Getting Too Close to Helpless

by James Wallace Harris, July 14, 2022

For this essay, I’m defining helpless as being in a situation where we can’t help ourselves or get help from someone else. As I get older I worry that someday my wife Susan or I will find ourselves in a completely helpless situation. This weekend it almost happened. Our hot water heater in the attic broke and water was pooling on the sheetrock of the ceiling above my computer room. A seam then spread open and water was draining onto the floor. Susan and I had to find a solution fast and several times I wasn’t sure we would.

First, we were lucky I discovered it so soon. I have an overactive bladder so I’m frequently going back to the bathroom which is annoying. But in this one instance, it put me Johnny-on-the-spot as I went down the hall to the bathroom. The pool of water was only in the middle of the floor.

I yelled to Susan and ran into the kitchen and pulled the filled garbage bag out of the tall kitchen trash can and ran back and put that under the water flow. I saw that it would fill pretty fast so I ran back to the kitchen and got the recycle bin and dumped the contents out on the floor and took it back to the room. By then Susan was there with a pile of towels.

I then went out into the hall, pulled down the attic stairs, and rushed up into the attic. The hot water tank is right next to the stairs and I could see the overflow pan was full and not draining. Damn. I went back down the stairs and ran outside and unscrewed the hose from the outside faucet and dragged it back into the house and up the stairs and connected it to the flush drain. It didn’t have a faucet handle but a slot so I yelled for Susan to get me a large screwdriver. I tried to turn off the hot water heater but it would only let me shut it down to pilot light. For some reason, I couldn’t make the button turn to the off position. I looked at the pipes and saw a red handle so I turned it all the way to what I hoped was an off position. When I had the screwdriver I opened the flush faucet and water started spraying everywhere from a leak in the hose connection. I turned it off.

Two weeks ago my back was hurting so much, that I could barely walk, so I was thankful I was able to be going up and down the stairs. I was moving at a frantic pace but I was calm. I wondered what would have happened if I couldn’t go up the stairs. I don’t trust Susan on the attic stairs. It was then I realized I could be helpless. If I couldn’t fix this problem I had to get someone else. Help means either doing it yourself or finding someone who could. I was suddenly scared I couldn’t, and we’d be helpless. I know this is a minor emergency, but it was enlightening.

Then I went back down the stairs and called our regular plumber. I told them immediately I had an emergency of running water but they made me give me my information first before they told me they couldn’t have someone out until Monday. It was Saturday afternoon, but I thought it was Friday. So I called another plumber thinking I might catch someone still there. The same thing happened. Wanted my information before telling me the soonest would be Monday.

I got some duck tape and went back upstairs and wrapped the hose. I turned on the drain again. It didn’t shoot water. I went outside and saw that water was coming out of the hose. I then went back to the computer room and dragged the first bucket to the front door and emptied it on the front porch. I took the empty bucket and swapped it for the full and emptied it.

I felt I had a bit of breathing room. Then Susan said she still heard running water.

I went to the computer and looked up emergency plumbers. I found one that claimed 24/7 service and called them. Same thing. Can’t come until Monday. I then ran to the hall closet and got my T-wrench and went outside to the street to turn off the water to the house. However, I couldn’t get the valve to budge. I figured I had to call MLG&W to come shut off the water. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t know how long they would take to get here, and I didn’t want to go days without water.

I went back upstairs and realized that I had shut off the gas, not the water. I started looking around. This time I looked at the top of the water tank, which almost goes to the ceiling of the attic. There I saw water spraying from around the intake pipe, but I also saw another turn-off handle. I gave it a quarter turn and the water stopped running.

That gave me a sense of release. The flow of water from the computer room ceiling slowed, and in about fifteen minutes it stopped. I called the plumber and made an appointment for Monday.

However, I kept wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to shut off the water. What would we have done? What would Susan have done if I wasn’t home? She probably would have called a neighbor, her brother, or MLG&W. I pictured us taking turns swapping filled buckets all weekend, even taking sleeping shifts at night.

It’s incidents like this when I want more control. I should have been prepared. I should have known where the water shut-off to the tank was located. I thought I was prepared by buying the tool to shut off the water at the street. When the plumber came Monday I ordered a new tank and ordered an automatic shut-off device that works with a water sensor in the overflow pan. I also ordered a new overflow pan and all new drainage pipes. But is that enough? I prefer not to deal with another computer room flood. This was the second. Years ago the HVAC installers made the mistake of putting in the condensation pan at a tilt – a tilt away from the drainage outlet.

