Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help someone. Or to know if what you’re doing is helping, and you should do more … or should you do less? Maybe a little bit quieter … or louder. Maybe do it from way over here. Or not at all. Then again, maybe just shut up and get to it.
My brother’s wife died in January. She was mid sixties, a vivacious woman who finally collapsed into the Parkinsons that took over her body, and her mind. Bob was at work when the call came from Kathy, Lyn’s caretaker:
“You need to get home. Now.” He hung up the phone and rushed to the house.
I don’t know the particulars; I do know the doctor was there. And that it was, sadly, time. Lyn could not have weighed a hundred pounds. She deserved to finally be at peace. So, that January day, she let go.
My brother texted me: “Lyn’s gone.” When I saw the text, I called. He was his typical stoic self, but I thought I could hear past Bob’s weary “take care of business” voice. He was drifting, and putting together what needed to be done now, and next, and next, and then … it was a sort of roadmap that kept him tethered to the ground, kept him from collapsing in an exhausted, heartbroken heap.
I’m his big sister. He’s my little brother. We grew up in the family foxhole together. We dodged many of the same alcohol-fueled, rage-filled bullets. We are the only two of the six of us kids who share that childhood. Our parents changed as parents do, with successive children. But we were the first: Thing one and Thing two.
So I felt a sort of desperate need to help hold his pieces together. I went to him in Memphis.
Through the past six years, when Lyn was dealing with, then coping with, then had no clue about, what was happening to her, Bob had enlisted my help a few times. I was glad to give it. We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.
When I got to Memphis after Lyn’s death, I walked into the house. I was a bit startled; by the looks of things. The house itself was heartbroken.
Lyn didn’t want a funeral, and she’d asked to be cremated. Bob honored her wishes, and instead threw a party in April, on her Birthday. By now we’d chosen paint colors and freshened up all the public areas of the house. The party was a great success, and a weight was lifted from my bother’s shoulders.
Now, he’s learning how to live a life where he can go, and do, whatever he wants. It’s both a blessing and a curse; full of stops, starts, and those moments when the ache of missing her takes his breath. But he’s got this. And I’m here for him, always, ready to help in whatever way he needs.
I had an interesting conversation with my business partner this afternoon. We were discussing how to handle a somewhat delicate situation with a person we both love and respect. This person unknowingly violated business protocol, in a way that left us very concerned. We needed to do two things: clean up the mess, and establish professional boundaries with this colleague. And we want to do it without losing the relationship.
At one point in our talk I mentioned “hard lines.” After we ended the call I got to thinking, how does a person learn to develop “hard lines?” You know, life’s guard rails — what we use to keep our principles, values, and relationships on track.
I’m an adult child of alcoholics. Growing up I just knew they drank a lot, and did it every day. I didn’t say ‘alcoholic’ until I was grown and in therapy. I didn’t call them that because I hadn’t really thought about it. Every family has their own brand of “normal,” and drinking parents was part of our family brand.
But what happens when the parents drink, and drink a lot, is that boundaries don’t exist. As a kid, I didn’t know. Anything. My goal was survival. Because at any given moment, what once was the “rule” suddenly became the “violation.” So — other than what I learned through the nuns at school, or through the Church, there were no guard rails, no consistent “hard lines.”
In my early adult life, I had no clue what pieces of me were missing. As a result I did what most of us do: I partnered with a lovable boy whose missing pieces matched my own. Our dysfunctions fit together perfectly. We became enmeshed, our lines blurred, but it all felt normal to both of us; neither one of us had a clue what lay ahead.
As the years passed, we each continued to grow and change; our sharp edges began to cut deep into each other, and started to sever who we were as a couple. Eventually we divorced. By that time I had been in therapy and was learning about developing healthy boundaries. Week after week I sat there in my therapist’s office, holding my broken heart, and seeing clearly, for the first time, what we had been; I shed tears over what we could never be.
Establishing boundaries is not always easy. But it’s always healthy. Boundaries keep relationships clean, and honest. With everything on the table, with no truths left twisted or untold, there is nothing to fear. The coast is clear for real connection.
The best thing a parent can do for their kiddos is model healthy boundaries early on. It has to be a consistent lesson of “Choice, meet consequence.” But parents who have no established boundaries, or “hard lines,” in their own lives, don’t even know it’s a thing to nurture in their children. Consequently, when the children become adults, they’re out in the world, operating without their own fully established guard rails.
This is a recipe for messy relationships. It can leave young adults floundering, trying to figure out how they keep getting it wrong. But often it’s as simple — and as complicated — as knowing they need to find their own boundaries; that it’s important to stick to them, even when it’s tough to do so.
So here’s to the freedom to say “No,” or “Stop,” or “Here’s the whole, ugly truth,” without having to fear that we’re getting it wrong. If we’re staying true to our own principles, and respecting our own “hard lines,” no matter how tough things get, we’ll always come out whole. And we’ll end up in relationships with people whose boundaries we respect, and who respect what drives us.
So I trust my business partner and I will not only keep the relationship with our colleague. I’m thinking the bond will grow even stronger through our being honest, kind, and maintaining our ‘hard lines.’
Life doesn’t get much better than that.