Quietly Running Taps
That it took me by surprise, I can only explain this way: I'm the oldest of three girls; children of only children. My sisters and I grew up with no cousins or uncles. My father traveled in the Arctic from May to October . Our household was usually my mother, my sisters, my great aunt, a female cat and myself. Most of the children I baby-sat were girls. I had no experience of boys at all before our hyperactive first son Andrew was born. I had no inkling of how a little boy's mind works and I still never quite know what they'll do next.
The stories that my husband Peter's family tells about itself had given me some idea of what to expect though. My father-in-law was shot through the leg with a .22 while playing cops and robbers when he was thirteen. His brothers sent a truck tire through a department store window when a game on a steep hill got out of hand. Peter set the garage on fire while filling a gas lawnmower when he was about twelve. At the same age, he climbed a tree carrying his large (and increasingly agitated) German Shepherd. My militia brother-in-law put his foot through the floor practicing marching when he was seventeen. My husband's other brother, in a hurry to catch the school-bus, left a cat, a dog, and a squirrel in a live trap in the living room all day (though the squirrel didn't stay in the live trap and the animals didn't stay in the living room). As I told a father of two young boys a few weeks ago, "Don't get too fond of your furniture."
I guess that's why it was such a shock when eight year old Andrew flooded the house. I'd expected something, probably involving bandages, but not this. All I could think was, "The Old Testament has a flood story and now so do we." The thing is, God had a reason for His flood. Well, Andrew had a reason too, but it wasn't a very good one.
We left the house on a summer Saturday morning to spend the weekend visiting grandparents. Peter and I always do a last minute check through the house, for safety's sake, making sure that windows are closed and locked, and that appliances are safely turned off. We returned early, in time for the last Sunday Mass at our home parish. Andrew met a school friend at church and asked to go home with Billy to play for the afternoon.
Peter is always the first to go into the house while I start to unload the car. When he came back to the car (too soon, I thought), he asked if I was tired.
"No" I said; "Not especially, why?"
"Well, Cat, you've had a rough week and I just thought maybe you'd like to go and visit your mother."
"Peter, I know you too well for this to work. What's wrong? Was the house broken in? Is it a mess? What?!!"
"No, the house wasn't broken into exactly, it's just sort of...wet in there and I thought maybe you'd like to go see your mother." (The poor man was making a desperate attempt to save us all from what was coming. Total Mom Meltdown.) "You don't want to see it - really."
Of course, I had to see for myself. I ran across the driveway and up to the house. As soon as I got to the front door, I heard the most sickening sound. It was the sound of water pouring from the ceiling onto a sodden carpet already dark with water and littered with the remains of the living room ceiling. I screamed, and a piece of plaster peeled off the wall and splashed on the floor.
Peter joined me at the front door, keeping up his effort to steer me from hysterics. "I told you didn't want to see it. You can still go visit your mother." I ignored him.
Obviously the water was coming from the bathroom, so I ran up the stairs. I screamed again. It was worse upstairs. The bathroom was at least an inch deep in water and floating vinyl tiles. There was a stream running from the bathroom across the hall and disappearing into gaps between the warped and curled hardwood flooring of our bedroom. My beautiful bedroom floor looked like wood tone corrugated roofing. I waded into the bathroom. A tap was quietly running into an overflowing sink.
The sink was overflowing because the plug was in the drain and a face cloth was blocking the overflow drain. I thought some child must have (uncharacteristically) been washing his face before we left for our visit, and the cloth had floated against the overflow drain. (You see how innocent an all-girls childhood can leave you?)
The mess was indescribable, almost impenetrable in its totality. There were puddles in the basement. The bookcase in the living room was bursting from the pressure of sodden swollen books. The weight of wet curtains had pulled the curtain tracks out of the walls. The plaster on the walls was so soft, you could sink your finger into them and they flowed and slumped like melting ice-cream.
Peter and I moved the furniture into the only dry room left on the ground floor; the kitchen. (I cooked around my living room furniture for the next six weeks.) We borrowed a wet vacuum machine and sucked up twenty gallons of water before we acknowledged defeat, ripped up the carpet and pushed it out the window. The children carried their sopping toys out of the basement and arranged them on the back lawn to dry. All the while, my mind was running in helpless circles, like a panicked mouse, trying to figure out HOW this had happened, and what to do next.
It wasn't until I went to pick up Andrew at Billy's house, still shaking from the shock and the exertion of pulling up the wet living room carpet that I learned the truth. I apologized to Andrew for hurrying him and explained it was because we had a bit of a problem at home, a tap had accidentally been left running and the house was a total mess.
"Oh. No." Andrew said softly to himself.
"Oh no? What do you mean - Oh no?" I demanded. Andrew sank lower into the car seat.
"Oh Andrew, don't tell me you did this." I pleaded.
"Well, yes Mom. I did do it." He confessed, "I'm really sorry."
"But Andrew. Why!? I don't understand, why would you do something like that?" I wailed, struggling between keeping my mind on driving the car and wanting to throttle him.
"I just wanted to see what would happen."
