Depending Totally on an 11-Year-Old


Out of necessity, most single parents live a pretty structured life, sans much margin for error.

Only schedules are more important than budgets--work schedules, school schedules, baby-sitting schedules, dentist appointments, housecleaning, meals, all fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

And, like a puzzle, one missing piece--such as a kid coming down with the flu--and the whole agenda is trashed.

Childhood illness is the bane of every single parent, another of God's little reminders (like earthquakes) that we're not as much in charge as we've led ourselves to believe.

But, as I've discovered this past week, there is one thing more disruptive, and that's when the parent becomes incapacitated.

I had some wrist surgery (scratch the word surgery; the hospitals now insist it is a "procedure"), and my household has been skewed good and proper.

The experience has left me gazing almost wistfully at the sides of milk containers, much as I do at the "lost cat" announcements tacked up on supermarket bulletin boards.

OK, OK, I know it's nothing to joke about, but at this point I really wouldn't mind if both the cats and the kid were temporarily among the missing (and I really do want to know how you lose a cat).

First of all, I am right-handed and, of course, the procedure was on my right wrist, so even the simplest of my daily routines has been destroyed.

I'm relegated to wearing what look to me, anyway, like maternity clothes--loose garments with no buttons or zippers. I can't shave, and each day I look more like Walter Huston in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

The bottom line is that I've temporarily become quite dependent on others. In my case, that's singular, an 11-year-old with more compassion than skills.

And needs he's unaccustomed to having ignored.

He has become chief cook ("Is this supposed to be smoking like this?"), dishwasher ("Why can't I leave them until morning?"), laundry-tender ("Why should I fold the sheets when all I'm going to do is put them on the bed?"), house-keeper ("The living room looks fine to me") and stenographer ("You're going too fast!").

In the mornings, he must make his own breakfast and pack a lunch ("What's wrong with just potato chips and Kudos?") and do the dishes.

When he's finally off to school, I have this overwhelming desire to sit in a dark room and babble.

Instead, I sit in a light one and try to figure out how to while away the day. I've found that there's such a thing as reading too much and that after a while the words start becoming one, as do the titles of the books.

Of course, there's always daytime television, which I've discovered makes nighttime television seem like Academe.

According to my cable guide, I have 30 channels. Why, then, is there nothing to watch?

Soap operas, exercise shows, commercials for truck-driving schools, game shows that my rather thick cats could win, big birds repeating the letter "B" for six minutes, old series I didn't watch when both they and I were young, and Congress in living color.

If nothing else, it's given me new insight into the problem of housewives and infidelity. They are driven to it by Pat Sajak and the shopping channels.

After a few hours of television, I find myself anxiously awaiting my son's return from school, just for some adult conversation.

I also try to keep in mind my mother's line that "even a mugging is an educational experience, if you look at it in the proper light."

It was her way of suggesting that we make the best of any situation and learn from it, no matter how trying. It's a line my son is tired of hearing these days.

But it might come in handy--if he ever has to live with a martyr again.

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