Kennedy: That time our son cracked the upstairs toilet

Staff Photo by Mark Kennedy / A trip to Home Depot solved the leak in the upstairs toilet.

Let's talk toilets. Or as we say in the South, commodes.

I normally don't think much about toilets unless they need cleaning or plunging.

I thought even less about them until 20 years ago when we bought a house with a septic tank. People, there is a weight that settles on a man once he realizes that he is financially responsible for sewage.

A couple of years ago, we had a problem with our septic system, and for half a day we went without flushes while workers repaired the field lines.

Brutal. You don't eat. You don't drink. And you keep the car idling.

If you ever wish you were born in simpler times -- say the 1850s -- then imagine life without flush toilets. Visualize sitting in a subfreezing outhouse in January reading "The Scarlet Letter." How does that sound, time traveler?

All of this is context for a story.

Men, have you ever noticed that other family members always seem to have little emergencies that demand your attention right in the middle of "the big game"?

Last Sunday was a good example. I was minding my own business watching the 4:30 NFL game, when our 16-year-old son wandered through the family room.

"Dad, can I borrow your debit card? I need to go to Ace Hardware to get a piece for the toilet upstairs," he said.

"Sure," I said, barely hearing (or caring) what he was saying, although I was vaguely aware that the upstairs toilet needed a new handle.

Later, after the game, I was working on my laptop when my phone lit up. It was my son calling from upstairs. He'd been back from Ace for over an hour.

"Dad, can you bring me some paper towels," he said.

"Sure, I'll be right up," I said.

I opened the door to the upstairs bathroom only to discover that No. 2 son had disassembled the whole toilet. The tank was on the floor. The mechanical parts were strewn around. My eyes widened, and my heart sank.

There are few things that scare me as much as an upstairs toilet. I'll be sitting on the beach in Florida and my mind will interrupt my serenity with an important message: "What if the upstairs toilet is overflowing right this second and you're 500 miles away? Enjoy your day!"

The older you get, the more phobic you become about the combination of moisture and your precious domicile. That's why gutter guards are a thing.

"Son," I said. "What exactly are you doing?"

"Fixing the toilet," he said, flatly.

"I can see that, but do you actually know what you're doing?" I asked, knowing the answer was "no, but I watched a YouTube video." I continued, "If this causes a leak it could ruin the whole house."

"Don't worry, I've got this," he said.

Nothing inspires confidence like a 16-year-old with no plumbing experience playing with the upstairs pipes while insisting "I got this."

A voice in the back of my mind whispered, "Just back away, Dad, before you say something that he will hold against you for the next 20 years."

I quickly descended the stairs and began to pray.

A while later, he placed an urgent call to his mother. The essential message was, "Help. Bring towels. Quick."

He had gotten the toilet reassembled and all was well until he overtightened a bolt and cracked the tank, which sent water spraying out on the floor.

See, that's life, and something that a 16-year-old can't fathom while a 64-year-old knows in his bones. The difference between success and failure can be a half-turn with a crescent wrench.

Thankfully this story has a happy ending. The boy got the upstairs leak under control and used his new driver's license to drive to Home Depot where he purchased -- again with my debit card -- an "all-in-one, high-efficiency" toilet.

So, for the price of a house call from a plumber, I got a new toilet and and a more confident teenager.

All things considered, not a bad deal.

Now, I wonder if he could clean the gutters.

The Family Life column publishes on Sundays in Life. Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.