25 Weeks of Rediscovery: Chapter 2 – Why Painters Use Drop Cloths

Posted January 19, 2015 by jimhigley

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 6.01.13 AM

My brother, Kevin, holding my son, Kevin.

(This is the third week of  a six-month journey of self-discovery. Thanks for joining me. Today we begin with Chapter 2 from my book, “Bobblehead Dad: 25 Lessons I Forgot I Knew.”  I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for some background on this chapter as well a few thought questions for you to think about. On Wednesday, I’ll share a new story focusing on this week’s lesson. 

Chapter 2

Why Painters Use Drop Cloths

It was March. Winter was ever so slowly giving up its hold on long, cold days—providing an occasional surprise with a warmer, sun-filled afternoon.

Our living room was getting a facelift—new furniture and curtains—and Granny Smith green had been chosen as the new, delicious color scheme. The last remaining thing to be done was paint the room.

Now, painting a room is not a monumental task. In fact, I have always taken pride in being rather handy with a paintbrush—as evidenced by my having single-handedly painted every square inch of the inside of our first two homes in Durham, North Carolina.

Actually, several rooms in those two houses were painted twice; it seems I had a knack for painting a room and then deciding it looked nothing like what I had anticipated based on the tiny color chip I had originally picked out at the paint store. I ultimately learned the value of investing in a quart of paint of the proposed color, trying it out on a small section of wall, and then—and only then—moving ahead with my final purchase of several gallons of paint.

But for some reason, painting the living room green in our new home in Chicago had become a burden for me. I didn’t know if it was the kids’ busy schedules, my work, or my age. Perhaps it was just the annual slump I go through every March as I privately relive the memories of my mom’s death, which return predictably every year like Chicago’s weather patterns. Whatever the reason, I had lost the energy to tackle a weekend painting project.

However, this one particular weekend in March was different. Something was changing in my life. I could feel it in subtle ways. And I actually felt excited to take on the living room.

Painting day was set for Saturday. And as luck would have it, my son Kevin and my daughter, Wallis, were invited to attend a show in downtown Chicago that day.

That left my youngest, Drew, a six-year-old at the time, home with me.

No problem, I told myself as I developed strategies for keeping Drew busy all day with a refrigerator full of treats and an armful of videos.

With everyone else out of the house, and Drew happy as a clam in the basement, I was ready to get to work.

My first step whenever I paint is always to lay down drop cloths. I like big, serious drop cloths, not the wimpy, thin, plastic type that comes folded up in little packages. I buy industrial-strength 100-foot rolls of clear plastic. The thicker the plastic, the better. It’s easy to roll out. It cuts great with a sharp knife. And it doesn’t slide around when you walk on it. It’s serious protection and I always feel safer knowing it’s there.

Choosing where to start painting is the most important decision for me. Do I start on a wall that’s easy to finish—providing some quick gratification? Or do I start on a more complicated wall—leaving the easier ones for last?

For this particular project, I decided to start on the wall with the big bay window—which provides my favorite view from the inside of our house. This wall had a fair amount of trim work, but it also had good lighting. An acceptable compromise, I thought.

Drop cloth down.

Ladder set.

Paint stirred.

My work began.

I follow a process when I paint. I tackle one wall at a time. I use a two-inch angled brush to do the wall’s edging first and then I use a roller, filling in the large open areas. I continue this process in a clockwise manner around the room (never counterclockwise!), completing one coat of paint on each wall. If needed, I go around the room for a second lap, applying another coat of paint.

Not more than five minutes into painting the first wall, standing on the ladder with the top of my head grazing the ceiling, I realized something. I was happy. It was a feeling I hadn’t felt in many months.

Nine months to be exact.

My brother Kevin had died nine months earlier and I missed everything about him. In addition to missing him, I also knew I missed the life I had when he was still a part of it. It had been a lonely nine months.

As I worked my way along the underside of the crown molding, my mind shifted to memories of doing “handyman” projects with Kevin—painting, wallpapering, carpentry, laying tile. Kevin and I were the guys in our family who could work with our hands. We were good partners.

Kevin was a photographer. He spent most of his career working for the Gannett Newspaper chain, and the Associated Press and national magazines regularly picked up his work. He spent a career covering politicians, entertainers, sports figures, and other celebrities. My family watched the Super Bowl religiously every year—but not to enjoy the game. We were far more interested in looking for Kevin on the sidelines with his telescopic lenses and wearing his bright yellow “PRESS” vest.

Kevin was thoughtful. Kind. He always took care of the underdog. Quietly, and without any fanfare. I remember him rallying some of the other photographers to reroof their secretary’s house one weekend. Why?

“She’s a nice lady. She needs help,” he told me.

Compassion came instinctively for him.

My mom loved to tell the story about a sweet five-year-old Kevin sneaking into my nursery in the middle of the night to give me a bottle. And it was Kevin who rushed me to the hospital when I nearly sliced off the tip of my left index finger with a razor blade when I was eleven. It’s a wonder we weren’t super-close as kids. But then again, he had five years on me.

We became close, though. Somewhere along life’s path—through grouting, wallpapering, and trips to the local hardware store—we became extremely close.

And for the first time since he had died, I was starting to feel alive. I had known for a long time that I needed to move forward and come to terms with Kevin’s death. But knowing something and feeling something are two different things.

