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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

Learning to wait

A daughter seeks a rudder for her father and finds one for herself


Last week I was sitting in the local Social Services center, waiting my turn to fill out a form to make an appointment to fill out more forms. I was there on behalf of my father, to learn if he was eligible for various assistance programs. Never what you would define as a high-achieving go-getter, he was swimming in one of the darker holes of his life, one that had been getting deeper since the death of my mother, his wife.

She was his rudder, and without her, he was a boat lost at sea, sometimes looking for a direction, but never having the ability to follow one for long. While I realize that mental disease rules much of who he is and what he does, there have been days when I have appealed to God to provide him with a quick reunion with my mother. The thought leaves me feeling guilty, but it still pops up just the same.

Away for a few days for work recently, I came home to learn that my father’s electricity had been turned off for lack of payment. During my absence, my father contacted my husband. When I returned, Dave let me know that our checking account was $500 lighter, but that my father’s power was back on.

It was time to at least get some better financial regularity to my father’s life. So I found myself at Social Services, doing the preliminary legwork to get him into “the system.”

I arrived at 7:30 a.m. -- opening time. Unfortunately, so did about 100 other people. We sat and waited. Some of us didn’t know exactly what we were waiting for. We heard numbers called, colors called, and sometimes, even names. A middle-aged man next to me asked if I knew what happened next. “Do they call our names? Was I supposed to get a number? How does this work?” I told him I was as much in the dark as he was. “I just want to get some help with food,” he said. “I’ve got a job, but I need help with the food.”

I almost said, “Oh, I’m here for my father, to get him help.” But I bit down on the words before they fell from my mouth. In my head, it sounded like I was trying to tell this man that I “personally” didn’t need to be there. I was there on behalf of another. I felt like a snob.

A well-dressed man to my left made small talk about the wait. I assumed he was there for the same reason I was –– helping out another. He looked like he had his life together. He looked like he didn’t need $127 a month to help with his food bills. Then he told me he was worried. He had to be at work by 9 a.m. and the wait was longer than he expected.

“I am just getting out of a halfway house this week, moving out on my own,” he told me, just as proud as if he were a businessman telling me about a major deal or sale.

I looked around and realized that you really couldn’t guess anyone’s situation. People were there because they needed help, just like me.

A week later, I was back in the building, this time with my father in tow. We had an appointment with a social worker. After checking in, we went to the waiting room -- a different one this time, but just as full. But surprisingly, there was calm. Upon learning that she had to fill out another form before getting back into the appointment corral, a woman near me calmly said, “OK, do you have a pen I can borrow?” No yelling. No tantrums.

I thought of the airport when delays are announced. Angry words quickly erupt. Others steam in their corners like a tea kettle just before whistling. But here there was calm.

My father’s name was called and we went to our appropriate door. The social worker introduced herself and then asked who I was.

“I am his daughter,” I said, thinking it was obvious, assuming that I would be a part of whatever happened next.

“Are you going to serve as his guardian?”

As much as I felt like I already was his guardian, I didn’t want the label officially. I wanted him to take some responsibility for his life. I wanted him to find his own rudder.

“No, I’m just his daughter; just his ride here today.”

“Well then you can wait while your father and I speak,” she said. “Go ahead and make yourself comfortable and we’ll come out when we are done.”

I didn’t think to bring a book. And so I sat. And waited. And watched.

I was starting to feel more like the angry travelers at the airport than the patient clients I had seen in the Social Services waiting rooms.

In my head, the words to a song we sing on Holy Thursday floated in the background of my thoughts: “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray.”

And so I prayed. Nothing fancy. I left my “Christmas list” of “Please, God, give me” at home. There were no prayers of “change him,” in reference to my father. Instead, I did something I rarely do: I just sat quietly, patiently, waiting to perhaps hear whatever God might be telling me. I thought maybe God would like me to hear him for once instead of listening to my wants and needs.

I’d like to say that there was a “cosmic experience,” a flash of light that made everything clear, an epiphany of major proportions. But I think God reserves those moments for Moses and his bushes. Times when good theater is needed to get a point across.

Yet I felt God and somehow I felt changed. For the first time in months, I wasn’t angry at my father. I would still have preferred that his life ran in a different direction than it had, but I wasn’t angry. I was relaxed. I enjoyed watching the children playing around me.

About an hour and a half after his appointment began, my father returned to the waiting room. He said he liked the social worker. He was happy because he was eligible for some programs that would be a big help to him. I was happy for him. And surprisingly, I think I would have still been happy for him, even if he found that he wasn’t eligible. I was happy that he made the effort. He was trying. Maybe he would finally find his own rudder.

I learned to wait, and to pray. And I received more than any Christmas list could have delivered.

Mary Gorski is communications director of a Catholic religious order in Milwaukee.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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