The bedroom door cracks open a little before 5am. Mark is awake and out of bed already, and I’m pretty sure I already heard the coffee maker grinding beans a few minutes earlier. But he’s back now, standing in the doorway.
“Campbell?” He whispers, loudly enough to rouse me, stern enough to know that something serious is going on. “I need you.”
About a thousand things run through my mind, all of them tragic and scary, so that when he tells me that Maggie, our dog, has been sprayed by a skunk I sigh with relief (if not exasperation). I throw the blankets off, and step quickly to get to work.
And we do get to work. Triage the situation. Mix the hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish soap. Scrub, rinse, repeat. It’s cold outside; I worry that the sudsy puddle is going to freeze into an ice rink. Make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pack his work bag. Send Maggie to the basement to dry off until the sun comes out and she can be warm enough outside. Light the candles, burn the incense, throw the laundry in. Send Mark off to work. The rhythm of the work carries us, and we barely say a word. We’ve been partners in this work of life for long enough now.
Heat’s in the tools, Mark is always saying. He has these things he says, these trademark quips. Maybe it’s a fatherly thing, a piece of the brain that cracks open as these men grow into dads. Maybe not. But my dad had them, too, and I don’t remember Mark saying them when we were younger.
“The heat’s in the tools,” Mark says standing in the swirling snow that blows around him, sturdy and unmoved like the weight of a statue, ready to shovel the driveway. He says this to the complaining kids getting out of the car to begin a hike. Heat’s in the tools. I’m sure that he says this to the motley gang of guys that he oversees at the jobsite, each morning setting down his coffee and strapping on his tool belt, his breath puffing like cold clouds from his mouth. Get moving.
(Heat’s in the tools, he whispers to me, his breath warm on my face in the quiet moments alone, tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear, and I soften at his words).
And of course, he’s right. Soon enough I’m sloughing off my extra layers, setting my hat aside as the work of shoveling snow heats my core from the inside out. Once on the trail hiking, the kids no longer complain, but are engrossed in the tracks of the deer and dogs and boots printed into the mud. It’s the rhythm of the work that makes time pass, and the work of it that brings the glow and the sweat and the warmth.
This week I stepped up to coach Grant’s soccer team. They were low on volunteers and high on players, and so though I don’t have any coaching experience, I said yes. The heat is in the tools, I remind myself. I know a bit about the game and a lot about first graders and enthusiasm and teamwork, so while that first game might be cold and scary, I think I’ll get warm fast. Just get moving, right?
Mark’s quips don’t stop there. Rubbing is racing, that’s another. I guess it’s from the movie “Days of Thunder,” but I’ve never seen it. To me, it’s pure Mark.
Chasing the soccer ball down the backyard, with his hip pressed into Grant’s lithe body, he laughs out “rubbin’ is racin’, Grant!” He says it when he comes back from a trail run, mud splattered down his back, thorn pricks on his calves. He’ll say it with the corners of his mouth turning upward in a puckish grin, and I’ll know that he’s dancing that line of fair play, whatever the situation. He says it as he puts Band-Aids on the kids, or grabs ice packs to ease a bump, the simple results of playing and running and being a kid. He says it to me when I share a hurt feeling, a misunderstanding with a friend. Rubbing is racing, and life is nothing if not filled with friction.
“Every once in a while, a blind squirrel finds a nut.” This is probably Mark’s most used line. Humble at his core, he says it after someone gives him an ‘Atta boy, or a congratulations of some kind. He says it after he offers some useful information, or knows a bit about something, or fixes something. He says this when I thank him for something – “every once in a while…” He says it so much, actually, that I’m pretty certain that this squirrel is not so blind, but is a very good nut hunter.
I wonder how the kids will remember this. Doubtless, these word are a soundtrack of their childhood. There will be times when they will roll their eyes at these remarks. Mark might just sound like a corny dad, but he offers sage wisdom behind his witticism. All of these quips point us in the same direction: just get started, get moving, doing whatever it is that you’re going to do. There will be bumps, rubs, accidents, and you’ll be on both the giving and receiving ends. That mostly it’s work, and often you go at it blindly, not certain which direction is right. And then every once in a while…. it all falls into place.
And that you’ll always have a dad to remind you of these things.
Maggie was skunked about five years ago, too. Then I had a toddler and a newborn, and had never smelled the nauseatingly strong stench of fresh skunk spray. It was scarier, then, and harder. Mark was a servant hero, taking control and dealing with the situation. This time when it happened, we knew the recipe to mix the right de-skunking concoction. This time I was less panicky about the stink. This time, I threw open windows, begging the kids to put on sweatshirts, pulling blankets around my knees to let the brisk almost-spring air into the house. I know to expect that Maggie will have strange frosted tips, the result of the hydrogen peroxide on her black coat. This time, the blind squirrel knew to ask for help, and Mark and I did it together. I know by now that the heat is in the tools. That though it may painful and cold sometimes to get out of bed, I’ll be warmed by the work, whatever the work may be. I also know that rubbing is racing, and that life is a full contact sport. We’re going to end up with some scrapes and bruises (and sometimes a foul smelling dog), but the race is long, and I’ve got good teammates.
Today is the first day of spring, but it’s snowing here. Heat’s in the tools, friends, heat’s in the tools.