It really isn't a very good reason, is it? Still, it's all the reason he could ever give. He was horrified when he saw the state of the house, he offered to sell all his possessions to pay the damages, he helped late into the night moving furniture and carrying out wet plaster. He and the rest of the family lived with the inconvenience of the long cleanup, the unpredictable coming and going of carpenters, plasters, and carpet layers. As much as he tried, he could never explain it any better than that first desperate confession. He wondered what would happen and being unable to visualize it, opted for the experimental method.
It took me years to be able to see this story for anything more than an addition to the Fournier legends, but recently I began to understand it differently. One of our family Advent readings was the story of Noah's Ark. I suddenly saw a similarity between Andrew's ineffectual explanation and the genesis of sin, the persistence of sin that so outraged God that He sent a Flood to wash all mortal life away.
"When the LORD saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved." (Genesis 6: 5-6.)
Andrew is a clever boy. He imagined a situation and wondered what would happen. Because of his age and his temperament, he couldn't visualize the consequences, so he decided to experiment. He followed his own will and his own judgment. The results were disastrous.
Our free will and intellect, given to us by God, make us able to imagine all kinds of situations - "desire that his heart conceived". We wonder what will happen if we act upon those impulses, but since as heirs of Original Sin we have inherited imperfect bodies, intellect and will, it is not within our power to be aware of all the physical, mental and spiritual ramifications of our actions. It is easy to decide that they do not exist at all. This is called pride. In pride we decide to follow our own will and judgment. The results are just as disastrous as Andrew's experiment.
Of course, we can try very hard on our own to avoid mistakes - or rather, what we are able to perceive as mistakes - harm to others, to ourselves, to our environment and future generations. We can resolve to think and act carefully and compassionately, to rely on the judgment of the great minds of the world. Our society is currently tripping over its own feet in an effort not to wrong - as it perceives wrong - not to offend, not to oppress, not to damage.
We can admit that we have made mistakes and erred in the past. Our society is legislating equality, shipping peacekeeping missions all over the world, and sending out the thought police to monitor speech and smoking in public places. We can even resolve to change our habits and repair our ignorance so that we will avoid wrongdoing in the future. Re-education programs in the media, in the classroom, and in the work place are all trying to teach us to be better people.
No matter how hard we try, our efforts will always fail to create a perfectly balanced, finally peaceful society. In pride we're following our own will and judgment, trying to learn solely from our own mistakes.
Even though history makes it quite clear that we have never done a good job of learning from mistakes, especially the mistakes of others: Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Evil; Noah and his family were the only survivors of the Flood; Moses had to get two copies of the Ten Commandments; the Chosen People lost Jerusalem - how many times?; states have tried to govern without God and have fallen; Nazism, fascism, and communism were recognized as evil and fought against in great and tragic wars, yet wearing modern disguises, they are on the rise again; Humanae Vitae was written in 1968 confirming what was already well known and yet I had to learn for myself that you cannot contracept within a sacramental marriage.
When Andrew imagined the situation of the plug, the face cloth, and the quietly running tap and wondered what would happen, he thought he had two choices. Since he couldn't visualize the results, he could either leave the puzzle, or solve it through experimentation. Andrew forgot that he had a third option. He could have asked us. We knew what would happen, we could have explained it to him, and given him many reasons not to do it.
It's very funny (now) to tell of the little boy who briefly considered and impulsively acted. An innocent child, barely at an age to be responsible for his actions, made a big mistake. There is no culpability in the story, there hardly seems to be any point in telling it except for its humour.
Yet, isn't this what sin is?, wondering what will happen and opting for the experimental method?
We are not innocent children and we are responsible for our actions and all the consequences, seen and unseen. Our culpability lies in the fact that in pride we forget that we too have a third option. "No desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil." We sin as easily as we think, especially when we make the mistake of thinking that we can decide the ethical and moral value of an action based solely on what we can visualize and perceive for ourselves.
Peter and I are Andrew's parents. We love and watch over him. It is our job to raise him to be a responsible, faithful adult. We want him to enjoy Heaven someday. We are teaching him (in no small part through disasters like the house flood) that he should turn to us for guidance.
We are God's children, His creation. He wants us to enjoy Heaven with Him someday. As our Father, we can always ask Him for guidance. He gave us the Ten Commandments to follow, he sent us His Son to show us the way, and He invested the Church with the Holy Spirit to continue to guide and protect us. No matter is too big or too small for God to consider, no problem too complicated, no interruption so trivial that He does not want us to bring it to Him.
The Gospel last Sunday told the parable of the mustard seed, how great things grow from small beginnings. A seed will grow unnoticed and mature in its own time, until ready for the harvest, and we should not be surprised when the time for harvesting arrives. Father Dan said in his homily that, " A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step" and that, "One lie, told in haste, can lead to a life of deception."
To which I would like to add, "One drop begins a flood." Andrew's experimentation has shown me that it's not so much the great sins that we have to guard against in ourselves. It's the small acts of pride, the tiny impulsive actions taken without remembering our third option that are so very dangerous, because they lead to bigger things. Each little sin numbs us to the next one, drowns out the voice of conscience, and finally chokes off our awareness of sin. The daily barely noticed venial sins; the little bursts of impatience, the small flare of doubt, the persistent temptations and destructive habits - are all quietly running taps.
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