Five months ago I did not imagine doing what I am today. Inconceivable isn’t the right word, because the idea did occur to me, eventually and spontaneously. I guess you could call it conceptual moment. Last October I was browsing through Craigslist, looking for nothing in particular other than a part-time job of some sort to boost our monthly household income. I noticed there were a lot of jobs for CNAs working in long-term care. Because I didn’t know what the acronym meant, I had to look it up.
Anyway, as I was going through Craigslist and seeing all those positions for CNAs, the thought occurred to me: I could do that. It wasn’t that I could do one thing as opposed to something else. Rather it was: I will do that. Taking care of elderly people seemed like such a natural thing to do. I did some research into where I could get training and then talked my plan over with Robin, who was supportive of the idea. In fact she said something like: “Maybe you could work at that place down the street.” I’d driven by it hundreds of times without giving it any attention, but there was an adult family home (AFH) in my neighborhood. In my imagination, working there was agreeable and rewarding.
Training as a certified nursing assistant is a first step to nursing school for many people. They can work in the field while going to school. The program is short—three weeks for me—and relatively inexpensive. But I wasn’t thinking of going to nursing school (even now it hasn’t occurred to me: I could do that.) I was just looking for something part-time. Nothing more.
So I enrolled, starting classes on November 19. I was the oldest person in the class of 12 students, although there was one woman in her 50s. The youngest was 19. Training consisted of learning and practicing 24 (or was it 26?) procedures including proper hand washing, changing an occupied bed, taking blood pressure, transferring a person from bed to wheel chair, giving a bed bath, measuring urinary output, and, peri care. Part of the training took place in massive long-term care center where we worked in “memory care.” That’s the contemporary way of referring to the dementia ward. The experience confirmed my first thought that I could do this and eventually do it well.
Meanwhile, I started looking for potential places to work. I created a small database of information on various agencies and care centers in my area that I would apply to once I passed my exams, which I did on December 19. After I applied for my license, I sent an email to the owner of the home in my neighborhood, at the address I found on their website. I never got a reply. I called, too, but the phone just rang and rang and finally disconnected. I put that idea aside and started working on other leads.
I went back to Craigslist where I found an ad for a part-time caregiver at an AFH about 20 minutes from my house. I inquired, then sent my résumé on request. In reply I learned they don’t usually hire people with no experience, but she did ask why I wanted to be a CNA. The door was entirely closed, so I stated my case. Curiously—and it could have been a coincidence—the person I was corresponding with had the same name as the person who owned the AFH in my neighborhood.
Yet it was no coincidence. The owner, an RN, had recently opened a second adult family home, the one I answered the ad for. After exchanging a couple more emails, I gained an interview then a job in the very place I’d imagined myself working just a couple of months earlier. A staff shift between the two homes opened the spot for me. My first day at work was New Years Eve, and I’m there three days a week. So far it’s been agreeable and rewarding. And I walk to work too, something I’ve never been able to do before.
I wrote this essay 25 years ago—two years before my youngest child, Kathryn, was born. It’s a vignette of my life back then. It was published in the January 31, 1988 edition of “Northwest Magazine,” which once upon a time was the literary supplement to the Sunday Oregonian. The original title was Father and Son Secrets, which I’ve given it here. I never liked the title given to it by the editor. I didn’t care too much for the illustration, either, because it showed only three kids instead of four. I know grouping things in threes creates balance and is aesthetically pleasing, but life makes its own rules.
I sit on the step in front of my house. Next to me is an assortment of bags and backpacks full of clothes and stuffed animals, drawings and other paraphernalia. The younger two of my four boys, David and Patrick, play in the yard. Occasionally one of them darts to the end of the driveway and peers down the road. The other boys, Daniel and Philip, whiz by on their bicycles. The afternoon is warm and sunny, but my thoughts are far from the weather.
A faded green Ford Maverick approaches and stops in front of the house. I immediately recognize the woman on the passenger side of the car; the man driving I’ve never seen before. The woman gets out, and the kids gather around her. Just as they had gathered around me a week earlier. Their stay with me is over for now. It’s time for them to go home with their mother. I help put their bags in the trunk, say goodbye to the boys, walk back into the house and shut the door behind me.
