use my keys. She explained to me it that it had been randomly generated. But it was identical with the last four digits of my Social Security number.

Deciding What to Do With Things

AUDIO VERSION

Having an extra four weeks before I had to move made things much easier for me physically. I only did half days of packing and sorting; I’d spend the remainder of the day resting. Some self-talk was required. Whenever I thought of “one more thing I could do,” I laid into myself: “What, are you crazy? Do you want the movers to have to pick you up and load you onto the truck, too?” And I’d settle down again. By the time moving day arrived, I’d gained back much of the strength and energy I’d used up in the initial burst of activity following the signing of the sales agreement.

The challenge I was facing was emotional as well as physical. Every object I picked up brought back memories. Every corner of the house and yard held reminders of experiences I’d had with Priscilla. Grief is typically accompanied by physiological symptoms for the first couple of months: disorientation, headaches, dizziness, difficulties sleeping, shortness of breath, etc. Eventually these wear off and the work of grief becomes mostly emotional. But as soon as it sank in that I’d be moving, all of the physiological symptoms came roaring back. No doubt this aggravated the fatigue. It was also a little confusing. (“Am I lying down because I’m tired, or because I’m dizzy?”)

But there were a couple of things that helped me a lot, and Priscilla was responsible for both of them. For one thing, as I was getting ready to pack up the house, I dug out the supplies she’d tucked into closets, stored in the garage, etc. I discovered that I had more than enough of anything I might need: boxes of all sizes, bubble wrap, foam peanuts, blank newsprint, rolls of tape, etc. Once I was all packed, a significant quantity of supplies remained and I was able to pass them along to a family that was also moving.

I discovered that Priscilla had kept the original boxes for a great number of our things. She always said that the safest way to move something was in the box it came in. I found the boxes in which our dining room set had been shipped to us 28 years before. I found the box for the ironing board that she bought before we were married—that had to be nearly 40 years old.

She wasn’t just being obsessive by keeping these boxes. She explained to me once, “You always have to be ready to move to a new assignment.” I shared in an earlier post that while she had a ministry that was based in her home, her calling involved not settling down in one place for most of her life, but instead moving to wherever she was needed. This meant that she had to create inviting homes over and over again in new places. Saving boxes and stockpiling moving supplies was the way to ensure that the makings of a home would get safely to any new assignment. It certainly helped me now that I was being sent on one myself.

They tell you that when you’re packing up to move, it helps to sort everything into one of six categories: keep, give away, sell, donate, recycle, or throw away. There were certainly many things I wanted to keep. As I explained in a recent post, continuity is created when you take meaningful objects with you to a new place to make a new expression of your life there.

I’d also given many things over the past year to friends and family whom I hoped would appreciate having them as keepsakes of Priscilla. But I couldn’t bring myself to sell anything. That just didn’t feel meaningful. The way you part with the possessions of a loved one or of a shared life has to be meaningful in some way, or it’s just too hard emotionally.

But Priscilla helped me with this as well. She’d told me, “Once I’m gone, if you’re wondering what to do with something of mine and you can’t think of anyone who might want it, donate it to a thrift store. I always had fun finding nifty things in thrift stores, and this way someone else will have that same joy.”

The entrance to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Lansing

So, with this advice and permission, I donated many things to two groups she’d worked with. I gave two full truckloads and multiple carloads of furniture and household goods to St. Vincent de Paul. In addition to enjoying shopping in their thrift store, Priscilla had worked with them in some instances to help refugees get settled. I also gave a whole truckload and a full carload of things to Habitat for Humanity. Priscilla had volunteered with them in construction and she’d also found many things for our own home in their “Re-Store.” Now most of her tools and supplies would be used in the organization’s work or made available affordably to others through the store.

I also filled the recycling and trash carts to the brim for each collection. But beyond all of this, there were two specific items I hoped might be helpful to someone who was battling the same disease that Priscilla had fought so bravely. I contacted the ALS Society about them.

Priscilla had a treadmill that she got originally to help with physical therapy after a car accident in 2000. It had an “orthopedic tread” belt that made for safe and comfortable walking. It also had a grab bar in the front. I realized it could help someone with ALS continue walking for fitness even after balance problems and muscle weakness made it difficult and dangerous for them to walk on the irregular pavement of sidewalks and streets.

The ALS Society notified their local email list and I soon heard back from a man with the disease who felt the treadmill would be very helpful to him. Two of his friends came to get it. It had to be disassembled into its two parts so it could be carried up the basement steps. I had the friends do this so they’d know how to reassemble it. Even so, each part was so heavy that they strained and grunted as they heaved it up the stairs. Afterwards, sweaty and short of breath, they talked with me about how the disease had affected their friend. Even though they were “tough guys,” their eyes misted up as they said, “We just wish we could do more for him.” I told them I hoped they realized how much they were doing right now.

