I waited until now to tell you this story because it happened last Christmas, and the weekend was so achy that it has taken me this long to get my thoughts together.

Here’s what happened: I was having that cliché day that we all talk about. It’s Christmas. Most of the daughters, their whining and useless husbands (I say that with great affection), and our beloved (but screeching) grandchildren are all here. Our house, which has the same birthday as I do, has no basement, nor does it have a garage, which means I have no tools. To enter our boiler room, such as it is, I have to go outside and yank on an out-swing door. So that’s what I did. I don’t know why I opened that door. I just did. And besides, it’s Christmas. What could possibly go wrong?

I peek in and see the ceiling, which is now lying on the pipes that run up into a second-floor closet, which is where our indirect water heater resides. Rock wool, one of the nastiest substances on the planet, is all over the boiler. The ceiling is lying on the copper pipes because something up inside that mess has developed an insidious leak. I know this because the rock wool, Circa-1950, is soaked. It’s lying atop what may have once been sheetrock. It looks like evil oatmeal.

But since I have no tools, and because I am a man of a certain age with a house filled with people who are lounging on couches and staring at screens, as is their right on Christmas Day even though this is what they do on most every other day, I call our oil company.

It’s Christmas Day; sure, I get that. But it is also nearly 70°F, which is the true blessing. There are two service techs on call. One of them shows up at my house within an hour. It’s a modern miracle. And I know this guy. He has tools. He’s a fine man. He looks at the boiler-room ceiling, which looks like a homeless guy’s drawers, and says, “This is bad.” I nod in agreement. “You have an indirect up there on the second floor, right?” I nod. “This is real bad,” he says. I nod. He nods. We go upstairs.

Now, this is where it gets good. One of our guests today happens to be my sister-in-law, Michelle, who is 51 years old and has Down syndrome. Michelle lived with us for eight years after her mother died, leaving only when our daughters went off to get married to the useless men. Michelle told The Lovely Marianne and me that she now wanted to live in a group home with her friends because we were “old and boring,” an accusation to which we both plead guilty.

So off she went, but when we bring her here each week for dinner, this room that we’re in, the one with the indirect in the closet, is still her room. We could sell the house 10 times. It wouldn’t matter. Michelle would just knock on the front door and tell the new owners that that room upstairs is still hers. Then she’d shove them aside and go upstairs and plug in her earphones and stare at Lionel Richie on her Kindle Fire screen. Don’t bother me.


Finding the problem

So my magnificent heating technician, this man who arrived within an hour of my call for help, is cutting insulation off of pipes to find the leak. Michelle is sitting on her bed, four feet away from the guy, asking him over and over again whether he’s done yet. Done yet? Done yet? Done yet? Me, she doesn’t talk to. She’s aggravated with me because I let this guy into her room.

Meanwhile, the daughters and their whining, useless husbands are watching screens. The beloved grandchildren are ripping ornaments off the tree and looking for bobby pins to stick into electrical outlets. And did I mention that the eldest daughter brought her 65-pound boxer along for the weekend? The Lovely Marianne thinks animals are for eating. The boxer senses this and runs right through the sliding back door’s screen.

Least of my problems, right? But about that pinhole in the copper.

This is the sixth time we’ve had this problem. Two times it happened in the heating pipes that live in the concrete in front of the doors, but that was years ago. The last four times have happened in as many years, and always on the cold-water domestic lines, and always in the worst places. Two times it was under the floor. In Michelle’s room, of course. Once was inside the closet and behind the indirect, which was there before the closet, so even Twiggy couldn’t squeeze back there to fix it. My magnificent oil guys replaced that piece of copper with some PEX prestidigitation that continues to amaze me.

The Christmas pinhole was in the tubing, right near the floor. Now all we needed was some 3/4-in. Type M copper tubing, which you would think would be on the truck, but this being Christmas, and my luck being what it is, there was only Type L. The other guy working that day didn’t have any Type M either, so off my magnificent man went to get some M from the shop. He returned 90 minutes later and all was well with the world.

The family, of course, had gone off to my brother’s house for a big dinner and good times. No reason at all for them to share in my misery. And besides, having them go off to have Christmas fun while I wait for the copper to arrive just makes the story better, doesn’t it?


Next on the list

The following morning, I went out for a long walk at dawn and thought about how wonderful it is to have the family gathered, and how none of our problems are really big problems. My father, wise man that he was, and may he rest in peace, used to say, “Kid, if money can fix it, it ain’t a problem.”

To which I would comment, “If you have the money.”

And he would say, “Yeah, there’s that.”

So I return from my long walk, all sweaty because this is the warmest day after Christmas in recorded history. I walk into the house. Everyone is awake and staring at screens. I get a ladder and go out into our tiny boiler room to deal with the ceiling situation. I put on work gloves. I think for a moment that I should get a mask to put over my mouth before I reach up there, but that would involve me going to the Big Box store, and that place would be crowded with miserable people returning gifts. And have you ever noticed how easy it is to talk yourself into feeling OK about doing something that’s not really OK when you’re all by yourself up on a ladder?

That was me. I shrugged and reached up to touch what appeared to be a large square of sheetrock supporting a few pounds of 65-year-old rock wool. I gave it a tug and that sheetrock liquefied in my hand, opening the trapdoor for the rock wool, which made like it was already New Year’s Eve.

You ever breathe in that stuff? It doesn’t go down well.

So I’m on the ladder, choking and puking and trying not to fall off. The Lovely Marianne shows up, as does one of the least-useless sons-in-law. They see me and express concern. I’m trying to wave them off because I don’t yet understand the chemical makeup of rock wool. I’m gagging and waving. The stuff is everywhere. The boiler room looks like Beijing. I’m waving and they think I’m playing charades. They keep asking me questions I can’t answer right then because of the puking. What? What? What’s he saying?

So, I don’t die and that’s good, and most of the family never has to look away from their screens, so they weren’t inconvenienced. We had a lovely rest of the day, although the boxer did crash through the screen door again. My fault for closing it. I fixed it a week later and wired it to an electrical outlet.

Not really, but you know what I mean.

That evening, the blessed day after Christmas, one of the daughters is doing some laundry up there on the second floor because we don’t have a basement. “Dad,” she says, “the floor in the laundry room is soaking wet.

I move the machine. It’s not the hoses. It’s a seal.

“How am I supposed to finish the laundry?” she asks.

I shrug and head for the liquor cabinet.