A blind man who long dreamed of building his own home learns to accept help.
Posted in , Apr 9, 2012
I could hear the inspector cutting into the walls of our half-finished, handcrafted log home, muttering under his breath. “Hmm,” I heard him say. “Uh-huh.” More scraping, each scratch more excruciating than the last, as if he were slicing into my heart.
It was frustrating to not see his face. To be in the dark. Literally. I’d been blind for 40 years, over half my life. Most of the time I more than compensated. But then there were times like this.
I’d spent over a decade building this log home in rural Maine. You bet I wanted to see everything he was doing, to see if his expression was as grave as his voice. To see if this dream had gone horribly wrong.
“Is it bad?” my wife, Debra, asked. For months she’d been telling me the wood was rotten. But I’d stubbornly refused to believe her. We’d suffered so many setbacks already. I couldn’t accept that God would have this in our plans too. No way. But finally I’d agreed to call this inspector.
I heard his feet shuffling toward me. “The logs are rotten,” he said. “I’m guessing you used an inferior preservative. I’m sorry. I wish I had better news.”
I held Debra, her body slumped against me, long after he’d left. I’d gotten bad advice on the preservative. Not that it made any difference now. “It’s going to be okay,” I said. “I’ll figure something out.”
“It’s too late,” she said. “Didn’t you hear him? It’s too late.”
I’d heard him. But this was my grand plan. I couldn’t let it die.
Okay, so maybe I am a little strongwilled, but it’s important to me to do things on my own. I never wanted my blindness to be a barrier. I’d proven that. Twenty years before, in 1990, I thru-hiked 2,167.9 rugged miles of the Appalachian Trail. It took nearly nine months, three months longer than average.
I fell thousands of times, even with the aid of my guide dog Orient. But I persevered, reaching the end here in Maine at Mt. Katahdin the day before Thanksgiving. There I dropped to my knees and thanked God for the chance to glorify his name. He’d shown me not what a man can do, but what God can do with a man.
I met Debra just a few years after my epic journey. Eager to start a new life together we moved from North Carolina to Maine after we married, not far from the trail’s end. We had a new dream, a challenge beyond anything we’d done before, to build our own home, log by log, like the pioneers.
In my mind I could see it perfectly, a beautiful, rustic cabin, made of timbers notched and fitted by hand—our hands. Debra would be my eyes. Externally. Internally my vision was perfect. It would be just the two of us, building a dream together. Literally.
On a cold, snowy October day we took possession of 72 acres of beautiful timberland and one long-abandoned tumbledown shack. “We can tough it out for a couple of years,” I told Debra.
Come spring, we bought plans for a big, two-story house and 200 white pine logs. We’d work at it between my engagements as a motivational speaker.
I taught Debra how to use a chainsaw. She made a rough cut for each connecting notch then used another tool to outline where the edges should be. I chiseled out the wood until I reached her mark. “Do you really think we can do this all on our own?” Debra said as I chipped away. “It seems like a lot of work.”
“One step at a time,” I said. “We have to be patient and believe in ourselves.”
We’d studied DIY videos over the winter. Plus we’d taken a home-building course, working with our classmates to construct a house using beams, posts and prefabricated panels, a process known as timber framing.
It was slow going. It took us nearly two days to finish a single log. Once the notches were cut out I had to plane the wood with hammer and chisel, following Debra’s indentations, until it fit perfectly against the log above it.
The final piece was putting the log in place using a forklift. Debra wasn’t strong enough to pop the clutch, so she guided me while I drove and maneuvered the lift. That’s right. A blind guy driving a forklift with a 2,000-pound log on it. We made it work.
By fall, walls nearly four feet high surrounded a beautiful, tongue-and-groove wood floor. We were on our way.
In March the floor collapsed, buckled by five feet of frost underneath it—like nothing we’d ever experienced in balmy North Carolina.