I also wanted to find someone who could use the portable 12-foot ramp we’d used to get Priscilla in and out of the house in her wheelchair. The ALS Society publicized this as well and I heard within hours from someone who needed it. His home was a two-hour drive away, but it turned out that he was already coming to East Lansing that day. His daughter’s high school girls’ basketball team was playing in the state Final Four at the Breslin Center on the Michigan State campus. So he arranged to come over in the early evening after the game and pick up the ramp.

He got out of his pickup truck cab supporting himself with a cane. It was rugged and wooden; more of a walking stick. He explained that he’d just admitted to himself that it was no longer safe for him to go up and down stairs. I recognized this moment from the many similar ones Priscilla had experienced. I explained to him how we’d learned not to consider them “milestones of decline,” but instead see the new assistive devices they required as friends who were helping us continue to do what we wanted to do.

He turned out to be a man of strong and confident faith. “I know where I’m going,” he shared, once he learned that I was a former pastor. “When my time comes, I don’t want them keeping me around artificially. But in the meantime, I’m still going to do everything I can.” I told him how Priscilla, too, had chosen against invasive ventilation and a feeding tube. But I also explained how she would say she was going to do “as much as possible for as long as possible” and that “I’m not going to stop living before I’m dead.” He nodded in eager agreement at these expressions that captured his own resolve.

Realizing that there was no other way to get the ramp onto his truck bed, he put down his cane and walked over to it somewhat unsteadily. He lifted one end of the 75-pound ramp off the ground. I picked up the other end. We carried it gingerly over to the pickup and loaded it on. He grabbed his cane and drove off.

By the end of the extra four weeks, not only had much of my strength returned, the physiological symptoms of grief were also gone as well.

 

Finding an apartment

AUDIO VERSION

A Google Maps 3D shot of my apartment block in its neighborhood.

I’d accepted an offer on my house and agreed to move out in five weeks. Now I had to find somewhere to move into.

I’d already been looking at Pittsburgh apartments online. There was a building about a mile from my parents that had floor plans available on its website for viewing and download. Just to get an idea of what I might be able to bring with me wherever I might rent, I’d downloaded the floor plan for their one-bedroom apartments, made little computer-screen couches, chairs, etc., and experimented with different layouts. I was amazed to find how well my things fit in this particular footprint. Area carpets stopped just short of where walls jutted out, etc.

So when I had to find a place right away, this building was the first one I investigated. I’d signed the sales agreement on a weekend, when their office was closed, so I had to send them a message through their website asking about availability for March 1. First thing Monday morning I got an email from the property manager saying that yes, they had one for that date, and that I should call her.

It took me three tries to reach her. (She must have been out managing the property.) But I did get her on the phone less than an hour after she sent me the email. “I’m sorry,” she told me, “I really did have an apartment when I wrote to you. But since then, they’ve rented it out to someone else.” (Large apartment complexes with hundreds of units are often managed by realtors, but the complex itself can also rent out units. That’s what happened in this case.)

It was hard not to picture the hand of God at work here, snatching away the apartment for some reason just when it was within my grasp. “All right,” I said, “let’s see where this goes.”

I’d made good progress over the previous year recovering from exhaustion, but now I felt as if I was heading back in the other direction due to the exertions of packing up my things in anticipation of moving (somewhere), vacating the house nine times in two weeks for showings, etc. “There’s no way I’d have the strength or energy to drive to Pittsburgh, look for an apartment, drive back, and finish packing within five weeks,” I realized. “Somebody else is going to have to find that apartment for me.”

Fortunately, because many large apartment complexes are managed by realtors, a person can engage a buyer’s agent to work realtor-to-realtor when looking for an apartment. And just as I’d been referred to an excellent seller’s agent in East Lansing, I was referred to an excellent buyer’s agent in Pittsburgh. I had full confidence that she’d help me find a great place to live by the time I needed to move.

And then she was unexpectedly called out of town. This was originally supposed to be for a week, but it ended up being for ten days.

When my buyer’s agent finally did return to town, she looked around at possibilities and reported, “You know, for where you want to live, and what you want to pay, that first complex really is your best bet.” I’d asked them to put me on a waiting list for March 1, so I called them again, thinking that something might have opened up.

“We have a one-bedroom apartment available for April 1,” the manager told me. “I’ll take it,” I said. I submitted an application and it was approved exactly three weeks before I was to move out of my house.

