No Hiding from the Hardest Jobs

It’s ten minutes to midnight when the thought occurs to me: This is what we get paid for.

Ursula and I are standing barefoot in the kids’ room, dripping sweat and mopping up vomit. These are the final minutes of the Fourth of July. Everyone has gone to bed late, exhausted, and, apparently, undigested.

There is a bunk bed involved. The sick guy is on top. Most of the contents of his incredibly small stomach has gone over the edge, but some hasn’t. Some has gone on the wall; some has gone on the mattress; some has gone on his books and toys. This adds a degree of difficulty to the cleanup.

One of the cleaner-uppers is feeling frustrated—and selfish. It’s me. I want to close the door and leave the whole mess until the morning. I want to say, “Oh, well, I guess this room is off-limits forever now.”

Slammo. Night night.

I’m stuck. There are a thousand places I’d rather be—mostly my own bed, where I was winks away from sleep just moments ago. There are a hundred thousand things I’d rather be doing.

I can’t do them. I have to do this.

We’ve been married for nearly 15 years. This isn’t our first barf-o-rama. But Ursula is eight-months’ pregnant and doing much of the work herself. I’m mostly fetching things. Responding to commands. Grumbling about the unluckiness of this awful, unbidden thing.

What did we do to deserve this? Why can’t we just have a normal life, with normal hard things to do, like mowing the lawn or planning vacations or opening sticky pickle jars? Why do we have to have ghastly hard things to do, like cleaning vomit off bunk beds, books, and toys during the wee small hours?

I look at my wife, on her hands and knees, scrubbing the children’s mattresses like a lowly washer woman. I look at myself, standing in my t-shirt and underpants, loading up the Swiffer WetJet with a cartridge of multi-purpose floor cleaner solution.

And I think: This is what we get paid for.

Actors have a joke. Their large salaries, they say, are for all the waiting around they do on movie sets. The few moments when they actually get to perform in front of the camera are done gratis.

That’s the good stuff, they say. That’s the fun. We do that for free.

You get paid for the stuff you don’t enjoy, not the stuff you do.

For parents, it begins at the beginning, with the diaper changes and midnight feedings. No one else can do it. Only you. You are the daddy. You are the mommy. This is your baby, in your house, on your changing table.

But baby bouncing and diaper wiping are only appetizers for a 20 year-meal that you make and pay for yourself. You also get to do the dishes and take out the trash. If you don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Personally, I’ve killed many bugs that I would’ve preferred not to tangle with. There have been boiler explosions, loud parties in the neighborhood, and toilet-plunging emergencies.

I wanted none of all of it. But that’s what I get paid for.

My parents didn’t want to go to the emergency room that time I split my head open on the radiator. My sisters didn’t want to nurse my sick and helpless mother during her last days. My priest friends don’t want to visit families who have lost loved ones.

But that’s what they get paid for. That’s what all of us get paid for.

The other stuff—the birthdays and basketball games, the first communions and confirmations, the summer afternoons at the pool, the fireworks on the Fourth of July—that’s the good stuff.

We don’t get paid for that. We do that for free.

From the July/August issue of Fairfield County Catholic.

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