Just a year ago, I turned 65, had a modest Social Security income and half-time job with the nonprofit I'd founded 20 years earlier, and I was divorced -- amicably -- after a 34-year marriage. Home was a small house in the small town of Joseph in northeast Oregon, but I was making frequent trips to Portland and Salem to meet with friends, eat in city restaurants, listen to music and see plays. I'd also begun writing a book about Turkey based on my Peace Corps years there, from 1965-1970, and was planning a return visit.
This all changed radically with one phone call and a trip to Portland for a very different reason. This time, I was going to pick up a grandson, 8, and granddaughter, 9. Their father, a single parent and my son, had just landed in a hospital. His prognosis was uncertain, and it seemed I had to become a "parent" once again.
At the time, I didn't know whether it would be for weeks or years, though in my own mind I couldn't think past a year. Fortunately, the children's arrival coincided with the beginning of school, and the kids had been here often enough to know a few people. And grandma was nearby and would help.
That was August 2008. Memories of those first days are scattered, but I know the school was great. The principal said it would be good for the kids to think in terms of a semester at least; a year would be better. Friends threw a surprise birthday party in October and snuck a new dryer in the back door while the party went on up front -- the washer and dryer had gone the other way in the divorce. I'd bought a washer but not a dryer, hanging out my clothes in summer and in front of the woodstove in winter. The kids jumped onto soccer teams and Oriana, the fourth-grader, was soon riding horses on weekends. An around the corner neighbor also had a second-grade boy and fourth-grade girl, and we got into the habit of sharing rides and childcare.
I remember being exhausted at first. I had to cook for three, get them to school on time. I remembered that the big thing about parenting was that the kids were always there the next morning, and that they have needs of their own at times of their own. Grandparents, of course, get to choose their moments of bonding and playtime, and then -- they walk away. I also remember asking myself whether I had yelled so much at my two sons. Do we develop selective memories about our parenting, effectively blocking out our silly moments, our frustrating attempts at reasoning with a very tired 8-year-old, or explaining multiplication to a distraught 9-year-old?
I also soon found out that I was not alone; there were other stories like mine. A Portland friend, a retired English professor, told me almost in passing that he had lived with his grandparents for three years, from 9 to 12. "Saved my life, he said. A woman in the local Safeway stopped me to ask how things were going. She reminded me that we were the same age, adding that she'd been raised by a grandmother; her mom "just took off" when she was 6.
I was certainly the oldest full-time caregiver at most school meetings and soccer games, but I wasn't always the only graybeard in the room. The news was full of stories about grandmas raising grandchildren, and sons and daughters coming home from broken relationships with kids in tow. I'd read and listened with some interest, but now, it was me.
In November, almost three months into my new life, I took a weekend off and went to Portland for the Oregon Book Awards. After the ceremony, a few friends gathered at Cassidy's Bar to rehash the evening and catch up on our lives. The crowd had thinned, the few of us remaining were finishing the wine and drinking coffee for the road.
My old friend John Daniel looked across the table at me and told me he admired what I was doing, especially since I didn't know when my son's mental condition would improve. I said this was not such a big deal and reminded him that he and his wife, Marilyn, had had a mother with dementia live with them for three years. He'd even written a book about it.
"You're right," John said. "We don't choose these things, do we?" Then he paused: "They choose us, and we can choose not to do them, but then we have to live with ourselves forever."
Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and parents in Joseph, Oregon.