Early Father's Day

I had picked my son up earlier from his mother's house and we went to the beach to take in the early morning sights and smells. "Don't worry", his mother had said, "he was up sick all night but it looks like we're over the worst of it. He should be OK." He wasn't. We did have a nice short stay at the beach, but by the time we arrived back home he was feeling sick again. At the time he was just short of three years old and not clear on the signals that his body was sending him, so a direct hit into the toilet was only a fantasy of mine. We tried, but most of his food ended up on the carpet and spattered about the bathroom. As I tried to comfort him while keeping him focused on aiming into the toilet, I cursed the urge that had made me delve into the bathroom sink drain the night before. But there was no early warning system for projectile vomiting to let you know not to mess with the plumbing. So the bathroom sink was unusable since it drained to the floor.

I had planned a trip to Travel Town that day-- a place where there are old steam locomotives that you can climb all over. But now I was wishing desperately that I could snap my fingers and fix the bathroom sink. I should have expected the time of greatest need for the bathroom sink at the one time when it was out of commission. It was Murphy's Law, writ large in leaky and slow-draining old cast iron and brass. Chemical drain cleaners had been no use. The sink had been draining slower and slower and I had finally taken the trap off and tried to get a plumber's snake down the drain to unplug it. I had been unsuccessful the previous night until I gave up at 2AM, tired, blistered, and cut up about the knuckles.

The drain fittings I had taken off were so old, corroded, and bent out of shape that I couldn't get them back together without severe leaks, which is why I was running to the kitchen sink to rinse out the washcloth that I was using to clean up my son. My every trip to the kitchen was a trip of brief abandonment to him.

The hardware store is always a bonding experience between father and son, and so after the beach and before the vomit we had gone to buy new drain fittings. We'd walked around the large hardware store with a plastic juice pitcher at the ready to catch his barf, should he feel the need. No one there seemed to think it odd as I instructed him on how to use the pitcher-- it was Fathers Day, after all, a time for fathers to bond with their sons. We made it home cleanly with all new parts in heavy chromed brass.

Eventually my son napped, the worst of the mess was cleaned up, and I went back to trying to get the drain open with the plumber's snake. Drains grow this vile black goo that gets all over everything as you run the snake in and out: it covered my hands and arms and splashed onto every surface in sight. This is in addition to whatever noxious substances and smells you might imagine come from a drainpipe, not to mention the smell of remnant vomit. Suffice it to say that I felt almost, but not quite, covered in shit. I wrestled unsuccessfully with that plumber’s snake for a good 90 minutes and then I heard my son behind me. He leaned onto my aching back and breathed his vomit- and nap-smelling breath on my cheek as I wrestled one last time with the snake. I torqued it with frustration this way and that and finally pulled it out in disgust at my wasted effort. Lo and behold: on the end of the snake a small child's toy was skewered!! "Look at this!” I cried in my Eureka! voice. It was one of those things that little girls use to hold their hair back - two large yellow plastic flowers attached to each other by an elastic band. It had to have been there for years. We shared a few moments of victory that became even greater as I put the new drain pieces in place and verified that not only were there no leaks, but it drained very quickly.

This adventure in plumbing had awakened in me a dormant memory of watching my own father clean out the drains in an old house that we lived in when I was maybe a year or so older than my son. He too used a plumbers snake, got blisters, and banged up his knuckles. I probably leaned on his back, and breathed on his cheek, and I know that I thought he could fix anything wrong with the world, not just the plumbing. So I called him and tried to explain. I think he understood what I was trying to say: That the cross-generation bonding power of plumbing repairs with your son was stronger and more mystical than a phone call or a Hallmark card. That I relished being to my son what my father was to me. That I understood parenthood and childhood now from two different perspectives and that the understanding made life rich and flavorful. That the love for my father and for my son deepened and strengthened one another.

It was a good day for father-son bonding after all.

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