The House That Jack Built

I can’t believe she sold it.

Papa spent almost the last decade of his life planning and building his house in the middle of the Ozark Mountains, in Arkansas. And it was here that he wanted to die.

In 1988, my father-in-law, Jack was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was right after my daughter was born, which is why Jack and Papa are used interchangeably – we called him both. When he was diagnosed with the cancer, he already had his retirement plan set in motion. He had found a forty-acre box canyon in the middle of nowhere in the Ozark Mountains. This was truly a place where you could go and get lost off the face of the earth. No one could find you, if you didn’t tell them how.

The land had been bought about four years prior, and a lot of work had already been done to make it ready for the house that was going to be built for their retirement in a few years. When the property was bought, it had belonged to a commune of hippies who grew pot for a living. They lived in teepees made from wood scraps and their kids ran around naked. When the hippies got busted, the land was signed over to their lawyer as payment for her services. My in-laws bought it from her. Steel Creek, off the Buffalo River, ran through the property.

Jack worked so hard on this place he considered heaven. He designed the house himself, drawing up the plans on an old antique drafting table. Once the plans were finished, it was time to begin construction. It was late summer and the dynamiting began.

That Thanksgiving, Papa and my husband went up to finish the basement. A bad ice storm came in keeping them stranded for about four days longer than the original two weeks planned. The work was hard and the weather was nasty. If that wasn’t bad enough, Jack’s illness was progressing. All the surgeries and radiation treatments he had endured hadn’t managed to kill the cancer and it was still growing, spreading and wreaking havoc on his body. Yet, Jack still continued to build the house, going to Arkansas every chance he could. This was his dream and nothing was going to stop him, not even cancer or its pain.

Work progressed, and finally the house was finished on the outside and dried in. The carpet was laid, kitchen cabinets were built, and furniture was moved in, and they began to live in the house. Up until this point, they were living in the small barn built for Jack’s future horses. This gave them shelter while they were building the house. Three months after this, Jack’s illness progressed to the point he could no longer finish the work that needed to be done to complete the inside of the house. The cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and his bones. He finally had the surgery the doctors wanted to do for quite some time – his testicles were removed, which is where the majority of testosterone is made; testosterone feeds the cancer. But it was too late to stop the monster that had invaded his body; the war was still not over.

This is when we – me, my husband, and our daughter – went to live at the creek, in the house that Jack built. We lived there with Nanny and Papa for about eight months. My husband’s days consisted of finishing the inside of the house – installing siding on the cathedral ceilings, building bathroom cabinets, laying wood flooring, installing light fixtures, building doors and staining all this new wood.

My days consisted of watching my daughter grow like a weed and helping my mother-in-law with the chores, and with Jack. The longer we were there, the worse off Papa got. At first, we shared all the errands, my mother-in-law and I. Living twenty minutes from the nearest tiny town, and forty-five minutes from the nearest town with anything that sparked of civilization (like a gas station that stayed open past 6:00 PM), shopping and major errand running became a full-day job most times. After a few months, I did all the running, my mother-in-law never leaving Jack’s side.

If parts of our lives are like the four seasons, then this was surely the winter of ours. For over four years I had prayed Papa would get better, but after we’d been in Arkansas for a few months, I began to see that Jack would never get better, as he was wasting away right before our eyes as the cancer ravaged his body day after day. By this point, not six months after we had arrived, I no longer wasted my prayers. I began to pray for his release from this prison, this suffering and pain. I prayed for God to take him and to please do it soon. Of course, sometimes I felt guilty for this, upset at myself for giving up. But, deep down I knew – I wasn’t giving up, I was being realistic, and I could tell when Jack realized the battle was all but over, and he had lost.

When my husband finished enough of the house that he was able to go back to work full-time, we found our own place. About two months after we moved out, Jack’s condition worsened further. We were all told to prepare for the end.

Papa wanted so badly to die at home in the awesome house that he had built, mostly with his own two hands. Where his hospital bed was set-up downstairs was all open with lots of windows and huge French doors going out onto one of the biggest porches I’ve ever seen wrap all the way around a house. There were plants, flowers, and hummingbird feeders scattered all over the porch. It was really something to see, especially that time of year. The closest neighbor was miles away. When you looked outside you saw the tall spindly cedar trees, and the blooming fusion of white and pink dogwood flowers, the random redbud trees in their purple glory, and an occasional deer or turkey. The house was medium-sized, with a river-rock fireplace that was the centerpiece of the entire house – basement, main floor and upstairs – rocked all the way up and all the way around the four sides. No wonder Papa wanted to die here – in his own piece of heaven. I understood, and so did my mother-in-law.

As the time was nearing, my mother-in-law had already told us that she didn’t want Jack to die at home. She was petrified that she wouldn’t know what to do when the time came. I tried to tell her that when Death came, it was well versed and would not need or ask for any help from her. There was nothing for her to say or do, except to be there. She was there when he died, but he did so in the cold sterility of the hospital hooked up to tubes, monitors and machines. Exactly what he said he didn’t want.

Within six years after Jack died, my mother-in-law sold Papa’s little piece of heaven. He had always told us that when his dad died, he had left him and his mom very little. He wanted to leave a legacy – the big house in the woods where family got together and visited. He wanted it to be ours, and then our child’s and then her children’s, and so on down the line. This big house that he had dreamed, designed, built – the dream that kept him alive as long it could. But that said, he had also told his widow-to-be that if living in the middle of nowhere with all the work and planning that was involved was too much after he was gone – it was hers to do with as she wanted. Though it was his dream, he had built it for her to have a nice affordable place when he was gone. His illness never altered his plans for the house.

I am still trying to figure out why Jack had to die when he did. I wonder often where we would be and what our lives would be like if he was still here. I wish my mother-in-law hadn’t sold the house. One thing’s for sure, that house brought us all together for a time – the reason for being there was heartbreaking, but we all made it the best time we could. It was Jack’s dream and he made it happen, though it was the last thing he ever did. He was proud of it all and I know it brought him a sense of peace – the peace he needed to accept the fact that he was going to die soon.

Unfortunately the house is gone to us now, but the memories will always remain. The memories from the house that Jack built.

I hope when my times comes, my family isn’t afraid to carry out my last wishes whatever they may be, even if it makes them uncomfortable. I hope everyone has the luxury of finding their own small piece of heaven here on Earth during their lifetime. Just something I was thinking about . . .

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