A New Life--and a Family Left Behind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I left my family early in the morning on a day thick with sticky emotions and slow, dark clouds. I backed the car out of the garage, bounced off the lip of the driveway into the street and waved goodby. A fitting drizzle splattered against the windshield.

There are images of significant events that stay with us forever: the birth of our children, the death of our parents, Hank Aaron circling the bases. As I left my home state of Colorado last month, one of those images was framed in my side-view mirror.

My wife, Julia, and 13-year-old-daughter, Rhiley, were standing on the sidewalk hugging--clinging to each other actually--as they watched me leave. I'm sure they were crying. I turned on the windshield wipers but still couldn't see, so I pulled to the curb after turning the corner.

It felt like I was leaving for war or prison or even worse. But we had decided as a family that I should take the job in Los Angeles--a city seemingly on the opposite crescent of the planet--even though it meant we would see each other once, at best twice a month.

I poured coffee from a thermos Julia had delivered to the car and swung back into the street. The image of them standing on the sidewalk stayed with me as I carved through New Mexico, where the sun appeared but the wind shoved hard against the car, and Arizona, where I was ambushed by a sneaky, sloppy snowstorm near Flagstaff. It is with me now in California as I settle into the job that brought me here and the life that comes with it.

It was not an easy decision. In the weeks before I left, we asked ourselves many questions: Could a job justify leaving my family? Was I selfishly choosing my career over wife and child? Who would mow the lawn? And from Rhiley came the most disturbing question: "Are you ever coming back?"

*

There is a '90s term--surprise, surprise--for families like mine. A friend explained that we were a "commuter family," a topic she had read about in a magazine.

My wife has a job in Colorado. I have a job in L.A. For the next year or two, until we can maneuver our careers into the same city and while Rhiley is given pause after attending four schools in three years, we will live apart and suck up frequent flier miles. It is quite a change, but change is not new to us.

I met Julia and Rhiley in 1987. Recently divorced, I was avoiding anything hinting of marriage and still was somewhat pissed off about the first one. Julia was focusing on her first job as a television reporter, and Rhiley was fairly pleased with her life.

Two years later, we moved in together and in 1992, we married. We have a dog, a cat and, on occasion, we have goldfish. Last November, we were living in Minnesota when Julia landed a great job in Colorado. I didn't. Later I learned that there was a '90s-type term for that, too. I became a "trailing spouse." I also became: "unemployed."

I adapted rather well, preferring the term "free-lance writer." I bought a tall, black file cabinet and filled it with expired warranties of televisions and vacuum cleaners, our dog's health records and my canceled checks. I placed the cabinet next to my desk and called this room my office. My dog, Captain Bob, and I spent long hours there.

One day as I was free-lancing in my office, I was stirred by the telephone. "A job?"

*

To understand the most difficult part of leaving my family, it helps to understand how we came to be a family in the first place. It has to do with Rodney King.

Two years ago, while we were living in Minnesota, trouble broke out in north Minneapolis the week following the acquittals in the King beating case. A man shot a kid crossing his lawn, and with tensions already high, all hell broke loose.

Julia covered the story. In the midst of the chaos, the photographer she was with was shoved to the ground and beaten. Julia screamed as she tried to pull one of the assailants off him, but she was stopped cold by a sucker punch to the face. Then, as she lay on the ground, she was kicked in the head.

Television cameras photographed the incident, and I still can see her sprawled motionless on the ground, wearing her blue dress. It is another of those images that will be with me forever.

She spent that night in intensive care because of the swelling in her brain. The next day, it was apparent the injuries had created glitches in her memory. Someone would visit, and 10 minutes later, she would have no recollection of it. Sometimes she would stop in mid-sentence, lost for words. It was a few days later before we discovered she could not walk.

During her first day of occupational therapy, she sat in a wheelchair and tried to pick up beans with a spoon. In speech therapy, she worked on word association. In physical therapy, she tried to sit upright without tipping over.

After a couple weeks, she was allowed to return home and continue therapy as an out-patient. It was Rhiley and I who helped her up stairs, who pushed her wheelchair, who picked her up when she collapsed to the floor. She had pills for the pain, but when her headaches were unbearable, I gave her injections that made her cry. She asked me if our lives would ever be the same and I promised her they would.

It was during that period, I think, that we became a family. We realized how important we were to each other, how fortunate we were. We discovered the magnitude of love and fear in the bonds between us. Late that summer, the three of us were married at sunset next to a waterfall.

We thought we always would be together.

*

When I got the call, Julia, by then fully healed, had just signed a new contract and was committed to her job. Rhiley finally was cracking the codified, metaphysical seventh-grade crust at her school, so I knew from the beginning that if I took the job, I would be leaving alone.

As a free-lancer, I was headed for a four-figure income and knew I would have to get a real job real soon. There were no openings at the Denver papers, and I am unskilled in areas other than journalism. Blandly I mined for options.

I could learn to groom a pitcher's mound now that Colorado has a professional baseball team. I could start a pet-sitting business, caring for Fidos and Fluffies with vacationing owners. Start-up costs would be minimal.

Or I could get a job at the factory where my father worked for 10 years.

Dad had farmed all his life, but in 1972, faced with debts and frustration, he quit. He did not leave his family to farm somewhere more lucrative. He stayed with us and even though he loved farming, he took a job as a machinist on the graveyard shift.

"You have to go," Julia said, "but I'll never be happy about it."

"You should go," Rhiley said. "You should follow your dreams."

"You should stay here," my parents said.

I told all of them that they were right.

*

It is not surprising that I arrived in Los Angeles ill-equipped. I hadn't done a thorough job packing or planning. The night before I left, I merely loaded some stuff in the car. Some books, some clothes, some boxes, some Curtis Mayfield albums.

Once here, I took inventory and realized that I had a stereo with no speakers; telephone with no cord; lamp with no bulb; three forks, five spoons and no knives; a bar of soap I nabbed from a Flagstaff motel.

I went to work hanging shades using a small frying pan for a hammer. The shades were not long enough because I didn't have a measuring tape, so I bought them on a guess. They are too narrow for the window, but I have decided they fit well enough.

Food I can either take out or have delivered shapes my eating habits. I order plenty of it so I can eat for a couple days.

I have inelegant plates dug out of a cardboard box in the garage, a dusty coffee percolator that long ago gave way to drip technology--things we couldn't sell at our last three garage sales.

The week before I left, we celebrated birthdays, three days apart. I gave Rhiley in-line skates, upon which she shows exceptional grace. I gave Julia a bicycle--she approaches recreation with vigor after being deprived of it during her recovery.

I miss us and the sounds of us being together. Rhiley plays the flute, and for 20 minutes, five days a week, whether she wants to or not, she practices song and scale in her bedroom. I liked to sit in the back yard and listen.

Julia sometimes sings softly and off-key to the radio when she drives. She makes conversation with Captain Bob (the Wonder Dog) in the kind of deep, goofy voice that his face evokes. On Sunday mornings, it is quiet in our house as we read the papers and watch Charles Kuralt. Now he too has left.

Being apart will get easier. It already has. I am less enisled as places and faces around me become more familiar, as I settle into my own space and as I find time to be still.

Obviously we look forward to the time we can be together again. We will make the most of that time, because it won't be long before Rhiley becomes the next to leave. And, of course, there is a term for that. We will become "empty nesters."

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