A week ago, as I jockeyed for position amongst a handful of parents in the sliver of shade thrown by a telephone pole at my sons’ bus stop, one of them asked,“Did I see Pat pushing his car out of the parking lot the other day?”
“Probably,” I answered. “Sometimes the car won’t go in reverse.”
“That could be a big problem,” the dad pressed.
‘Yeah, but we’re not ready to face it,” I said. He looked at me, confused. So I tried to explain. “So far, it’s not that big a deal for Pat to hop out and push it a few feet.”
The dad continued to stare at me as if he didn’t speak my language. In truth, he probably doesn’t. It’s possible that we don’t have the money to fix the car right now (I don’t know how much it would cost). But the truth is that we’ve found a way to work with the problem. and so far it’s not big enough for us to deal with the time and inconvenience of putting the car in the shop.
We’re not big fixers of things.
Two days ago, I broke my toe. Again. This is the third time for this particular toe.
“Have you gone the doctor?” a friend asked.
“Nah,” I said, limping alongside her. “There’s nothing you can do about a toe. Guess I’ll be limping through India.”
“How about taping it?” another friend asked.
“I tried that the last time it was broken,” I answered. “The tape just slips off. “
“Shouldn’t you just have the doctor take a quick look?”
“Nah. There’s nothing to do but wear fat shoes and favor the other foot.”
Again, the confused stare from a friend.
Why are Pat and I so passive when it comes to fixing stuff? Why does it take a week for us to call building maintenance about a window screen hanging off its hinges? Why are all our clothes held together by safety pins? For years, Pat and I watched television, holding onto the antenna in order to get reception. Every college kid has gone to similar absurd lengths to make a broken-down piece of equipment work because they can’t afford a replacement. But we were thirty-five and we could have afforded to buy a new one. A year ago, Pat lost both arms to his glasses. He taped string to the rims and tied the glasses around his head for nine months. Far from being embarrassed about his string glasses, he was quite proud of his ingenuity. He bragged about it to friends and strangers alike. One of the suitcases we are taking to India falls over when we let go of it. We could borrow a replacement suitcase but, really, who has the time to chase one down? We’ll simply lean the suitcase against Spencer. No, Murphy. He’s stockier.
Our family probably lives with more disrepair than the average family in our socio-economic bracket. But I would argue that every family has a set of priorities that are peculiar to them. An acquaintance of mine has a kid who is a pathological liar, but she’s far more concerned about the mud he tracks into the house. She admonishes him firmly ever time he props his dirty shoes up on the coffee table. Her house is spotless, but a mutual friend of ours told me that her son routinely crucifies dolls on little wooden crosses in their basement. The choices here are clear; cleanliness is more important that satanic rituals being performed by your lying son in an underground location.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to raise happy, healthy children and keep an ordered dwelling – I’m simply saying that it appears to be impossible for us.
One of the few things that Pat and I do manage to repair and maintain is our relationship. It seems to need constant patching, tinkering, and monitoring. Through the years, he has had to navigate through my mood swings and I have had to endure his immutable sleep habits. Pat sleeps so soundly that I don’t attempt to wake him earlier than his usual waking time unless there’s an earthquake or a fire. Forget nudging him awake, for example, to ask where he put Spencer’s fieldtrip permission slip. It would take two minutes of repeated pounding on his back to rouse him, at which point he would bolt up, look around furiously, and yell, “What? What? What?” before falling back onto his pillow in a dead sleep. The whole process would then have to be repeated at least two more times before he would stay awake long enough to focus on my mouth moving. After which, he would mumble, “I don’t care” and pass out again.
Because of Pat’s inability (or ‘refusal’, depending on which one of us you’re talking to) to wake up early, I have taken over all of the morning duties. The negotiations around the assignment of this domestic responsibility were rigorous. In return, he agreed to do all the grocery shopping, cook most of the family dinners, and change the cat litter. Some readers might have opinions about the fairness of this compromise. To them, I say, “You weren’t in the room.”
Agreements like these stay in place until something shifts. In this case, my broken toe made it impossible for me to walk the children to the bus in the morning.
“Honey,” I broached the subject in a preemptively calm tone. “I don’t think I can make it to the bus stop in the morning. You’re going to have to drive the kids.”
Pat stared at me, not understanding, for a few minutes, “Why?”
I exhaled, “My toe. Remember? I can’t walk on it very far. It hurts like hell.”
“What about a pain killer?”
“It doesn’t matter, Pat. I don’t think I should put weight on a broken toe. Aren’t you concerned about my toe?”
“Brett. Don’t snap at me. I’m just looking for options.”
“The option is: you drive the kids.”
“Does this mean you’re doing the cat litter?”
“Seriously? You’re going to take back the litter? I’ve got a broken toe.”
He paused, and sighed, “Right. Right. I understand. I’m sorry about your toe. It’s just that my waking up at 5:30 seems so drastic.”
“How about this,” I offered. “I’ll wake up with the kids and get them ready. You can sleep in until 6:30.”
“Please don’t call that ‘sleeping in’. It insults our intelligence.”
We went back and forth until we hammered out a new temporary agreement. Ten minutes before he would have to wake up, I would nudge him until he grunted. Then I would let him sleep another five minutes, at which point, one of the boys would have to come in and rub his back for two minutes. Then, three minutes before he had to walk out the door, I would whisper in his ear, ever so sweetly, “It’s time, honey.”
In return for this, he would maintain all of his present duties – plus, he would make haircut appointments for the boys, find a house-sitter for our vacation, and call maintenance about the window screen.
Years ago, I would have taken Pat’s reluctance to change his sleeping habits for my infirmity personally. But I’ve grown to realize that my peccadilloes are as ingrained as his. This allowance that we give each other is has been one of the cornerstones of our marriage.
And that cornerstone is the reason why Pat has never once, not even when checks bounced and our last car finally died, seriously complained about spending the money to go to India. He doesn’t understand it, but he chooses to trust me when I tell him that something’s waiting for us there.