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Anatomy of a breakdown

The Tuesday before school started, the washing machine quit. Just like that, it went ominously silent —halfway through a big load. 


Older than many of my colleagues and twice as old as my marriage, I think the washer dates to the era of Ronald Reagan’s first term.


And I was not ready for that era to end. So I did what any man would do: I closed the lid on the machine, shut the laundry closet door tightly, and walked away.    


Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday came and went and — oh happiness! — my dear, beautiful wife did not discover the warming vat of cloudy water upstairs.  


That Friday, she called me at work. I had a sudden premonition that the other shoe was dropping. I was right. She matter-of-factly informed me that we’d need to ask the neighbors if we could do laundry at their place.    


With the threat of my neighbors handling my smelly socks, it was time to act. Saturday morning, my friend who can fix anything coached me over the phone through a few possible fixes on the water level switch, lid and belt. I did as he ordered — and nothing.   


After 30 minutes I hung up on my friend and kicked the machine. I was beginning to resent its silence. And now my big toe hurt. My friend is smart, patient and has fixed many things. I, on the other hand, favor a more primal and direct form of communication with machines. When he told me to tap lightly on a certain part with a screwdriver, nothing happened. So I found a hammer. A hose promptly came off, releasing a gallon of fetid water directly onto an electric coil before I could stop it.  


The Reagan era was officially over. After scooping gallons of foul water out of the machine, I dragged it to the top of the staircase. At this point, perhaps I gave my children a lasting memory. As I manipulated the 200-pound machine down the stairs, it tipped sideways, releasing previously hidden gallons of water onto my head that quickly pooled at the base of the stairs.  


We get so busy.


Things break in our lives, and we (or at least some of us guys) shut the lid and walk away. People around us get worn down. We have chances to notice this, but for whatever reason, we don’t. We delay going to confession. And then one day, we find ourselves standing in a putrid puddle at the bottom of the staircase, wondering how it came to this.  


Before we could even stop by to work on the laundry we’d dropped off, our neighbors had washed, dried, sorted and folded three clean loads in neat piles, one for each child (and mom and dad too). Not only that, but they handed us some fresh homemade biscotti for the kids’ first day of school.


Things break in our lives. Our pride and laziness conspire to leave us isolated with our wounds. To make the repair I will need to ask for help. I will need to admit a shortcoming. We choose to live with the odors of our own worsening and “private” weaknesses — trapped behind closed doors — rather than ask for help.


Early that back-to-school week I bought a new washer and installed it. This one belongs to a new era — of digital screens, sensors, and energy efficiency.


In 1890, my great-grandmother emigrated from Sweden at the age of 12 with only her sister and took jobs for the next 30 years cleaning and doing laundry in the homes of the wealthy. “I never had a washing machine,” Nanny recalled late in life, reflecting on her own family and household. “I could have had it, I’m sure, but I never dared to go into debt for things.”


Her well-worn Bible rests in our family prayer corner. When I hold its leather cover, I can smell her hands, her strong hands which washed and folded so many clothes through the decades.


In our world of screens, her Bible reminds me to slow down. To look up. To admit wounds. To make repairs. And to always accept the grace that beckons in my neighbor’s kindness and which flows so abundantly from the Giver of all grace.  


Johnson, a husband and father of five, is the bishop’s Delegate for Evangelization and Media.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016