An Unexpected Anthem
I didn’t notice that it sounded like a french horn until our oldest son joined the band and started to play one, and now when the toilet makes its groaning call at the end of its work, I often think for a moment that it is our son practicing in the next room. I stop to hear the next note that will be produced only to realize, sheepishly, that it was the old, broken toilet calling out for repair or blessed retirement. We shake our heads when we hear it, both hoping the sound will go away on its own without one of us having to get elbow deep in the tank of the old thing.
Over time it becomes, like so many other things, just one note in the symphony of our particular brand of domestic bliss. It is intertwined with the real french horn notes being played downstairs in the living room, and with the constant vowel-y vocalizations made by our son with Down syndrome, the repetitive, unconsciousness “uh uh uh” sound he makes sometimes for hours at a time. And with the high-pitched voice of our 3 year old, a relentless addition to the mix that vacillates between calling for our attention, making various demands, and singing Beatles songs, usually nailing the melody and butchering the lyrics with complete abandon.
The rhythm section is a layered piece: the percussive hum of the dishwasher is drowned out by the dog scratching on the back door, which is in turn drowned out by the sound of the ice maker spitting ice into a cup. Doors slam, feet pound on the stairs, and the fall decoration on the front door is banged around by the wind as if someone is knocking frantically to come in.
This song has been played so long in our home that it wouldn't even feel like home without the endless, jarring symphony. But some days I notice it more, like today when my own dear duet partner turns 40. Yes, the big 4-0. And on these days of marked transition, I stop and notice the music of our life together a little more, listen in a little closer to the sounds that make up our wonderful, chaotic little world.
When someone asked that sweet husband of mine how he was planning to spend the first day of his forties, he answered “pretty much like I spent every day of my thirties.” Up to feed children breakfast, to pack bags, to make school drop offs, then off to swing by the grocery store, to return the library books, back home to put little ones down for a nap, to tiptoe downstairs and start on dinner prep, stopping to clean up the pile of legos left out. On and on, the constant motion of parenthood, cleaning and cooking and holding and singing, kissing scraped knees and reading illustrated storybooks. Scrubbing the singing toilet yet again. Mowing the grass and chasing ants around the yard, never able to eradicate their infiltration altogether.
And I suppose some men might look at that decade of sacred work and fear that it lacked importance. There are no awards won for the long days and long nights spent raising our family. There are no raises. No fancy titles. More often than not, his best work is rewarded with a blank stare or a tantrum or a slammed door.
And though Sam has never thought that way, thank goodness, I can’t help but be reminded myself just what a remarkable life he’s had and what an unforgettable impact he’s made. Every kitchen dance party, every letter and word taught to a tiny sponge-like mind, every telling and retelling of the Lord of the Rings. Every first smile and first step he watched for me, for us, while I was away. Every hand-crafted meal he’s served with love, every toilet he’s scrubbed, every bug he’s hunted down and killed because someone (okay, me) was afraid of it. Every time he’s warmed my feet at night, or helped me climb out of a hospital bed after a c-section, or listened to me talk for hours and assured me yet again that it was all going to be okay.
We love to venerate mothers, and with good cause, but there aren’t many anthems written to honor men who give their lives to the work of raising a family. You don’t see a lot of heart tattoos with dad written across them. You don’t hear about many men's groups where stay-at-home dads can meet over coffee on a weekday morning. Not a lot of poems thanking dads for their tireless work and selfless devotion.
Unlike the noisy artifacts of our daily lives, the great work that Sam has been accomplishing this past decade (and change) is a quiet, unheralded labor of love. It does not come with fanfare but with a strange and rumbling symphony of lives in motion, movement after movement of the pieces of our family and our home crying out for attention, affection, repair, or assistance.
The old toilet in the master bathroom makes a sound like a french horn, and someone downstairs calls out for more milk, and the dog jumps off the bed with a thud, and the alarm chirps, and a door that needs to be oiled creaks open down the hall. And it’s not enough, not nearly grand enough to celebrate the man he is, but it is an anthem of sorts, the symphony he’s been conducting patiently year after year. It’s our own never-ending song that we’ve made and we are making, with him running strong and unbreakable through everything like the staff upon which all of our music is written. I hope, even though it’s nowhere near the tribute he deserves, that he takes pride in the growing crescendo of it all, hope his heart grows warm at the unparalleled beauty of the sound, hope that the strange loveliness of the work he’s been doing reminds him that he never needs to ask where the years have gone or what he has done with himself these four decades.
For myself, I know the sound is sweeter on days like today. Days when we get to celebrate a life well lived, days when I get to bask in the downright luxurious privilege of growing up and (getting a start on) growing old with my love. I hear the noise of a hectic life, and it fills me with joy and with gratitude. Rather than longing for the days of peace and quiet, I lean into the glorious cacophony of now. I dream of growing into each other more and more so that, as each little instrument in our rowdy symphony is peeled away, as children leave and dogs die and dishwashers get replaced with newer, quieter models, and as we’re finally left with just the music we make together, we’ll have held on so tight to each other that what began as a duet comes out as unison in the end.