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Family Accommodations

TEN years ago I went to a real-estate agent's office. It had become a habit; I was in a new town, in a new job, and living in a rented apartment. Almost 30 but still single, I felt it was about time to get a house.

I walked in and talked to the agent on duty. We looked at the listings, those little black-and-white blurry pictures of houses with the abbreviated information underneath in a square about the size of a playing card. It was the middle of the last recession in a region that had been especially hard hit; unemployment was more than 20 percent. Everyone was selling houses, but no one was buying.

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I saw one square with data I didn't believe at first. The owner was willing to sell at a modest price and finance his four-bedroom ranch house interest-free for seven years. I bought it.

A week later I was wandering the hallways of my new home, planning a bedroom here, a gym there, my library and study in the room with the afternoon sun. But before those mental pictures could develop into fact, there was lots of moving and unpacking to be done. Then work pressures caused delays. Finally, marriage changed the whole picture.

I went on a date six months later, and three weeks after that I was engaged to a woman I had known for several years but had never looked at in that light until I had a house with four bedrooms; she had three young daughters. That "no interest" mortgage gave me more courage for such a marriage. One year after I visited that real estate agent's office, I was sheltering a family of five with a baby on the way. I never saw that gym or sunny library.

Two and one half years after buying that house, I had to get a second job to pay the bills. Another child was coming. Between us, my wife and I had four jobs. My second one was a motor delivery route for the metropolitan newspaper. The papers arrived in bundles at 3 p.m. on weekdays. I got them into the plastics, into my car, and delivered by 5 p.m. to subscribers in a community 10 miles away.

On weekends, the papers arrived at 4 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays (which were also the busiest days on my other job) started at 3:30 a.m. It was a relentless schedule. But it made it possible to have the life I had chosen.

One cold Saturday morning, I was on my way out of the driveway, the back seat loaded with papers and the radio tuned to a station in Chicago. A show called "Blues in the Night" was on playing gut-wrenching, Chicago-style blues. I listened. I knew what the blues were about, the hunger to love well, and the pain that comes when making money and loving well pull hard at life, sometimes oppositely. I had the blues.

But I also had a life, a full life with struggle and complexity but also a tautness and richness of which I had been, for many years, unsure I would ever get. And that night, as I rolled out into the cold and into my work, I heard myself saying the clearest and simplest sentence I had ever yet said to myself. I heard my inner voice say, "It doesn't get any better than this."

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Which doesn't mean that it couldn't get easier and which doesn't mean that I choose the blues. It was just that a few clear words came to me unbidden that night. I didn't analyze. I just knew them to be true. What I needed to be myself, I had gotten. And that wasn't how it had been when I roamed the hallways of my house and lived alone wondering about the details of interior decoration.

Two months ago, I went to see my parents, both of whom have some disabilities. I knew what I saw had to end, offered them a chance to live with us in Florida, and, in three weeks, had them here. When my last stepdaughter left for college, I had walked into her large room off the patio and pool and imagined my wife and I finally being able to occupy it. Now my parents live in that room.

WE now plan to make the den into our bedroom. It will be even smaller than the one we have, which my younger daughter needs. The den is as far away from the patio and pool as you can get.

A few weeks ago I realized that if having my parents here was going to work, then Dad would have to get more sleep; he was up too much at night tending to Mom. I realized that I would have to get up at 3 a.m. to care for her personal needs and let Dad sleep. So that is what I do, along with a 60-hour-a-week job, cooking and cleaning, and taking care of my marriage and my fathering.

One night last week as I went in at 3 a.m., I went over to Mom, and she was asleep. I put my hand on her forehead and rubbed it gently to awaken her. Dad was asleep. She didn't wake up right away.

I looked around their room, which is covered with paintings, pictures, and prints that were once spread throughout a home. I thought about the 25 years since we had lived together, almost twice as long as I lived with them in the first place, having left home for school as a youth.

I thought about the work it had taken to move them. I thought of the daily and sometimes daunting work of accommodating older lives habituated to wants I do not always share (and, of course, their efforts to accommodate me and my family). I rubbed Mom's head. Dad slept. And it came to me again. "It doesn't get any better than this."

So I don't have the room on the patio by the pool. Fine. I never got my gym either. In the silence and dark of my very full home, I stand among my sleeping family and feel that peace that the oldest wisdom tells us passes understanding. Maybe, as Bart Simpson suggests, I am getting a life, maybe just the one I need to have right now in order to keep on being me.

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