We don’t have complete control of our lives. On the news that night there were stories about flooding in the east that ruined entire homes. Our flooding was nothing, so I was thankful. However, knowing we can’t control everything doesn’t stop me from worrying about becoming helpless. One sight that always scares me when I see it on the news is when first responders have to rescue old helpless people.

I know I’m worrying about the inevitable, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. It doesn’t stop me from thinking of ways to be prepared. If I designed houses I wouldn’t put the HVAC and hot water heater in the attic. Every house should have a little machine room on the ground floor, with a floor drain and sensors for flooding. This house has had a hot water heater in the attic since 1952 and things have been mostly good 99.9999% of the time.

Getting old has made me worry about my body breaking down or my house breaking down. I realize there are things I can do to help myself. I also realize there are things I depend on Susan to help me do. And I know there will be other things I will have to depend on friends or hired help. This flooding incident has made me think about the times I might not find any kind of help. Generally, that’s never a problem because we have each other. But it’s a thought.


17 thoughts on “Getting Too Close to Helpless”

  1. Good grief, Jim, that is terrifying!

    I know, because the same thing happened to me in 2012 (see, I even remember the date—that’s how upsetting it was).

    It was Sunday evening. All was quiet and peaceful. No sign of trouble. And then, just like in your story, I had to get up from my computer to go to the bathroom. When I got into the central hallway of the house, I saw that there was a large and growing pool of water on the ground. I looked up, and saw water cascading through a light fitting at the same volume as a fully open faucet. That’s right—a light fitting; the same light I had just switched on. Water + electricity = not good. Not good at all.

    Miraculously, there was no short circuit and after some panic I managed to turn off the water supply to the house. Some water continued to drain, but it stopped soon enough. Even more miraculously, our regular plumber came to assist us (Sunday night, remember), and disaster was averted.

    But I can’t help wondering what would’ve happened if I hadn’t come across the leak when I did. By sheer coincidence I happened to come across it not long after the leak sprang. It could easily have remained undiscovered for much longer. We don’t have an attic, but the hot water cylinder is above ceiling level and you have to go through a narrow hatch to get there. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t have known what to do, anyway.

    Why must these damn things always be in some mysterious dark nook above your head, where you can’t reach them or see what’s happening?

    1. Your story does sound very similar. It was great you had such a reliable plumber. And yes, it would help if they made things more accessible and we were taught to take care of them better. I need to get better at maintenance.

  2. Remember that the hot water heater was a key issue in Breaking Bad. IMO, that’s the point when Walt really went over the edge.

    I think there’s an atavistic horror of abandonment. If I can’t manage for myself, the tribe might abandon me in the jungle. Margaret Meade (or someone) said that the first sign of civilization was the discovery of a skeleton with a healed broken femur. Someone looked after that person when they couldn’t help themselves.

    1. I vaguely remember that about Breaking Bad. I loved that show. I might need to watch it again.

      And it’s true. Society is all about helping each other. But evidently, the fall of civilization is about when that stops.

    1. George, I’ve been worrying about my friends who live alone. I just talked to one lady who lives alone and asked about how she handled a burst pipe during the power outage last winter. She had a T-wrench and went out and shut the power off at the street herself. I was very impressed. I have a number of lady friends who live alone, including one who lives in Mexico, and they have all found ways to be very independent and resourceful. But I would hate to live alone.

  3. I think if my plumber didn’t come out while my house was flooding—or at least offer some advice over the phone—I’d be getting a new plumber.

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Well, my plumbers are all big companies. I don’t know any personally. And the reason I liked this company is it always came out on the same day — but that’s always been a weekday.

  4. My story: On June 21, 2022 (like Piet Nel, I’ll never forget that date), around 6:30 p.m., I noticed that my main bathroom toilet would not flush. BTW, I’m a woman of a certain age who lives alone in a 4-plex condominium building). The condo units are low-rise, no basement, spacious single level units. Nice place to live, I thought, when I bought the unit last year.

    The mechanicals are located in a closet near a utility room at the back of each unit. I next went to my spare bedroom guest bathroom and tried to flush that toilet. Same thing – it would not flush. I thought, huh – something is going on in the plumbing. I went to the mechanical closet and saw that the main drain, which the HVAC and water heater/water softener equipment drain into was overflowing. (I’ve never liked the idea of the main drain being on the main level, but since there is no basement, it is what it is.) I panicked – big time. Then I called the city waste water emergency line. Thank god someone answered. He said it sounds like a sewer back-up. After he took my information, he said the city was not responsible because this development is on private property. But he said he would come out and assess the situation right away. Which he did! He actually apologized for driving his personal vehicle rather than the city vehicle, but he was at home when he got my call. While I waited for him, I called my neighbors in the other 3 units in my building. They were having the same problem.

