The other day, I saw words of wisdom on the road sign outside of a building, “Do the best you can with what you have where you are.” We transmit many messages in the course of a day, and I could not help but marvel at the powerful simplicity of this particular thought.
I find myself trying to apply this guidance to my relationship with my 88-year-old father. A man who worked hard every day of his life, he now spends many idle hours in a retirement apartment. We are extremely fortunate that my sister lives near him and can take him to doctor appointments, go have meals with him – basically provide that day-to-day interaction that can make so much of a difference.
Living three hours away, I cannot see him on a very regular basis. When he first experienced a health crisis that necessitated a move from his own home, I decided the best I could do with what I had where I was meant a commitment to calling him daily. This proved to be a somewhat formidable task at first, as I was extremely close to my mother before she passed away, but hadn’t developed much of a relationship with my dad. When mom was alive, if dad answered the phone, it was a quick exchange of pleasantries and an even quicker transfer to mom.
At first, my phone calls with my dad lasted a minute or two. I might ask him how he was doing, knowing that he hated losing his independence and was struggling to find meaning in his new life. He would dutifully say “ok”, then became bolder and expressed that sometimes he wished he wasn’t alive at all. I gathered my resolve and told him that while I could understand the feelings behind that, I hoped he would also understand I did not want to hear him say that to me on a regular basis. I learned to acknowledge his feelings, but also ask for what I needed. And, for the most part, he stopped short of his more extreme statements.
I can’t say that I looked forward to calling him at first. I realized that dad wasn’t going to talk much to me, but that he would listen. I began to share stories of day-to-day life raising children. I had to understand that he might not reply much at all, and I wove questions into my details, trying to force at least a yes or no response. I looked for anecdotes that would interest him, but not worry him, since he had plenty of hours in the day to fret about things. If the guys in the house won money in fantasy football, dad was intrigued. When he knew the furnace was being replaced, he asked the next day how much it cost. If I described a scary weather drive (emphasizing I made it home safely!), he learned he was willing to talk about some of the harrowing drives he faced as a traveling salesman.
I discovered a Facebook page celebrating our hometown and started sharing some of the restaurants, stores and people with dad. I learned that there is a balance with this; I could hear the joy in his voice as he recalled a favorite waitress at a particular breakfast cafe. Yet, too many memories seemingly renewed his sense of loss, since these were all associated with a life he was forced to leave behind. As awkward and foreign as it seemed, I slipped a couple of sentimental statements in here and there, “You know, dad, without you, I wouldn’t be here, and neither would my kids.” These times, I didn’t wait for him to say anything; I just needed to say to him what had gone unsaid for a lifetime.
Doing the best I could with what I had where I was led to phone conversations that now can last 20 minutes, a mind-boggling increase from those first one-to-two minute calls. After I shared stories of my teens’ driving, dad talked about not getting his license until he was discharged from the Navy, as his family was too poor to own a car. I’ve heard about growing up in the Great Depression, being allowed one ice cream cone a week and getting an orange in his stocking, as his family could not afford anything else.
I still get frustrated that we live further away and I cannot see him in person or help out as much. He still has setbacks, usually falls that make him grumpy and bring back the depression. It is not a perfect situation, as with most elderly family members who transition away from their own homes and find themselves increasingly dependent upon others. But, if I try to focus on doing my best, I know that there are many rewards. A few weeks ago, dad ended one of our calls by saying, “Sometimes I just don’t know what would happen to me if you didn’t call me so much.”
If you are overwhelmed and wishing things could be different, try focusing your energy on doing the best you can with what you have where you are.
Laura B joined Empathia in 2000 and is an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.