There are words that, when uttered in the right pitch and the right speed, can halt any parent in any moment. Today, such words are coming out of the mouth of my child, who, panicked and gasping, half screams, “Help, Mommy! It’s broken! It’s broken! And there’s water everywhere!”
These are the facts: It is Monday, and I am tired. Actually, I am not just tired; I am school teacher at the end of the first day back after a spring break tired. My eight-year-old daughter, Ellie, is not tired. My shoes, bought sacrificially for comfort more than style, have failed me. The desperately gulped three o’clock coffee has failed me. On the ride home from school, Ellie announces twice that she cannot wait for the homemade spaghetti I foolishly promised her on Sunday night. I dream of walking in my front door and smelling a meal someone else has cooked, of petting dogs someone else has already walked. I dream of the luxury of a second pair of hands.
I dream of help I do not have.
I wince on the way to the bathroom and slowly make sense of her panic. The toilet is broken. Water is glimmering down the underbelly of the cold, porcelain tank and gathering around the corners of baseboards. Tears brim in my eyes. My daughter announces she cannot “hold it” any longer. It is even more Monday than it was this morning. Now, the day has bloomed into all of its Mondayness.
Here are the facts: I love my daughter. I mean I really, really love my daughter. I am a divorced, single mother. I am a writer. I am a teacher. I am a person of faith. I believe that I am never enough at any given time in any of my roles. I love my daughter. I do not know how to fix toilets.
Ellie cannot understand how slowly I am moving toward righting this catastrophe and yells again, “Mommy, we have to call someone. we have to call a man to come fix it. Mommy, I really need the potty!”
Surprisingly, these are words that worry me almost as much, maybe more than the water I am using every clean towel to sop up. Yes, I think, a plumber would be nice. A husband equally invested in the status of our toilet would be even better. And the truth is I am weary of figuring out everything by myself. I am weary of having the only set of grown up hands in the house.
But what I have at this moment is what I’ve had for years. I have me – both my presence and my lack. And somehow – though nothing in me feels it to be true – I want, I need Ellie to see that sometimes simply having oneself is still a gift. I want to show my daughter that, in a pinch, the superpower of tenacity can be a kind of salvation, can rescue us, if just for an afternoon, from the powerlessness our circumstances can trick us into believing.
So, I bluff. I tell her that I can fix the broken toilet. I tell her not to worry. I tell her that asking for help is ok, but that first we should try to bail ourselves out as I slosh through inch deep toilet water. I tell her that a good man who wants to help is a blessing, but so is having a working mind and a pair of strong hands.
She puts her hand in mine and squeezes to show me she is strong. Her eyes are so innocently and deeply blue. “I didn’t know you could fix toilets, Mommy.”
In high school, I ran track. To be exact, I ran the 400 meter dash and the mile relay. When my coach described these races as “dead sprints for a full lap around the track,” no one volunteered to try out. While the fastest girls were given the short sprints and the deer-legged, enduring girls were given the distance runs, my sister and I, more grit than talent, were handed the 400 meter dash and its sister race, the mile relay. And we hated them.
Sometimes on Saturdays, my dad would take us to the local track to practice. A college track athlete, he was proud my sister and I were running “his” races. “These are gut races,” he told us. “They’re more about sheer guts than anything else.” I hated the fortune teller truth of his statement as every practice and every meet, I rediscovered how right he was because only sheer guts could keep my legs, numb for the last 100 meters, still sprinting toward a finish line I was almost too blind with nausea to see.
The best part of the race, however, was not the knowledge of our occasional win or even the record we broke my senior year. The best part was the complete bodily release that occurred after the desperate stumble over the finish line. I both craved and feared the involuntary rubbery collapse of legs and knees, the throat searing retching, then the slow settling of pulse and vision, the grassy knowledge of the soft field under my still body as my breath became even, as I realized I did not have to go back out there again for a long, long time.
I think of track as I bend over the toilet. I think of the throwing up, of numb legs pounding the last 100 meters. I think of Ellie watching me round the first stretch of this repair and the three Youtube tutorials I have watched as we load in the car en route to the hardware store where I buy supplies and take her to the bathroom. At home and still in my work slacks and heels and wedged between the wall and toilet, I long for the old relay team, for someone to hand-off the wrench to as I rip open the bag of parts I need to reseal the tank to the bowl.
Here are the facts: Ellie is watching TV, and I’m too tired to tell her to do homework. The light in the bathroom is weak, and I cannot see what I am reaching for. My solution to stack my thickest books on a chair and place a hurricane lantern at the top proves futile. From the living room, Ellie announces she is hungry for that promised spaghetti, and I can see nothing inside the grimy abyss of the toilet.
And then, my mom arrives.
How many times in any person’s life does the turning of some tide begin with the phrase “And then”? In my life, I can’t count the number of times “And then,” was followed by “mom.” I did not know she was there. She was stopping by to drop something off, and when I suddenly realized that I could see what I was doing, that I could make out the shadowy parts of the tank that needed replacing, I looked up in confusion. My mom was standing over me, holding the light.
As a writer and teacher, I spend a lot of time thinking about the power of books and characters and words to unveil a truth or beauty that the grinding familiarity of everyday life has veiled. I look to stories to illuminate paths through seasons of shadow and suffering. And as a person of faith in Christ, I often clutch what I can’t hold, truths and parables about incarnation and resurrection, to my imagination like members of the relay team I often need to help me finish off a hard run. But sometimes, a real flesh and blood person shows up in our story, takes up the baton, and helps us continue to rescue ourselves in all our numbness and queasiness so we can finish the last hundred yards of a hard day. Sometimes, Christ reveals himself in the skin of someone who didn’t even have to show up for you and did anyway.
These are the facts: The repair was not graceful, and someday, I may actually have to call a plumber. I used every towel in the house to sop up the water. My mother held the light. And my daughter bore witness to a moment of rescue, to the importance of holding the light for another fumbling through the dark.
Guest post written by Jill Reid. Jill is a poet and teacher who lives in Pineville, Louisiana with her daughter, Ellie, and nearly too many books to count. She earned her MFA in poetry from Seattle Pacific University and her M.A. from Baylor University. Some of her recent poems and essays can be read in The Missouri Review, Poetry Daily, Tupelo Quarterly, Ruminate Magazine, Relief Journal, and Off The Page.
Photo by Emily Gnetz.