    When the city employee arrived, he went around to all units, confirmed it was a sewer backup and warned everyone not to flush toilets, wash clothes, dishes, etc. because “the water has nowhere to go.” He contacted a private sewer system company, but the soonest they could come was the following morning. I got nowhere with plumbing companies. By this time, the mechanical closet and the hallway to the utility room were completely flooded. Every towel, rug, paper towel, cloth, etc. was soaked. I could now see raw sewage around the main drain.

    I really consider myself resourceful and independent. But at this point I was shaky. I did what I HATE to do – called my daughter, who lives about ten minutes away, and when I told her what was happening, my voice broke. She said Mom, we are on our way. In less that 10 minutes she and her husband arrived with a shop vac and we worked until almost 11:00 cleaning up. They packed me and my cat up and I spent the night at their home – mine was uninhabitable. I lay awake in their spare bedroom most of the night, wondering if the damage was worsening, if my neighbors were following the no-flush instructions. I feared the worst.

    The next morning, the backed-up main drain of the condo building was cleaned out in less than half an hour. We did more cleanup and ultimately, the property damage was minimal. But the damage to my confidence, my belief in what I thought was my competence and resourcefulness was significant. That night, June 21, I was completely helpless. And that is a terrifying thing.

    1. Your story brings up two issues. I was talking with my friend Ann and she pointed out something. Older folks with grown children feel more secure than childless couples. Even still I can understand why you’d want to be independent. And second, I need to buy that insurance the city is always promoting for sewer lines.

      So you do have a mechanical closet and a drain. That’s what I was wishing for. But the drain backed up. Now I’ll have to modify that wish.

      We had two shop vacs. I gave one away and then realized the other was bad.

      1. Yes, be careful what you wish for. And I am fortunate that I have a daughter nearby. I would not have moved here but for that. Still, I do not like to abuse their support and I always try to solve problems on my own. But your friend is right – it is a comfort knowing they are nearby. And you need to get another shop vac.

  5. one reason you have insurance the other reason that you have friends that can help with thing, My husband is unable to do a lot of things, but now I have to do them, take me twice as long but I also a handy man that if I call her usually can help getting old isn’t fun
    your cousin Susan

    1. Hey cousin. You are your husband’s help. It’s good to have other people. But I also remember you as a little kid. You were smart and weren’t afraid to try things. I think you got that from your dad.


  6. Frightening post. I live with my SIL and we are both older (75 and 77) and no children nearby. My HVAC and water heater are in the garage, so I’m hoping a leak would only flood in there and down the slanted drive before I could get help. My main concern is a burst pipe somewhere in the house and not seeing it right away. Then when I did, how to turn off the water. Those things in your yard that are covered I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. And there is some valve on a line or something outside that might be a turn off to the house, but I’m not sure. This makes me want to get a plumber out here just to go over all this with me and install some easier way to turn off the house water..scary stuff and help is getting harder to find quickly…I also need to buy a shop vac but I can only handle a small one..
    Hope things are back to normal now for you.

  7. I think about these things now that I’ve moved in with my helpless 95-yo mother. I’m single and childless so I imagine myself in her situation and think “Who will help me?????” Nobody. Very scary. I hope I’m back in a major city by the time I’m older and need help. She lives in a small town, in the woods.

    I need to find out where the main shutoff for the water to our house is. My manager at work discovered a leaking toilet on Christmas and the flooding was so bad the rooms had to be stripped down to the wall studs, or something. Took months before all the work was done.

    My Mom’s water heater is in an elevated closet between the kitchen and livingroom. I would not know how to do any of the things you did to yours.

    There needs to be some kind of classes available in communities like this where there are a lot of older couples and/or single people who never learned how to take care of houses. My excuse is that I’ve been a renter my entire life so I never had to know how to do anything until I moved in with Mom. All I had to do was call the landlord.

    Anyway, thanks for this post and I’m glad you got your water shut off finally.

    1. People who live away from things have to be very independent. My friend Leigh Ann had a burst pipe last winter during a power outage and it’s only recently that she’s completed all the repairs. Had to replace the ceiling and the floor.

      We don’t have children either and that worries me.

      That’s a good idea. They should teach this kind of stuff in K-12 schools.

  8. You should think seriously about moving into a single story house, on flat terrain, not elevated more than a few steps. (If you can afford that.)

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