WRITTEN BY PAYTON DENNEY
Our dog will not stop rolling in poop. Each day she takes to the field behind our house, finds the largest, most foul pile available, drops and rolls. She then trots back to the house like she’s just finished first place in the Boston Marathon. She has yet to understand that a successful dookie rolling is not met with pomp and circumstance.
Scrubbing the nasty off the dog is one of many tasks that I regularly perform as the spouse of a first responder. When I agreed to this life 16 years ago, I had visions of grandeur: heroic rescues and sexy uniforms. And while those elements of the job do exist, there are parts I didn’t anticipate.
When I was 7, I told my teacher and my classmates that my father was a firefighter. I went as far as to say that he hung his boots and hat in the entryway closet at home. You can imagine everyone’s surprise when my dad showed up for show and tell with his coin collection. You can’t blame a girl for dreaming.
Then I married Pat Denney, and my dream came true. I left my wedding reception in a vintage firetruck. Pat gave me his St Florian necklace to wear for his protection while on duty. I was officially in the club.
It didn’t take long however, for me to realize that the electricity will go out and the toilet handle will break while he’s at work. Anniversaries and holidays continue to happen even if C shift is on. Occasionally I need to discuss important matters over the phone, but inevitably we will be interrupted by the bell.
Early in our marriage, the issues caused by his shift work were seldom and minor. Then we had kids — a lot of kids born closely together. I was outnumbered. As Pat would leave for work, he would have to pry my grip from around his neck. Sometimes if he was too quick to snatch, I would hang onto his leg. “Don’t leave me with them!” I would plead. “They are so scary.” But duty called.
To date the “kiddo projects” inflicted upon me are too numerous to count. There’s been diaper rash cream tubes emptied and smashed into carpet. Koko took the return address stamper and made an art mural up the wall in the stairway. That was after he used the tweezers on the flat screen TV. Dylan converted her bathtub into a potion-making station which clogs up regularly.
My cabinets are peppered with dents from matchbox car chases. Underwear hangs from fan blades. Cheetos are smashed in the couch cushions. Someone tee teed in the closet. Every now and then, Pat will have a momentary lapse in judgment and ask me why the house isn’t clean. Disaster camouflaged as creativity followed by clean-up is our rhythm.
I coached myself through those early years with the hope that the challenges of first responder wife parenting would get easier as the kids aged. That has not been the case. As of late, Koko about burned the house down when he decided to melt his Lego men in his bathroom. In all fairness, my instructions to him before going to sleep was “please do not burn things on the front porch.” We are working on our communication.
I make no excuses about the fact that I am a kept woman. However, I have had to learn a few basic survival skills, such as how to dislodge a roofing nail from the garbage disposal. I’ve also learned that warm baths can happen without electricity as long as you have a large pot full of water and a gas range. I’m still working on a strategy for keeping all three kids from getting the stomach bug at shift change.
I have learned that being the nice parent has gotten me nowhere. As it turns out, I’m an easy target. What my kids weren’t aware of until just recently is that I am skilled in taking a door off its hinges. I also know how to change wifi passwords. But most importantly, I make the grocery list. That one will get a person where it hurts.
The drama in Pat’s absence is not caused by the kids alone. I have a very bad habit of losing my keys. Once I lost them for over a week. Not wanting to admit my mistake to Pat, I diligently searched for them each day until one afternoon when Pat said, “You’ve lost your keys again, haven’t you?”
Hanging my head in defeat, I admitted that I had. To make matters worse, that key ring held the keys to my house and my office. Pat was not happy. A few hours later, Pat sent me a screen shot of a post from the Town of Stonewall Facebook page. It was a picture of my keys. They had been found by strangers. We would not be getting them back before nightfall.
The remainder of my evening was filled with preparations for the following day. We crawled in bed and turned out the lights. Around 2am, I woke. I lay there a few minutes hoping to fall back to sleep. Nothing, so I got up and went to check on the kids. All were sleeping soundly. As I went to climb back into bed, the house alarm began to shriek.
I panicked, “It’s happening! The finder of the lost keys has broken in and is coming to kill me!” I ran around in circles in my bedroom. “What do I do? What’s the code to the gun safe?!”
The phone rang. It was the alarm monitoring company. “Mrs. Denney?”
Alarm company, “We see that your alarm has been tripped? Did you set it off?”
Me, “No! I lost my keys. Someone found them. And now they are coming to get me!”
Alarm company, “Excuse me ma’am. What?”
To which I repeated myself.
Alarm company, “Do you want me to send the police?”
Me, still running in circles, “Yes, please. Right now!”
I sure hope that the cop who showed up and paraded through my house wasn’t a single rookie, because, if so, he may never get married. I opened that door in my ratty nightshirt, bedhead and halitosis talking 90 to nothing. I was not a good representation for my fellow females, and for that I am ashamed. I’m pretty sure my address has now been flagged on their wacko lady house list.
There was no one in the house. The upstairs window sensor was faulty, but I lost a few years off my life that night due to the tripped alarm while Pat was on duty.
When our daddy is home, things fall into place. We sleep better. We’re complete. But we have learned to share, because the reality is that we live with a man who was born to serve. And he’s good at what he does.
The bonus to loving a first responder is that you gain another family. It’s difficult to explain, but our fire family, for better or worse, is special. And while that family is made up of imperfect people, they are perfectly our people. They know my kids’ names. They bake our favorite treats. They listen as we vent about our spouses, because that’s what friendship is about. They build our houses, repair our roofs, fix our vehicles. They tell you the truth when no one else will.
Most people will never witness the devastation and heartache that these men and women see on a daily basis. And yet, they continue to show up shift after shift. The work of a first responder is selfless and brave. They represent the best humanity has to offer. In my opinion, that’s a reason to celebrate even if we have to wait until days off to schedule the party.