“Taking good care of yourself means the people in your life receive the best of you rather than what is left of you.”
— Lucille Zimmerman
“When will you have a little pity for
every soft thing
that walks through the world,
— Mary Oliver
My father is a dream. At 94, he has some memory loss, but he’s still sharp. I love our visits and our talks, and I love him.
However, after driving back and from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles for several months — in part, to cover for a sibling who was ill — I needed a break.
Anyone who has been a caretaker knows the importance of self-love.
It may be a cliche, but it’s true: if you can’t love yourself, you’re not going to be much good for anyone else.
It’s hard to do, especially for women, because we’re so used to putting ourselves second and third, but there are times when we need to put ourselves and our own needs first.
The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, often talks about the importance of practicing self-compassion and lovingkindness towards ourselves, even when we’re not feeling our best. “The more we’re able to feel tenderness towards ourselves,” she writes, “the more easily it flows to others.”
I’ve never been good at putting myself first. Often I feel guilty when I do it. But when my sibling was better, and he and my father were back in communication, it seemed a good time to try it.
I worked on my business.
I dove into my work.
On Easter Sunday morning I was editing, and on a roll, and — as Mary Karr once said — when that happens “you don’t get up from the gambling table.” So I did something out of character: I called and told my father I’d have to miss the service, but I’d come up afterwards for lunch.
Truth be told, I don’t like chapel. Besides, every time I’ve gone with my father, he’s complained he can’t hear a thing that’s being said.
When I arrived in his room, I apologized for being late, and told him we’d have our own service.
“Wherever two or three are gathered together,” I said, and he liked it.
We sat by a water fountain outside the common dining room on the beautiful grounds where he lives, and chatted with the people who came by. We listened to our favorite versions of “Over the Rainbow,” and I played him a recording of “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” a song I’d been listening to all week for comfort.
We talked about a friend of ours we missed.
At lunch, we enjoyed talking politics.
I stayed until late, hoping to avoid the traffic on the way home, which turned out to be horrendous, even at 10 p.m.
I’d had that month off, though — that time of self-care — and I felt refreshed enough to handle it.
I’d planned on waiting a couple of weeks before going up again, but the following Monday I got a call from my brother, who told me my father was upset because I hadn’t shown up that morning to take him to chapel.
“I told him it was Monday,” my brother said, “and I finally convinced him, but he wants someone to take him to chapel. Will you go?”
“I don’t like chapel,” I said, “but sure, I’ll go.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about those pigeons in the Loren Eisley essay, “The Brown Moths,” who keep returning to the site of the abandoned El in Philadelphia, even after it’s been replaced by a subway, and it’s no longer the river of food it used to be for generations of pigeons.
When they hear a familiar sound — some construction workers who are breaking up the stanchions — they return again, bravely flying through the sparks and the noise of the jackhammers, waiting patiently by the peanut vending machine, and listening for the jingling of change.
I wonder if we, too, are what Eisley calls “a curious instance of the memory of living things for a way of life or a locality that has long been cherished.”
Or else it’s the ritual, alone, that’s comforting for my father now.
After chapel, we sat outside in the sun by the fish pond and talked.
I read to him from a book about race relations on the south side of Chicago, where he integrated a church in the 1950s, when he was a pastor.
I was just a child then, and had no idea what was going on just a few blocks away from where we lived — the burning of the homes of black people by angry mobs of white supremacists who didn’t want black people to move into our neighborhood.
He took a nap, and afterwards asked me what the sermon was about that morning.
When I told him, he said, “I have a hard time believing that.”
“I have a hard time believing it, too,” I said.
When I left that night, I promised we’d go again sometime.
“Only when it works out,” he said.
“ Okay, it’s a deal,” I said, and like a pigeon, I flew off. I flew home.