Sit With Me

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Richard Swerdlow’s mother is elderly and when he can he tries to make sure all her practical needs are taken care of. But that, he learns, is not what she really needs.

My mother is 88, and lives in an assisted living facility. They take good care of her, but I help when I have time.

It's a couple hours drive, and since I can only get there once a month or so, there's a long to-do list. No time to waste. Each visit, I strategically plan maximum use of minimum time. With military precision, I swing into action. Mom needs to get hair cut, nails done. There's the heart doctor, eye doctor, dentist. Maybe buying new stockings, if she feels up to it, which she seldom does anymore.

Back in her room, I rapidly organize, go through mail, sort bills, make sure medications are correct, prioritize requirements. Does she need shoes? Is that sweater looking too ragged to wear?

With that long drive home weighing on my mind, I'm pressed for time. I power through the day, double-checking I've efficiently handled everything. Mom is so old, confused and slow these days, and I'm in a hurry. Last visit, after I went through my mental checklist, I spoke in a bossy voice. "Looks like everything's done, so I'll be leaving. Anything else you need?"


There was a long pause.

"Yes," she said. "Can you just sit with me for a little while?"

And I realized what wasn't on the to-do list. The simple gift of time, so we could sit together and I can listen. Listen to her memories, about her childhood, me when I was a baby. About my brothers, about her parents, about when she was a young wife, about her long life, like all lives, at once both ordinary and extraordinary.

"Yes, I can," I said.

And as we sat there together, she actually didn't talk much. But, somehow, sitting silently, we were communicating at the deepest level. And, I realized, this isn't a waste of time at all. You can always buy new stockings, but you can't buy more time. And time is running out.

So next visit, I'll skip the over-scheduled list.

Instead I'll sit with Mom and let her take pleasure in what comfort and companionship she can still enjoy, though her mind's foggy now, and she can barely walk, or hear, or even talk.

There may not be a lot of time left. But what time remains, this is how we'll spend it.

Life is rushed, and I'm busy.

But, yes, Mom. I can sit with you for a little while.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.