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.