Recently, a friend of mine went through the harrowing ordeal of sitting in a hospital waiting room while her father-in-law’s condition went from bad to worse. In the white-knuckled hours that passed those first shaky end-of-life discussions were had and hospice was called. He would be going home and they would wait at his bedside and keep him comfortable.
A week into her family’s severe new way of life, her father-in-law surprisingly took a turn for the better, caught a new wind and kept everyone listening to his stories and his spiritual testimonies. Meanwhile, my friend had a competing engagement; her own son turned 18 and it seemed right to all of the family to lift their heads, put a pause on their trouble and celebrate his coming of age. This meant that her mother-in-law, the full-time caregiver, found a need to be released for an evening to put on a clean sweater, fresh lipstick and a smile so she could kiss her grandson with pride.
I knew they were in the middle of all of this, but I did not anticipate their solution. She sent the most stirring text a friend can send, “Can your son come sit with my father-in-law for a few hours?”
My son is 15. He’s never, in his recollective memory, lost a grandparent. Since our friends and family have thus far been spared the uncertainties of failing health, he’s not even been near the infirm. He’s never sat at a bedside, never held a feeble hand, never practiced the gift of presence with anyone. He’s social and quirky and bold. Sending him into a hospice room wouldn’t have been my first assignment to teach him the ways of compassion.
But my friend saw who he could be. She saw his ability to hold a conversation and to make the speaker feel valued and heard. She saw his kind-heartedness, his bravery and his extroverted nature. She saw the best version of him and called it out, issuing him the greatest invitation and challenge of his teen life.
My knee-jerk reaction was to want to say, “No” for him and to offer myself or my husband in return. Part of a parent’s job is to fill in the gaps for our kids’ deficiencies -- making their forgotten apologies, instructing their thank-you notes, making snubbed friends feel loved. But I took a moment to reframe my perspective: “He’s not deficient. He’s capable.” Reflecting on the wisdom my friend has dispensed in the years we’ve walked together, I acknowledged that she both knew him and what she was doing so I could trust that this request was right just as it was.
Two things happened in that moment. First, he was roused to examine his emerging abilities. And I was provoked to see him in the same affirmative and mature way way she did. My son was becoming himself, someone wholeheartedly distinct and effectual outside of me.
In that moment, I chose not to say no for my son, but to give him the experience of deciding what kind of grown-up he was going to become. He’ll soon be off on his own in the world. Would he be taking experiences of extreme compassion and selflessness in his social toolbox? Or had I buffered him from the most acute suffering? Why should I shield him from the practice of love?
He, of his own accord, bravely said, “Yes,” giving my friend’s family the gift of time away. The three hours he gave to a man whose days are likely few, were spent listening to stories of family and faith. But, quietly he took note of his swollen hands, and the way his bed creaked when he coughed. My son, the burgeoning man, encouraged and nodded and made a million mature decisions about how to move and how to speak and what kind of eye contact was just enough. There in that room, without a television to distract him or an ipod humming in his ear my son shared the gift of a common humanity with a man who still had much to teach.
One day, it will be a loved one in that bed and my grown son will go prepared with his tools of compassion. I’m grateful that he won’t walk into that future scene feeling fearful and deficient, but knowing that he’s becoming the adult he practiced to be, full of the competence established by the trusting adults who went before him.