Constant Caring in Times of Change

A few weeks ago I had a picnic with Kristine, my youngest step-daughter. The sun was going down, and the terrible tropical heat was lifting, so it became more and more pleasant to be outside as we sat and ate and talked.

The following day, Kristine was going back for her senior year at Yale; she will probably work in the dining hall again, and her roommate will be an old friend who took last year off. She was happy about the prospect of sharing this year with her friend, but, as a Floridian, was not so excited about the prospect of the winter winds in New Haven, Conn., which have a way of whipping down the narrow college streets and driving all life indoors.

Kristine talked about being an older student among the new students. I looked at her, and she still looked pretty young to me. But, of course, I see her through eyes that have not quite caught up with the fact that she is a woman and, like her two sisters before her, nearing the end of college.

I had a goal 10 years ago: to help the girls get through college. It was one goal among others, but it was easier to imagine because the timing was somewhat predictable. Now that process is almost finished.

As I look ahead and think about Laura, Estelle, and Kristine, I don't see any ''goal line'' like college graduations. I see three women who shared crucial years of their lives with me and for whom the word ''support'' meant certain things 10 years ago that don't apply now.

What it will mean in the future is unclear to me, especially since their mother and I will no longer be married when we arrive in New Haven for commencement next May. But I know I want more with them. So that is a start. No goal line. Just more.

Ten years ago, I prayed for daily strength to do two jobs, make all the meals, help clean the house, tend to my two infants, and provide the taxi service and much of the money to help my step-daughters grow up. They did, beautifully.

Back then, I didn't think of the challenge that faces me now, of simply wanting to share myself (and not just birthday and Christmas cards) with them as they scatter across America. I am confident that if I really want a more substantial relationship with them, I can have it.

I can find the forms in which to undertake the next 30 or 40 years of being a step-dad (or whatever they will call me) just as I once figured out how to squeeze in the daily trip to cheerleading practice and to pack bag lunches after launching breakfast.

As Kristine enters her senior year in college, and I return to single life, I feel like a freshman again, a person on the verge of wanting to do something that I don't yet know how to do. So what. The adventure of life is not just in knowing how to do something, but in desiring to do it at all.

These days I have only one job and I cook for myself most of the time. But I pray daily to learn to be a good step-father toward these women and to never take for granted the caring that has been ours - so far.

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