Now I just needed somewhere to live, and some place to store my things, for the month of March. My plan when I went to bed that night was to move to Pittsburgh at the end of February, as I’d already arranged, put my things in storage there, and stay with family until the apartment opened up. In the middle of the night, the plan changed. I realized I could put off the trip until later, move my things to storage in Michigan, and stay with friends in town for the month.

By the time I woke up, the plan had changed again. I realized that I already had a place to live, and a place to store my things: the house I was living in! I just needed to ask the buyer to agree to let me stay in the house until the end of March.

I wrote an email of several hundred words to my seller’s agent, asking whether this was the kind of thing we could approach the buyer about through their own agent. I explained how this would be very helpful to me, but also suggested several ways in which I thought it would be a win-win. This would give the buyer’s house more time to sell, and they wouldn’t be paying two mortgages in the meantime because I’d be renting back. We’d have a much better chance of good weather for moving if we waited a month. And I could have the yard all set up for spring for the buyer by the end of March.

I thought my seller’s agent would have to think this over. I was concerned she might say, “Well, we’ve got a signed sales agreement, let’s not mess with any of the details of it.” Even if she agreed to pursue the possibility, I thought she would then have to speak with the buyer’s agent about whether we could approach the buyer about this.

Instead, within half an hour I got an email back from my seller’s agent. She told me, “The buyer said, ‘No problem.’”

“I have a feeling this place is going to sell fast.”

AUDIO VERSION

In this series of posts I’m telling about the mercies I received as I relocated from East Lansing, where Priscilla and I lived happily for 15 years, to a new home in Pittsburgh.

Once I’d resolved that I should move to Pittsburgh, the next step was to sell my house. By now it was mid-December. I’d never seen for-sale signs in the winter in East Lansing before. They’d always sprouted on the lawns with the crocuses in the spring. But for some reason, this winter three houses on my street had already been put up for sale, and one of them had sold. So I thought, “Let me at least speak with a realtor to see what I’d need to do to get the house ready, and to ask for advice about when to list it.”

Some friends had agreed that whenever I decided to sell, they’d refer me to their realtor, who’d done a great job for them. Hearing about my intentions, they asked her to contact me, and she did so within hours. “Okay,” I thought, “this is moving kind of fast, but let’s see if God is in it.”

I was first able to meet with this realtor the day after I returned from a Christmas and New Year’s trip to visit my family and Priscilla’s. She was a Christian woman who considered it her ministry to try to match people with homes they could genuinely afford and that would suit their lifestyles and meet their needs. “Nothing beats getting the right person into the right house,” she told me. I was delighted to have her represent the property and signed her on as my seller’s agent right away.

She toured the house and declared it “move-in ready.” The only thing she asked me to do in preparation for the listing was to take down the Christmas decorations I still had up! She returned three days later, we wrote up the listing, and it went online the next day.

Over the next two weeks, there were nine showings. And some other things were happening as well. On one very memorable day near the end of the second week, I reached a point in my freelance work where I could put everything on pause for a while if necessary; that same day, an inspector came and signed off on some changes the city had earlier asked me to make to the outflow from the house’s sump pump. Now I was assured the city had no further concerns that could create a hindrance to the sale. And this was also the day when I came to terms with leaving the house.

As I’ll explain more in a later post, the thought of moving from the place where Priscilla and I had lived very happily for 15 years was a huge “grief trigger.” But I finally worked through to the recognition that “your house is not your home.” Your home is the dwelling you create through personal effects that allow you to lead your life distinctively somewhere. These effects become a storehouse of memories and experiences, and continuity is created when you take many of them with you to make a new expression of that same life in the place where you’re called to settle next.

So after that day I had a strong sense of closure, as if something were now ready to happen. The following day there were two showings, both in the evening, so we wouldn’t hear back from the buyers’ agents until the next morning. But I had trouble falling asleep. I kept tossing and turning. I was telling myself, “Something has happened. Something has happened.” Then it struck me: There had been an offer. I fell asleep.

First thing in the morning, I checked email, and sure enough, one of the people who’d toured the house the evening before had gone right to the office of their buyer’s agent and written up an offer. “I knew it!” I said. (Actually, this came out in French: Je le savais! I think I picked up from Priscilla, who’d grown up in Quebec, the habit of using that language spontaneously for special emphasis when the occasion called for it.)

The price that was offered for the house was quite agreeable and I was happy to accept it. I signed the sales agreement. This was less than two weeks after the listing was posted. My agent had said when she first toured the house, “Somehow I have a feeling this place is going to sell fast.” She’d been right.

But had it been too fast? The buyer requested a March 1 move-in date and I agreed to it. That was in less than five weeks. Could I get ready to move out by then? And where would I be moving to? I didn’t have anywhere to go!

One of the realtor’s photos of my house for sale. In the winter.