“That’s okay,” I told Debra. “We can fix it.” I knew from hiking, when you stumbled you just had to get up and keep going. Stumbling is part of learning. I drove in deep support posts that held until the next winter, when heavy snows crushed the floor again.
So much for learning! A thick steel I-beam ultimately proved the solution.
As the walls grew higher the work of fitting the logs together grew ever more difficult. Debra and I were short with each other, our halcyon days when everything was new and exciting fading as time went by. We spent the next 10 years slowly working on the log home whenever we could.
There were frequent interruptions. Between work and day-to-day life it was hard to dedicate the time that was needed. Still, we kept at it. I’d thought we were near the end.
Now, the inspector’s words still burning my ears, I paced around our home, feeling the logs with my hands, digging into them with my knife. There was no saving them. I climbed the ladder to the top of the scaffolding and jerked the starter cord to my chainsaw. It was late evening when we toppled the last wall.
That night I lay in bed thinking. The vision had been so clear. To build a home by hand from scratch. It would be almost an extension of my soul. I’d seen it so clearly in my heart. Now all I could imagine was a pile of rotting debris. It was a blessing I couldn’t see it. I might just give up.
The next day friends invited us to their house for lunch. The husband, Sam Francis, was a builder. I dreaded telling Sam what had happened. We weren’t five minutes through the front door when Sam asked, “How’s the log home coming?”
“I cut it down yesterday,” I said. “The wood rotted on us.”
The room went totally silent. “You must be devastated,” he said.
I shuffled my feet. “What if you tried another approach?” Sam said hesitantly. “You could use beams and posts, prefabricated panels for the roof and walls.” I knew that. Everyone knew I knew that.
But that wasn’t my dream. And the panels were huge, unwieldy. No way could Debra and I handle them on our own. Pioneers didn’t use panels!
“I can knock out some plans for you on the computer today,” Sam said. I heard Debra clear her throat. She might as well have punched me in the back. Lord, I prayed, if this is your will...
Somewhat reluctantly, I followed my friend’s advice. Debra and I worked nearly every day that summer, cutting notches in the beams and putting them in place with a hoist, one every couple of hours. We quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm. It was fun again. A labor of love.
By fall our home’s beautiful exposed wood skeleton was nearly complete. One chilly afternoon I bolted in the last roof beam. Time for the panels. It was critical to get them on before winter. Yet we had not made any arrangements.
What now, Lord?
Again I tossed and turned in bed. I thought of those hard days I’d spent on the trail. The worst was near the end, winter closing in. For three days Orient and I were trapped in a snowstorm near Mt. Washington.
I’d taken comfort in the words of an old hymn, “Count your blessings,” and began thanking God for all the people who’d helped me on my journey. Then I’d heard a voice: “Bill Irwin? Boy, am I glad to see you!” God had sent rescuers. Someone had always been there for me.
The house was no different. There’d been Debra, of course. And Sam. And me. I was always there. Maybe too much there.
The next day, like heavenly clockwork, a friend called. “Say, could you use an extra hand or two on your house?” he asked. There was a note of hesitation in his voice, as if he half expected me to blow him off.
“Uh, sure,” I answered, a little ashamed at the surprise in my voice. “Actually that would be great.”
A few weeks later a convoy of pickup trucks drove up our road, bringing 19 men and women. It was amazing, an old-fashioned barn-raising just like pioneers used to hold.
This fall Debra and I hope to move in—our dream home nearly complete at last. When I walk through it I see every beam, every post in my mind, the floor to ceiling windows, snow-capped Mt. Katahdin in the distance.
Once I stood atop that peak with Orient, blind but feeling I could see for miles. All that long hard journey I’d kept my eyes focused on a light that burned inwardly, brighter than any I’d ever known when I could see, the light of the Lord. It had not failed me.
Now, though, I had almost failed it, blinded by my own will, and willfulness, possessed of a dream instead of possessing it. I could not build my house until I got right with God, with Debra, with my friends and neighbors. Yes, I am like the beggar in John. I was blind but now I can see.
Read Bill’s account of his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
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