The youngest child was taken ill today, and now after supper she is still on the couch, my wife having just read her a story and rubbed her feet. The sick bay is awash in books and drawing supplies and crumpled tissues and half emptied mugs of tea gone cold. I can hear the soft voice of the tot as she murmurs to her mother, and I offer up the universal silent prayer of every parent, that the child might rest well and take what cures sleep will provide. Sometimes you feel yourself leaning toward sunrise.
For now, our little family of four is quiet in the house, so quiet I can hear the tick, tick of the woodstove as the flames agitate its molecules, and the click of my laptop keys as I try to set this little scene. The elder daughter is poring over homework in her late great-grandmother’s recliner, an abrasively upholstered clunker I can only assume was the pride of the furniture showroom floor for about five minutes in 1972. The chair matches nothing in the house but so perfectly conveys our memories of the departed matriarch that we can’t imagine the place without it. It is also my second favorite nap chair, particularly right after lunch on winter afternoons, when through strategic positioning I can warm my balding head with the sun angling through the south-facing window even as the woodstove toasts my feet. (My favorite nap chair is an old green heap in my office above the garage. That one came from another great-grandmother, dates back to the 50s, and during cool, rainy spells, kinda smells like it.)
While I normally write in the garage room, it’s nice to be in the house with the rest of the crew on a night like this, just Dad on deadline, over here on the couch in the corner, wearing my reading glasses and slippers, contentedly un-hip (hip being something I never really was very good at, despite parachute pants and a righteous mullet in the late 1980s) (any remaining hipness pretensions died for good right about the time I started loading diaper bags into a minivan — or perhaps even earlier, in my late 30s, when I first really got into all the chair napping). The slippers were a gift from my mother-in-law, given early in my marriage to her daughter. I remember peeling back the gift wrap and thinking I wasn’t a slipper guy, but now I actually look forward to wearing them come cold weather, because if I’m wearing them I’m in the house, and things are settled and good. You don’t wear slippers when you’re on the run. I have one other pair in my office. Those are a gift from a kind reader, and I wear them only after I have put in my minimum daily mileage on the treadmill desk, yet another concession to self-preservation over style.
There are more sounds, each of a settling sort: The hum of the refrigerator. The rhythmic, watery dishwasher muffle. The low rumble from a pot atop the woodstove, filled with vegetable trimmings softening up in advance of being fed to our chickens, currently fluffed and roosting in the coop. The sounds are backdrop and domestic, deepening the feeling that in this moment we — the family — are in communion despite our silence.
Beyond that, I have no grand pronouncement. No grand conclusion. No charge to offer, no punchy quip or goof to drop. We cannot know what the morning will bring. I hope the sick child will feel better. I hope my wife will wake feeling deservedly rested. I hope decades from now the teenager will remember a comfort in this, the most unassuming sort of evening. Joy is elusive, and joy is fleeting. And yet — and this may be the premise of a riddle — those who chase it rarely catch it. Perhaps it is best pursued in worn slippers and old chairs, and best experienced not in some jubilant instant, but rather the most unassuming quotidian hour.