First Published on mariashriver.com
We sometimes forget that our small kindnesses really matter. A note, an afternoon walk, dinner—how can it make a real difference in a friend’s problems? We’d do well to keep in mind Edward Everett Hale’s inspiring words, “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do the something I can do.” In the scheme of things, our seemingly insignificant deeds—the unplanned gestures and words—may matter most of all.
Comfort counts. It lasts. Here’s how a friend’s kindness helped me through one of my more difficult episodes of long-distance caregiving.
As the only living child of elderly parents, I keep a packed suitcase in my closet. I’ve memorized every hill, bend, and rut in the 300-mile stretch between my house and theirs. I’ve driven it at breakneck speed more than once, with a ready line of explanation on my lips for a state trooper wearing a tall hat.
I call my parents every day and can almost feel the losses, like slipping sand beneath my father’s determined cheerfulness. I wake in the middle of the night, flooded with worry for them.
My parents are in the stage of decline where child and adulthood clash in an unpredictable drama. They’ve wrecked the car, left hot grease to burn on the stove, forgotten their pills, lost valuable items. But they keep track of time and seasons. We have conversations that are loving and reflective of the day to day banter that consumes most of our lives. They possess a weird set of strengths and weaknesses, though, and it ties my hands. In their eyes, I have become thirteen years old again—their “sweet young’n,” my father jokes in a parody of Southern dialect. I manage their bills and household as best I can with frequent visits, paid caregivers, and the help of relatives and neighbors. Recently, I made a terrible discovery.
A convicted murderer swindled my father, piecemeal, out of more than a hundred thousand dollars. Dressed as carpenters, this criminal and his underlings hoodwinked their way into my parents’ house, stood next to my mother’s teapot collection, and over and over again badgered Dad into paying for bogus home repairs.
I can almost see him sitting with hunched shoulders in a vinyl desk chair, a relic he kept from his first office, rubbing his brow in confusion at the badly written supply lists and duplicate bills they gave him. He cannot see well enough anymore to read fine print; he suffers from a spinal condition that made it impossible to keep track of what these people were doing—or rather not doing. He wrote checks in his slow, shaky handwriting. Some took him several attempts, and I found the discarded ones, with “VOID” scrawled across the face, in a pile of ad flyers, charity solicitations, and several years’ worth of holiday cards.
In the aftermath of this latest catastrophe I was upstairs in my old bedroom, wondering how I’d get home, tired as I was from the sleepless night before. I’d met with an attorney and trudged back and forth twice to the police station, where I waited behind a woman whose car had been scratched while she shopped at the mall and another with a broken radio antennae. I had arranged to have the house placed under video surveillance. It was after four o’clock.
The drive home seemed impossibly long and dreary until I thought of calling a friend from college, who lives midway between my parents’ house and my own. “I’m sorry for the short notice, but could I stop off tonight and leave early in the morning?” I said, relieved that I’d reached her.
She didn’t hesitate. “Of course! I’ll have dinner ready when you get here!”
She’s the friend we all need. The one who doesn’t ask for an explanation; the one with a porch swing and an evening of time. The one who cannot answer the complex questions: How will I protect my parents, when I have no legal power? What more has happened that I don’t know about? I can’t move in with them. How can they afford the care they’ll soon need, living in a house they refuse to leave?
We need the friend who answers with her actions the one simple question we ask, at least of a few people in our lives: Do you care for me, and can I count on you when the chips are down? We need the answer to be Yes, I do. I’ll show you. The support of that “yes” bolsters us to grapple with problems which have no obvious or easy solutions.
I pulled away from my friend’s the next morning feeling restored, with a memory of night falling across the back porch of her lakeside cottage. Many months later, I can still see the good humor and concern on her face, played up by the light of a candle that flickered as we talked, until it was a flat pool of wax in a saucer. My frantic sense of time was suspended for those hours, even as the small community of cottages, lit from within, became a gold bracelet around the darkened lake. The late summer air felt thick and warm, like a cotton blanket.
It would have been the same impartial night, had I sipped convenience store coffee from a Styrofoam mug and droned over the miles with worries churning in my mind. Instead, suffused with her friendship, the night became her continued gift to me—a vivid memory that comforts me now, when my heart aches from jagged losses. It wasn’t supposed to be this way at the end.
Caregivers badly need friends who offer spur-of-the-moment kindnesses. It isn’t possible, of course, to give single-handedly the kind of significant relief most caregivers, especially those who provide round-the-clock care, need. But don’t let the immensity of caregiving dissuade you. You can do something, and that something will matter.