Variations of this scene, some more poignant than others, have played out perhaps seventy-five times since I left my home in the Old Country, a rural region south of Portland, Oregon, where my kids were born. I’m only now beginning to put The Big Change into perspective.
When your children are born, you want to believe that they’re yours forever. Yet, you know they are not, for you know that it is your job to prepare them to leave you. Eventually. It’s the natural course of events.
But then comes a piece of paper that tells you in great and seemingly irreversible detail just how your relationship with your children has changed, long before you thought it would. The paper describes, among other heart-rending things, visitation rights and child-support obligations.
At first, I was afraid that my children would drift away from me as time went by. But I was fortunate. The mother of my children—a term whose meaning has a far different implication than it once had—is supportive of my desire to stay a strong and influential part of my children’s lives. “Reasonable visitation rights” have been liberal indeed. Because the kids live within an hour’s drive from Portland, hardly a weekend goes by that I haven’t had at least one of my children with me. And this summer I’ve seen much of them. Though I am a part-time parent, still I am a full-time father.
In the early stages of this new relationship, I was confused when the responsibility for the well-being of my kids was taken from me beyond the compartmentalized responsibility of a monthly check. But there’s more to child support than such allotments.
It’s Friday evening. The kids are here and there, doing what they normally would, playing or working on various projects. I’m happy just to have them around. But I want more. I want interaction. “Game of chess?” I ask Daniel, the oldest. “I play the winner,” Philip says, hunkering down to watch.
Now the games are over. “Let’s talk,” I say. “Talk about what?” one of them asks. “I don’t know. Whatever you want.” This is how they usually start, those conversations that sometimes don’t end until a new day has begun. Actions speak louder than words, sure, but it is with words that we seem to best make up for lost time together.
The older boys chide me about these conversations, because I am one who makes liberal use of verbal parentheses and cannot avoid going off on one tangent to another. While spending a week at the beach last summer, a discussion of how the moon affects the tides evolved into what effect the Beatles had on society. Don’t ask me today to produce a connection. The best I can offer is a shrug of the shoulders and a “you had to have been there.”
Saturday morning. I notice Patrick needs a new pair of shoes. “And while we’re at it,” I say, “you could use a haircut, too.” Even these modest “dad things” are regularly available and no less a pleasure.
During the transitional period, when I was still getting used to my modified parental role, I struggled to find meaningful things to do with the kids while I had them. Weekends were filled with trips to the zoo and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the airport and the park, RiverPlace and Saturday Market.
When the phrase “quality time” became part of the vernacular, it meant that it was all right for working parents to shuffle the kids off to day care so long any time spent with a child was “meaningful.” I once chuckled at the notion, recognizing it as an excuse, a way to assuage the guilt. Kids need to be around their parents, no matter what the quality of the time spent together. So why did I feel compelled to make each weekend a “quality” weekend? And why did I feel as though I’d let them down when it wasn’t?
But, I wondered, is it good for me? Is it good for them that I try to give so much more than I ever had before, to make their weekends with me always stimulating and fun? I don’t know the answer. What’s important is that we’re together. The big excursions are still meaningful and fun, but so are the small things like taking Patrick for a haircut or just being together in the same room.
What I worried about most when I first left the Old Country was that David, my youngest, would forget who his father is. He was not yet talking and barely walking when I kissed him good night in his own bed for the last time. I’ve been his weekend father for half his lifetime already. It’s just about the only way he will ever know me.
But I no longer worry about his not knowing who I am, as long as I can see him regularly. When I pick him up from his legal residence for a visit and see his cheerful face as he bounds toward me, it puts an end to my fears and gives new meaning to the child-parent bond. And at tuck time, when he says, “Gimme hug-kiss,” and then, “I wuhvoo, Papa,” we both know who we are.
It’s another Sunday afternoon. I swing the car into the driveway in front of the house that years ago I built for my growing family. Some of the boys have fallen asleep during the long drive, but they rouse quickly. And just as quickly they are out of the car and grabbing their things from the trunk. I say goodbye as they scurry into the house, already changing mental channels, switching to mother mode.
I, too, must switch modes—from active father to passive parent. But the cycle continues. And during our times together, there are hints of camaraderie, of secrets to share, of intimacies to treasure.