Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Decision I'm Glad I Made

A couple years after my son's mother and I split, in the midst of our fight over custody, she made the odd decision to move from North Center, the very stable, safe, then-inexpensive Chicago neighborhood that she and I had lived in when he was a baby, to Humboldt Park, a not-so-safe, crime- and drug-ridden neighborhood. She's a physically tiny Chinese-American woman who grew up in the suburbs-- she didn't exactly fit in to the neighborhood. She claimed that she needed to live close to downtown for her work-- she did legal transcriptions, which often needed to be delivered by courier. I'm not sure I bought that. My theory is that she wanted to prove she could be as "urban" as me-- I'd grown up much of my childhood in the city.

At first, it wasn't too bad-- she lived near Norwegian American Hospital, which is kind of a stable, pretty safe "island" in that neighborhood. However, her landlord renovated and jacked the rent up, and she had to move.

She ended up moving in to a series of bad apartments. In one in particular, drunks would hang out on her front steps; I suggested a solution I'd heard someone else tell me-- to pour ammonia on or near the steps. It worked. There were still regularly problems right outside her apartment. One night I had to race over there when a drunk tried to break through the front window (why the ex-boyfriend got called instead of the police I don't know).

She finally ended up living in a big block of apartments near Kedzie and Augusta. It was a marginally safer neighborhood, but the overall problem was there-- my son's life sucked-- he couldn't play outside at his mother's house, where he spent most of his time. He had no friends outside of school and was developing a weight problem.

A couple of years ago, Adam's mother started expressing discontent with her neighborhood. I was puzzled-- the neighborhood hadn't changed. Suddenly, she hated living there, with the crime and drugs and menacing guys lurking that had always been there. Sensing an opportunity, I suggested that she could find some good apartment deals on the northwest side-- Jefferson Park, Norwood Park, etc. I told her that she wouldn't pay much more, probably, than what she's paying now.

She checked into it and found a place in Norwood Park, a Chicago neighborhood that many police and firemen live in, that was $150 more than what she was paying in Humboldt Park. She told me, however, that she couldn't afford that-- she wanted to continue working part-time so she could bring our son to and from school, a goal I could agree with. $150 is about how much I make in a single shift at the resturant, my second job. It would mean picking up a single extra shift a month. I told her I would gladly pay the difference.

I helped her move-- the worst move I've ever participated in. The big stuff got moved in a Uhaul, with some friends helping, but I had forgotten from when I lived with her that she has zero concept of packing. We moved the smaller stuff in about 100 small boxes, grocery bags, garbage bags-- whatever we could get our hands on-- in like 15 trips in our two tiny cars (this was before I had my truck). It took two evenings of this. I had to laugh, thinking that about 6 years earlier, we'd been in a bitter custody fight, and here I was helping her. Of course, it was really about helping my son.

As much a pain as the move was, it was worth it. At first my son struggled in his new school; his supposedly "gifted" program in his old school had left him behind at a better school. It took him a couple of years, but he caught up. He started to lose weight, and got much more athletic. This summer, his old baseball teammates noticed how much slimmer he was and how much faster he ran. He can go to school or a friend's house alone. He even has a dog and a paper route. His life has become, finally, years after it was turned on it's end by the split of his mother and I, wonderfully normal. His grandparents, my wife, old friends-- everyone-- have noticed how happy he is these days. And his grades have improved dramatically.

Last night at work, the televisions in the restaurant were playing in the background. Since the football game was over, the news came on. My attention was drawn when I saw footage of a bunch of cops at an intersection that I recognized--Kedzie and Augusta-- right by her old apartment. The cooks told me there'd been a huge dustup at that intersection earlier in the day. This morning I checked the news and found that at 3:45 in the afternoon yesterday, some cops stopping a gang "hit" got into it with some gangbangers armed with an AK-47-- a frighteningly powerful military assault weapon. It's a miracle that the policemen are alive-- their vests wouldn't have even slowed the bullets down-- thank god for good police marksmanship and poor hoodlum shooting. My blood chilled as I thought of this firefight erupting as my son and his mother were getting out of the car after she'd picked him up from school. Her apartment was about 150 feet from where the shoot-out was. You could see the building in the background in the news shots. Even if they'd have been inside, I know he wouldn't have slept a wink that night if they were still there-- the intersection is within sight of his old bedroom window (their building was the the 6th or 7th one from the corner in the picture-- 150 or 200 feet away). It must have been a horrible thing for the people in that neighborhood.

