What Not To Do When There’s Nothing Much You Can Do

What Not To Do When There’s Nothing Much You Can Do August 7, 2013

I don’t like goodbyes.

For years, when my mother and I are about to say goodbye–when the visit is drawing to a close, say, or one of us (why is it always me?) is about to take off on a new adventure–we have picked inane fights with one another.

We are quite expert at inane arguments. My dad once happened upon us in the kitchen, debating passionately, even Talmudically about seltzer.

Yes. Sparkling water. Seltzer. Fighting about it. With religious fervor. I don’t recall the specifics, just that my dad walked in and surveyed the scene silently, and then pointed out, very calmly:

“You’re arguing. About seltzer.”

The truth is that we are the best of friends, and saying goodbye is hard, and for whatever neurotic reason, it’s feels easier to pretend that we are furious at each other and can’t wait to get rid of the other than it is just to CRY and say I’ll miss you.

Is it possible that something similar happens when we are faced with old age or incurable disease?

In response to Monday’s post, one of my friends commented on the “manufactured controversies” that whip evangelicals into frenzies online, noting (as I did) that we are often very selective in what we get outraged over:

Bikinis? YES!

Shackling laboring inmates? NO!

‘Biblical’ gender roles? YES!

Unjust wages? NO!

Something dumb that John Piper just said? YES YES YES!

The same commenter noted:

Another social injustice [that’s] invisible to Facebook is our casual neglect of the elderly.


I was talking to a friend recently who was off to see visit someone who was very, very ill. The friend mentioned feeling a bit nervous–which I think is really normal. Hospitals and nursing homes and hospices are not, generally speaking, cheery places, and it is awful to see people we once knew in their strength and vigor laid waste by old age or disease.

It’s easier push them from our minds, be upset about other things, forget that they exist, or try to fix them than it is just to BE WITH the old and the dying.

One of my favorite cartoons from the Dad archives sums this up well:

echinaceaWhen there’s nothing more to be done, it feels easier to just to stay away, or to pick a fight within ourselves that justifies our staying away:

“It makes me feel sad to see her in that condition.”

“He probably doesn’t even know I’m there.”

I’m no expert at any of this. I will admit that I dragged myself to the nursing home sometimes to visit Mr. and Mrs. S.: it is all so depressing. Sometimes there were things to do: potted plants to be watered, eyeglasses to be found and cleaned, shoes to be tied and nail polish to be applied, not to mention meals to be eaten and coffee to be drunk.

At the end, though, there is very little to do except simply to be. You resist the urge to have little seltzer arguments within yourself and just sit there for a long goodbye.

But I think that something similar is true for many of us with our everyday little traumas. We would like to escape the pain of them by bickering over seltzer; to pretend that the natural remedy du jour is just waiting to fix what ails us; to find a way to avert our eyes even from what is happening right before them.

I’ve just finished writing several different pieces about David Rakoff’s posthumously published novel-in-verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which is a remarkable book because it sugarcoats nothing and is much concerned with death and the various kinds of small torments we humans inflict on each other, and yet, at the same time, is one of the most hopeful and life-affirming books I’ve read in ages.

What to do when there’s nothing much you can do?

Don’t bicker. Don’t try to fix. Don’t bring echinacea.

Just bring a little beauty, and a little kindness.

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