Small Kindnesses

Edward Everette Hale is famous for a quote, often attributed to Helen Keller: “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.” We’ve quoted Hale in speeches; we’ve printed his words on coffee mugs, bumper stickers, teeshirts, and who-knows-what-else. Why? Because the thought is freeing, wise, motivating. It gives us permission to do what we can, without feeling obligated to tackle the overwhelming whole of it. 

When we’re confronted by a friend’s problems, we sometimes forget that our small kindnesses matter. One note, evening, dinner? It won’t make a difference, we say to ourselves. We’d do well to remember Hale’s line, because in the scheme of things, our seemingly insignificant deeds—the unplanned gestures and words—may matter most of all. Comfort matters. It lasts. 

I’m a long distance caregiver to my elderly parents, handling bills, health decisions, caregivers, and the running of their household. This is a sea of worry for me these days, a sea in which I barely manage to tread water. My parents are in that early stage, no-man's land of dementia where they are losing the ability to make sensible decisions for themselves. They forget things from one minute to the next. And yet they can carry on a conversation, albeit with some repetition. They keep track of time and seasons. It’s a weird set of strengths and weaknesses, 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. 

As a long-distance caregiver, I live with a packed suitcase. I’ve memorized every tree of the 300 trek. I’ve driven it at breakneck speed more than once, with a ready line of explanation on my lips for a police officer. I call my parents everyday and can almost feel the losses, like slipping sand beneath my father’s determined cheerfulness. I wake up in the middle of the night, flooded with worry for them. 

I can’t keep track of everything. And recently I made a terrible discovery. 

A convicted murder swindled my elderly father, piecemeal, over a period of months. 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 my father 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. My father wrote checks, as many as three in a day, in his slow, shaky handwriting. Each one took him several attempts, and I found the discarded ones littered on the floor and the table, some with “VOID” scrawled across the face. 

In the aftermath 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 had met earlier with a criminal attorney and trudged back and forth to the police station, where I waited behind a woman whose car had been scratched while she shopped at WalMart and another with a broken radio antenna. I’d met with a security salesman about having my parents’ house placed under video surveillance. It was after four o’clock, and a six-hour drive loomed ahead. I thought of calling a friend who lives midway between my parents’ house and my own. Could I stop off? Could I spend the night and leave early in the morning?

“Of course!” she said, without hesitating for an instant. “Yes! I’ll have dinner ready for you!”

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 real power? What more has happened that I don’t know about? How can they afford the care they need, living in a sprawling house they refuse to leave?

We need the friend who answers with her actions the one simple, answerable question we all 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 comfort of that yes helps with the bigger questions the way a colorful buoy helps a sailor pit his craft against an ocean. 

We badly need those friends who offer small, spur-of-the-moment kindnesses. Those moments bob like buoys amid our private, turbulent seas. Don’t feel as if you must stay onboard to rig and bail and steer. You cannot solve your friend’s caregiving problems or perhaps even do much to help. But you can do something, and that something will matter.