The Discerning Client by Susan Knox

My husband, Weldon, and I, now in our early 80s, moved into what would become our dream home twenty-six years ago—a downtown Seattle condominium with large windows facing bustling Elliott Bay. At any one time we can look out those windows to see ferries, container vessels, cruise ships, sailboats, tugboats, barges, yachts, kayaks, water skis, water taxis, small fishing boats, or the Leschi fire boat, and once a year, “MS The World,” a private residential cruise ship. 

The condo was eighteen years old and needed updating. Over the years, I’ve worked with contractors to make improvements to our home. I usually plan a project every year—some big like gutting the kitchen, some small like adding a bookcase in an alcove in our home office. Decorating, reimaging space and finding artwork and interesting furniture is one of my favorite pastimes. I’m always mulling a new idea or two.

“You’re my fussiest client,” Nick said as we surveyed the master bedroom and bath currently under renovation. Nick was our contractor and I’d just told him I didn’t like how he’d positioned the ceiling fan; I thought it should be more centered in the bedroom. Nick made his comment with a smile, and he convinced me he’d located the fan for the best air flow.

A few months later, Nick had to replace the white bathroom sink surrounded by a Carrara marble countertop. I’d dropped a six-pound fluorite crystal in the sink and cracked the porcelain bowl. Even though the product number was identical, I knew the replacement sink wasn’t the precise pleasing design as the damaged one, but I held my tongue, endeavoring not to be too fussy. That was twelve years ago, and I still wish I’d said something. The first sink, the one I broke, was elegant— a rectangular sink with graceful, curved sides. The new one is more squared off than curved and looks like it belongs in a doctor’s office. To add to my disquiet, the new sink has the manufacturer’s name, Kohler, printed in gray on the porcelain. 

Weldon always left decorating decisions to me, but our lives have changed since he retired. Now he’s almost always at home and while we enjoy having time together, when I’m discussing a new project with a designer or a contractor, he wants to be involved. Weldon is a gentleman, a kind person, but decorators trigger an atypical response. It’s so out of character. He gets touchy, contrary and challenges their ideas. We’ve talked about this but haven’t resolved the issue. I’ve decided to dial back my interior design plans since I’ve accomplished most of what I’d envisioned for our home.

This may be for the best. Our condominium has two levels. We enter at the top level with two rooms and a bath. We use those two rooms as a video room and a shared office. The main living area is down thirteen stairs with a carved oak handrail. The lower level contains a large living/dining room, a nice-sized kitchen for a downtown condo, a solarium, and the master bedroom and bath. I walk up and down those stairs ten to fifteen times a day. My cardiologist approves, but a recent Dexa scan revealed osteoporosis in my hips which may limit my mobility in the future. Not only that, Weldon has a wonky knee. Physicians have confirmed his knee is bone on bone with no cushioning tissue. Weldon favors it when he walks and has modified his exercise program, but stairs are a challenge. He swears he’s not in pain and the doctors are not keen to replace the knee because the mortality risk and lack of success increase with age. We’re not as agile as we once were when we moved in twenty-six years ago. We know there will come a day when one or both of us won’t be able to navigate the stairs.

We plan to stay in this condo for as long as we can. We meet at the front window every day for a good morning kiss and a gaze at the bay. We scan the water of Elliott Bay to see what transports have arrived. Weldon has an app that identifies ships by name and nationality enroute or docked at the port. We look across the water to the hills of West Seattle, we look to our left to see if Mount Rainier is visible, and we look to our right for a view of Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Mountains. We tell each other how happy we are to live here.

Recently, Weldon’s son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter, Todd, Jane, and Madison, visited. While Weldon was upstairs talking with Madison about her Ph.D. research project, Todd and Jane began a gentle conversation with me about aging, staying in our home, telling me that because they live in Virginia, if we need help, it will be problematic to make trips across the country. I understand. Jane’s mother recently had a series of health issues and Jane began commuting between Arlington, Virginia, and Tennessee where her mother lived. It was an eight-hour drive and a huge commitment of her time. Todd’s mother and stepfather live in Mansfield, Ohio. They have their health problems too and Todd and Jane visit them regularly. Jane and Todd have a full plate of elders.

I assured Todd and Jane that we appreciate their concern. To illustrate how we look at the future, I told them the story of my widowed mother.

“My mother had four children. She could have turned to us and asked us to take care of her. We’d have gladly done so. But Mom took control. She found the best retirement home near her small town—Copeland Oaks, about fifteen miles away. She needed to be healthy to be admitted and she had the financial resources to live there. She moved when she was seventy-seven years old and happily lived there for the next ten years until her death.”

I went on, “She delighted in driving, but when she realized she was not a safe motorist anymore, she gave up her car. Her boyfriend, Bud, loved to drive so she gave him her car and every Saturday they embarked on long excursions and ended with dinner in a restaurant. Weldon and I admire her process and plan to use her example as a guide for our decisions as we age.”

I explained to Jane and Todd that Weldon and I had visited Seattle retirement homes and while we hope to stay in our current home, we understand it might be necessary to move at some point, and we would be ready for that. Until then, our plan is to convert part of the home office to a bedroom with a Murphy bed in case we need live-in care. I told them if a time comes when one of us is unable to navigate the stairs, we could install a stair lift chair as other tenants in our building have done successfully. Perhaps Todd recollected the time fifteen years earlier when I took them to the woodworkers’ workshop where we viewed the construction of a carved oak handrail I’d commissioned for our staircase inspired by the nodes of a bamboo plant. He may have harkened back to my design devotion when he looked at me, wide-eyed with a smile reminiscent of his father, and challenged me, “Yes, but would you really do that, install a stair lift?” “Absolutely!” I answered. Todd looked relieved.

I treasure my home. I take great pleasure in surveying the various enhancements I’ve overseen. But I was younger then and I’m adjusting to reality in a different time of life. I’m modifying my standards for perfection and concentrating on common sense and necessity.

 On the other hand, as a discerning client, I do wonder what finishes and colors stair lift chairs come in. Perhaps a special order of bamboo-inspired oak chair arms to coordinate with the handrail?

Susan Knox’s stories and essays have appeared in Blue Lyra Review, CALYX, Cleaver, The Forge, The MacGuffin, Sequestrum, Zone 3, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net awards. She and her husband live in Seattle, near Pike Place Market where she shops most days for the evening meal.