What’s wrong with this picture? A Sunday afternoon in March, sun breaking through the clouds and casting onto the wall. Last week’s roast chicken simmering into stock on the stove. Craig at his desk, typing up the selection for lectio divina at the weekly meeting of our Benedictine group. My nephew in a club chair, his feet on the ottoman, reading a local weekly over a bowl of soup. And me? On the couch, looking through the Sunday New York Times and pushing back the resentment I feel rising within.
I got up, went in the kitchen, put together chicken salad, unloaded the dishwasher. My nephew wandered in, asked if I had any bath towels I could spare. His were getting tatty. Threads coming loose, getting caught between his toes as he dried after a shower.
“It happens,” I said. “Just pull the thread off, or cut it. And I’ll look around, we might have an extra towel or two.”
He walked back into the living room to finish pressing some shirts he’d brought over, since he doesn’t have an iron at his place. He moved out last summer, into a small one-bedroom, which he found two days before the move-out deadline. I’d extended the deadline twice, offered to help him look, nagged and reminded him. “I’ve got it under control,” he said. And “I don’t see why you’re so stressed.”
I’ve heard more stories than I can count in the past few years about the “failure to launch” generation, the young men (and a few women) in their early twenties who sleep until noon and hoard dirty dishes in their room and burn through Mom and Dad’s gasoline and patience. I have my own particular details, but that’s not what I want to write about.
You see, yesterday, I was happy to have him come over and iron his shirts, happy to serve him homemade soup, happy to have him to stay for dinner. He’d just had some bad news and I could tell he was feeling fragile. He was fighting a bad cold and had no Sudafed in his apartment. I had plenty, and gave him a blister pak—along with a fistful of Emergen-C packets.
So what was bothering me as I skimmed an article about Mad Men in the Arts & Leisure section, as I diced apples for the chicken salad, as I skimmed fat from the stock?
That my nephew made himself right at home? Was it that his posture—legs outstretched on the ottoman, jacket dropped on the back of a chair, his hat sitting on the table, the blister pak by the toaster, the packet of Emergen-C by the phone—triggered some sense memory at how quickly his stuff could colonize and how fast my anxiety could spike? Was I feeling resentment, or fear? Fear that, I knew too well, could easily spill into questions voiced and unvoiced.
Will he ever be able to hold down a job? Will he find something (anything) to tide him over until the economy strengthens and he figures out what he wants to do with his life? Will he wake up to the fact that he’s not above a job at Starbucks? Did he have any leads? What about a temp agency? Will he go back to school? What about health insurance, a cheaper apartment, paying me back for the rent check he bounced (and I covered)?
Those questions did him, and me, no good. Yet as I worked in the kitchen, I wondered if my new M.O. could be seen as a lack of interest, a lack of caring. How do I strike that balance between support and taking over?
Should I say something to him, I wondered, something along the lines of “Look, I’m happy to talk to you and help you brainstorm ideas, or just listen to you, but I need to hear from you that’s what you want”?
Or, if I wanted to model that he needed to take the lead, shouldn’t I just keep quiet? Would explaining myself, yet again, sound like a parody of parental self-help? And how much was I wanting to do so more to ease my own anxiety rather than help him?
He helped me prepare dinner, slicing onions to roast with the Brussels sprouts and serving up the meat loaf. We talked more about his situation, in a way that came up naturally. He played for me a song by Edith Pilaf, as he called her, and I replied, “Oh, rice’s sister?” And when he left, a bag of Sudafed and EmergenC and leftovers in one hand and the ironed shirts in another, Craig and I each gave him a hug. “Come over any time,” I said. “We’re here for you.”
“I know,” he said.
I woke this morning with anxiety about his situation, anxiety that hovered over morning prayer. Then I turned to the pamphlet of Lenten meditations I picked up at church. Today’s selection is from Mark, the story of the hemorrhaging woman who reaches out to touch Jesus’ cloak and is healed. I’ve always loved how she finds the strength to reach out and make her need known without saying a word.
Plenty of times, of course, I must give help—to a stranger, to a loved one—when I’m not explicitly asked for it. This particular gospel story, I remind myself, is not a template for parenting or a venue to congratulating myself for letting him take the lead.
Yes, I resisted backsliding into “helicopter [i.e., hovering] parent” mode yesterday—but not because he didn’t ask for help. He did. Just not directly.
After all, there’s more than one way to make your need known—and to respond.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Lindsey Crittenden