I’ve always had a strong intuitive side, my inner antennae compulsively tuned to pick up others’ subtle signals. When friends and family, or even strangers, are smiling yet underneath they’re tense or sad, I just feel it. “I’m fine” is almost always a white lie. Dining with a couple recently, despite the smiles and jokes, I felt certain that one spouse would happily smother the other with a pillow given the chance.
When others need help, even if they don’t realize it themselves, it’s usually not the kind I can give or even what’s wanted; this for me is a lifelong lesson. My father’s years of hoarding confounded me; his desperate need to cling unsafely to an independent life is a common challenge for the adult children of elderly parents. Driving over the speed limit at 90 years old while listening to Big Band music playing at maximum volume, Dad scared me to death; I worried about him and the people he might harm. I knew his reflexes had slowed considerably, something I suspect he recognized but denied. Instead of calling an exterminator to deal with the massive colony of yellow jackets he found in his living room ceiling, he hauled in a ladder from the garage, climbed up and shot an entire can of Raid into the hole in the ceiling. “You could have gotten killed!” I yelled. “I’m very careful,” he replied. A 91 year old climbing a ladder—alone—is reckless; he could have fallen, broken a hip, and (since he refused an emergency call service) nobody would have known for days. Despite these risks, he carried on.
People don’t want to be helped, at least not in the way you want to help them. This for me is a hard lesson. As Norman MacLean said in A River Runs Through It, “So it is that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed.” With deep love and compassion for family and friends, I want to prevent their suffering, which in the end may bring us both more distress.
It was only when I stopped trying so hard to help my Father that he needed me. We still battled, especially when I had to say or do things that reduced his independence, like taking away the car keys and convincing him to move out of his five bedroom two story house when he could no longer climb the stairs. I stood at his bedside and held his hand while witnessing his abject terror during his admission to a nursing home; I was there for every doctor’s appointment, regardless of the time of day, to ensure that the doctor’s orders where translated accurately to the nursing home staff. I think my father finally accepted my help because he recognized it for what it was: love.
Truly helping someone you love hardly ever makes you feel good about yourself, especially if it upsets them. Telling a loved one a truth they need to hear is often much harder than remaining silent. While both of you can remain in a bubble of denial, neither of you will benefit; you are simply delaying the inevitable. Love requires compassion and kindness but also courage and risk. Taking a leap of faith and love, we give of ourselves because it’s the right thing to do; not because it’s easy.