The Luxury and Cost of Empathy
I’ve written before about being a member of the “sandwich generation”, caring for a child and aging parent. It’s a flippant phrase thrown off to encompass and neatly categorize a myriad of emotions and actions. This week has rendered me battered and exhausted, sleepless and emotional. If there were any time for me to be anti-Zen, it’s now – as in, I’d rather not be in any more moments. I would like to daydream, write feckless fiction, doze off in a chair thinking of an island in Greece.
My daughter experienced her first “frenemy” moments, crying for the second time in a week when one of her friends was deliberately cruel to her. It’s a rare thing for my child to cry and while she is sensitive to others, she’s not easily upset. This is new. And it’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to drop-kick an 11 year old, who tells my daughter she’s only joking, after a cutting remark. I calmed and comforted, talked about how some people didn’t know how to be good friends and that if this friend continued behaving in a hurtful way, the friendship might need to be reconsidered. I sounded reasonable and mature.
That night, I tossed and turned, alternating between rage and fear. I felt that gut-wrenching pain that only the tears of my child seems to bring on. I railed against myself for projecting all my childhood anxieties onto a kid who has more confidence than I’ll likely ever have. I thought about how this was just the beginning. That more hurts would come, that I’d have to be diligent and listen and try to hold back my adult anger and defensiveness. Then my mind spiraled into a darker place. The pain of mere social interactions was nothing compared to thinking about the years ahead when I might lose her or she me. Part of me wondered if there was anything I could do to protect myself, never imagining I’d be so connected to another human.
Morning came. We talked at breakfast. “How are you going to deal with so-and-so?”
“I’m just going to act like nothing happened.”
My dull, tired brain harrumphed, but I kept my mouth shut. Where’s the righteous indignation, the fiery cry for justice?
I began my newest morning routine, packing up some exercise gear and headed over to my mother-in-law’s for the now daily physical therapy exercises she must do. She is 85 and living independently as long as we can keep her moving and engaged. Early stage dementia was diagnosed many years ago and over the last couple of years, cognitive impairment has shown up in the form of short term memory loss. Lately, it’s started to scare her.
Last week, I met with the services coordinator. My mother-in-law, for as long as she has lived in this senior building, has played Friday night cards with a group of her peers. Until one Friday, she went down and they had shut her out of the game. The other players were becoming irritated with her forgetfulness and decided they no longer wanted to play with her. My heart ached for my mother-in-law, who contrived her own explanation for no longer playing cards. As I waited to meet with the coordinator, I heard her in conversation with a couple of elderly people in the the hallway.
“I never said she couldn’t be in the library. She told Joan that I said that, but I never did.”
An old man piped up “She’s a troublemaker.”
I sat in the coordinator’s office and sighed. She came in, apologizing for the delay. I said “It’s like grade school all over again, isn’t it?”
“You don’t know the half of it. Every day is like this – gossip, fighting, misunderstandings. I spend a lot of my day just mediating.”
I shook my head. “And I suppose you can’t just tell them to grow up!” We laughed and proceeded to discuss a plan for my mother-in-law to get interaction with some of her nicer peers.
I headed upstairs and knocked on my mother-in-law’s door. She opened the door with a smile. “I’m ready – I took my shoes off.” We laughed – taking off her shoes had become part of the routine before starting exercises that required her to lay on the bed. Her table was littered with hastily scrawled notes. Tomorrow. Thursday. 1:30. Next week. Notes she took when I talked, ignoring my typed schedule that sits prominently in the middle of the table. She is trying hard to hold on, to keep cognizant of time and day, to keep herself from drifting away. Sometimes I just want to grab her writing hand and tell her it’s okay, but I know that the effort anchors her.
A low grade depression has settled over me. Some weeks, I feel like I’m disappearing. Dramatic life moments are happening all around me, but I’m inconsequential, a blank white board getting covered in reminders and lists and other people’s needs. I remind myself with a mental kick, that this is a luxury, to have problems that don’t belong to me. To be able to lend a shoulder, a hand, sage advice I earned years ago. But all the aphorisms in the world don’t change the fact that empathy has a price and I wonder how much I’m capable of paying, in these years of learning and losing.
As my daughter got off the school bus later that day, I watched from the window. Hmm, usual bounce in the step, turning and waving to the friends on her bus. Maybe a good day. Later that evening, I asked how it went with her friend, expecting a same as usual response. She said, “I told her that she was mean to me and needed to apologize and she did.”
I slept well that night.