Later today I did the math and figured out that above the child support I already pay, plus the money I spend on clothes, haircuts, little league, winter floor hockey, and all the other things that I always seem to have the money for, that I'd spent about $4000 above that in the last two years solely for him to live somewhere other than that apartment.

Just for him not to have the childhood memory of a machine gun going off outside of his home-- that alone was worth the $4000.

Last year my ex-girlfriend, in a rare and uncharacteristic moment of gratitude, thanked me for what I've done for our child-- particularly the extra money. What else would I have spent it on, I asked? To my surprise, she rattled off a list of what I could have spent it on, including a new car (I drive a battered, but beloved 12 year old Blazer).

As I read the news story this morning, I knew that nothing I could have spent money on was worth more than what I got-- my son's safety and improved life, and my own peace of mind.

In the past year, in addition to being a parent, I became a step-parent. A few weeks ago, my wife and I took our kids to the Dells. They had a marvelous time. It was something I would never had dreamt of doing when I was a younger single guy. It was something that neither of their other parents would do with them, for various reasons.

Between that, and talking to a friend recently, I had an epiphany-- or maybe realized something that I'd known, but had never thought out conciously-- that as parents, our job is to create good memories for our children. Our children's ability to deal with adult life is a direct factor of having a stable, relatively happy childhood-- a childhood filled with good memories. And it's our job to give things up, if we need to, to provide those good memories.

It's funny, as my son is getting older, what he remembers as being fun. When I'd just settled the custody fight, just as I was finishing student-teaching, I was the brokest I've ever been in my life. I mean broke-- cashing in my change jar to buy groceries for my kid broke. What we did a few weekends was take the Blue Line el, which ran by our house, to O'Hare airport; there was a little airport-themed play area he just loved. He would wave to pilots preparing to depart, and they would wave back. What was funny was that the reason we did it was that I could ride on the el to the airport and back for $1.75-- paid entirely in small change-- and he rode free. That's how broke I was-- that's all I could afford. But I apparently succeeded in creating a good memory-- eight years later, he talks glowingly about it all the time. It was the worst time in my life, but he was having a ball.

Whether it's $1.75 for the el, or regularly getting only 4 or 5 hours of sleep at night to work a second job, it's all the same-- it's about them, and making sure they have memories of a rich, creative and fulfilling childhood to fall back on when the tough times in life hit in their adulthood.

I teach young adults whose lives have been an unending run of instability, disappointment and lack of adult role models. I never cease to be galled every day at the result-- young people who are clearly not yet ready to function in the real world, though many are already parents. They're in the process of creating another generation who will not be ready. I go to work every day and do the best I can for them, and feel bad every day for them that there was no one who helped create those good memories. They live in the type of neighborhoods that I got my kid out of, and are paying the price in their lives and futures.

I sure am glad that I made the decision I did two years ago-- especially today.


Beth said...

What a wonderful, moving post. And the memories had nothing to do with the $1.75 you spent on the El; they have everything to do with a dad who wants to do something his son thinks is fun. That's what shows love. You're a great dad, Johnny Yen.

kim said...

As you said darling, "it's what we do" and also as you said, "we get it."

Let's be glad that our kids are happy and well adjusted and their home lives in are safe and happy.

Bubs said...

Hey, that was really wonderful! How great that you've had that epiphany, and the satisfaction of knowing you did something right. You make me want to grab my kids and ask them what they remember from 10 years ago.

BTW, was that Wells park in the baseball picture?

Johnny Yen said...

BethThank you! I try my best!

Bubs Thanks, and yes it is-- that's the Sulzer Library in the background. And yes, that's my boy running out a base hit (you can see the ball, if you look hard right, above the first baseman's glove).

Dale said...

You're a good man Johnny Yen and the people that matter in your life the most know it!

Tenacious S said...

You're my new hero. Excellent parenting in action. You're right. Once you have children it really is no longer about yourself. Besides, there is no greater joy than a happy, healthy child.

lulu said...

You know, I think most kids remember stuff like that train ride more than the big events that their parents go crazy trying to plan. And there is something about little boys and trains.

Most of my memories from early childhood involve feeding ducks at the park by our house.

It is great that you are so involved in your son's life, particularly considering how difficult it was for you to be. He's a lucky kid.

Johnny Yen said...

Doh-- I meant to say Norwegian American Hospital, which is in Humboldt Park. Swedish Covenant is in a very nice neighborhood.