My husband, Jonathan, and I both had the kind of childhoods where we were left to look out for ourselves a lot. Not because we weren’t loved. We were, very much, and also well provided for. But in the houses where we were raised, there were larger issues that needed attention, and those concerns took priority.
When I was a little girl, my mother was consumed with keeping us safe from my father’s selfish cruelty and the repercussions of his philandering. And then later, after she kicked him out, she devoted herself to repairing the damage he’d left behind. She built a career, patched herself back together, paid off the debt he’d accumulated, met my stepfather, fell in love, bought a house, became a success. She was busy, yo. She had business to take care of.
In Jonathan’s house, his sister was fighting a battle with her own personal demons, which I won’t detail here because they are her business and she has been well for a long time. I bring it up only because her difficulties were paramount for many years, the most important thing in his family.
As a result, Jonathan and I both have a sort of patchwork understanding of what it means to be taken care of, to rely on another person to help solve problems. Neither one of us is very good at asking for help, preferring to gut things out on our own. And we share a specific kind of panic when things go awry, a knee-jerk, wide-eyed, deer in the headlights reaction that’s best summed up as, “Oh shit. Now what?” We’ll joke that we need an adult to come help us figure out what to make for dinner, deal with paperwork, make plans. We’re only sort of kidding.
On Christmas morning our heat broke. I’m not good with mechanical technology, so I’m not sure how best to explain what happened except to tell you it was extremely cold and when I moved the thingy on the thermostat there was no heat. Jonathan and I had one of those conversations where you keep a crazy-eyed smile on your face and pretend everything is fine because your kid is there, opening presents while wearing a parka and a hat, but really you are freaking the hell out because the heat is broken and it’s Christmas day and you need a grown up and that’s supposed to be you but you don’t know what the hell to do because all of a sudden you are 16 again and home alone with a situation that is way out of your league and probably this is going to cost all the money and then you will have to sell your apartment and live in a box. (Living in a box is my worst-case scenario and I tend to go there immediately when the slightest thing goes wrong.)
Eventually we remembered we have a management company for just this sort of occasion, so we emailed them. And then we remembered we have a building supervisor, so we called him. They both got back to us quickly, the management company offering the names and numbers of emergency plumbers. (Oh dear God, I thought, do you know how much a plumber will charge on Christmas???? We’ll be living in a box by New Year’s. LIVING IN A BOX.) Meanwhile, the Super generously volunteered to come over and see if there was anything he could do to help. But we were due to leave for Jonathan’s parents’ house in Connecticut in a few hours, and so we told the Super we’d call him when we returned on Friday.
We had a lovely, if slightly fretful (NO HEAT LIVING IN A BOX OUR CHILD WILL HAVE BLUE LIPS WHILE SHE SIPS ICY SKIM MILK FROM A TIN CUP WEARING FINGERLESS GLOVES OH GOD MY LIFE IS A DICKENS’ NOVEL), visit with Jonathan’s family, and then we returned to our freezing cold apartment on Friday night. We called the Super, who told us he’d “bled the whole floor” in our absence (I assume this is a heating related thing and not a reference to The Shining) and we should try turning on the heat and see if something happened. Nothing happened. We could hear water gurgling in the pipes but the baseboards stayed cold. We called back the Super and told him what was going on, and he gave us the number for a heating repair company and told us to call them, because it sounded like it might be a pilot light problem.
And that’s when it happened. That’s when I realized there ARE grown ups in our house, and everything was going to be fine.
Because when we bought the apartment I signed up for a service plan with the heating repair company the Super had just told us to call, and I knew where I’d filed the paperwork, and I’d paid the renewal on time, and when I called them they told me that because I’d purchased the cadillac plan, they’d be here first thing in the morning, and the repairs would be covered (by which I mean free, by which I mean there’s no need to pay them any money for this emergency repair service, so no living in a box, for now at least, and, pardon my digression, but this is why you should get the good insurance, everyone who asked my advice about which health plan to choose when we were doing open enrollment at work).
We had a chilly night, but it hardly mattered. I gave Emerson a steamy hot bath, dressed her in two pairs of pajamas and wrapped her in a fleece blanket, slept with my icy feet pressed against Jon’s warm legs all night (he’s part potbellied stove, I swear). This morning the repairman came and it was the pilot light, easily fixed. We gave him an exorbitant tip, what Jonathan calls the “relief tax.” The heat is now blasting and we’re all watching Batman: The Brave and The Bold on Netflix.
I know it doesn’t sound like much, particularly if you grew up in the kind of house where, if the heat went out, someone lit a fire and gave you a mug of hot chocolate to wrap your cold hands around while they made things right again. Where your worries were appropriately sized. But for us, kids who had to figure out grown up things, who had to bandage our own wounds and soothe our own hurts, fix what was broken on our own as best we could and instinctively knew not to ask for much from the exhausted, preoccupied people around us, it is deeply comforting to know that there are finally grown ups at home. Two of them, even. And while we may be watching cartoons and eating cake for breakfast, all is well here. All is safe, and whole, and warm.