It was in that moment, however, that I could actually feel Kevin’s presence. I felt his warmth and his calmness.

I was embraced by a feeling of safety and security I had never before felt in my life.

Footsteps. A startling sensation made me aware of the sound of footsteps from my vantage point on top of the ladder. Then, I heard muffled noises and chatter from Drew, who was directly below me in the basement. At first I thought it was the movie he was watching. But then it was eerily quiet and soon Drew ran up the stairs to the first floor and into the living room.

“Hey there, Drew. How’s it going?”


“Stay off the drop cloth. I spilled some paint over there.”


“What’s up, Bud?”

“I have a question.”

“Fire away.”

Drew didn’t really need to share his question. I knew what he was going to ask. It was as if I were watching a movie I had already seen before.

“Daddy, are angels real?”

“Sure they are, Drew.”


“Why do you ask?”

“There’s an angel in the house.”

“No kidding, that’s neat. How do you know that?”

“I was talking to him.”

“That’s cool, Drew. Anyone we know?”

“Yeah. It’s Uncle Kevin. He’s here right now. I was just talking to him in the basement, and he told me he isn’t sick anymore.”

My heart was pounding through my T-shirt. Kevin was here. As I looked down at Drew from my perch on the ladder, I realized—in that brief moment—I had never felt so peaceful and content.

But as good as that felt, I wasn’t really sure what it meant.


I’m good about getting an annual physical.

Hypochondriacally good.

Right after the first of each year, my inner clock reminds me to schedule it, which usually places me in the doctor’s office sometime in February. My “forty-three-year-old” physical was originally scheduled for mid-February, but due to a work conflict it had to be canceled. I let months go by without rescheduling it, but I kept a Post-it note with the words “reschedule physical” stuck to my desk. Finally, a couple of months after my forty-fourth birthday, I scheduled my physical for October.

I had just about reached the point where I was going to skip that appointment, though, and restart the annual physical thing the following February. After all, I had followed the rules of the Immunity Game, which meant I was safe for years, right? My dad and my brother had died in the previous few years, so I probably had at least ten years of protection. Immunity is such an awesome feeling. In the end, however, I went.

The October physical was uneventful. Blood pressure—check. Eyes—check. Ears—check. Throat—check. Heart, lungs, abdomen—check, check, check. I stopped by to see the nurse, Jean, before I left, to provide a vial or two of blood and some other routine samples—all per the orders on the paperwork from my doctor. With that done I was on my way, thinking to myself I was good until the following year.

The following afternoon I was at an off-site business meeting with Tom, a guy who worked with me. We were holed up in some conference room trying to focus on a new initiative when my cell phone rang. It was my doctor’s office calling, and I debated whether or not I should take it. Normally I would have let it go to voice mail, but my instinct said otherwise. So I stepped out into the hall.

Surprisingly, it was the doctor himself, tracking me down to go over my blood test results.

“Everything looks fine, generally speaking.”

After hearing those opening words, I started to tune out and refocus on what Tom and I had been discussing. But the good doctor continued.

“Blah, blah, blood sugar, blah, little high, blah, blah, LDL, blah . . .

When I thought he was winding up, I remember starting to tell him I’d look forward to seeing him the next year. But then he threw in the unexpected comment that there was something he wanted to ask me.

“Sure, what is it?”

“Did you ask me to run a PSA test?”

PSA. PSA. Think. Think. Blood test, I thought. Older guys. Prostate. Yeah, prostate, that’s it.

“Um, no, I didn’t ask for anything. Why?”

“That’s odd. I don’t request a PSA test until a man is fifty—and I know I wouldn’t have marked it down for you to have one unless we talked about a family history. But we got your PSA number and it’s a little high. Do you have a history of prostate cancer in your family?”

“No. I have lots of cancer in my family, but no prostate cancer.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s nothing. Probably a lab error. Maybe I just accidentally checked the ‘PSA’ box on your paperwork. Tell you what. I’ll sleep better if you have this checked out by a specialist who can run a more sensitive test than I can. I have a name and telephone number for you. Promise me you’ll follow up with this other doctor?”

He didn’t need my promise. I placed that call and set up an appointment with the specialist before I stepped back in to pick up where Tom and I had left off.

Somewhere in those few brief moments, while Tom was mapping out our rollout schedule for our initiative, I started my journey to an unknown place.

After I sat down, I wondered if Tom would be able to read my face. I was feeling a smorgasbord of emotions. Fidgety. Anxious. Confused.

But the one thing I didn’t feel was fear. I had felt fear before and knew what it was like. I sat there while Tom continued to speak words I didn’t hear, taking a mental diagnostic check of my inner workings. Fear was registering at a zero.

What was registering off the charts, however, was the same feeling I had had a couple years earlier when I was on the ladder dipping the brush into the Granny Smith green paint. I felt safe. And secure.

What I felt was my brother Kevin. I knew he had something to do with that PSA box getting checked off.

And I had every reason to believe he’d stick around to make sure I had plenty of drop cloths under me.

Lesson 2: Loved ones die. But they never leave.

Want more?  Read last week’s posts including Chapter 1, thought questions, and my ideas about bogeymen. And come back tomorrow for thought questions about today’s post.