Sometimes being right is exactly the wrong thing.
Since my dad’s death in November, I’ve kept in close touch with my mother. My parents were married for 64 years, and one of the most significant things I can do for Mom is to give her steady emotional support.
A few evenings ago I failed in that respect.
It was 10:00 p.m., just before Mom’s bedtime. I hadn’t spoken to her all day, and we chatted for several minutes about what we’d been doing. She’d gone to a talent show at the retirement facility where she lives, and she told me in some detail about the different acts—a woman singer with a beautiful voice and a group of men who had put together a very silly skit. She had enjoyed the evening.
“Hey,” she said suddenly, “I finally got those checking account statements from the bank.”
“Great!” I said. This had been a months-long sticking point. Shortly before my father’s death, the statements for my parents’ joint checking account had stopped coming. We couldn’t figure out why. We had visited the bank once to ask about it, and I had called twice. “Now we just need to hope that they keep coming,” I said.
My mother sighed. “I guess I really need to take your father’s name off that account,” she said. This was a freighted statement. For decades my parents had paid all their household bills through that account. Putting it in her name only was painful for her to think about.
The problem was, she had already removed my father’s name.
If his name was still on the account, we had yet another problem with the bank’s record keeping.
“Mom,” I said, “whose name shows up on the statements for that account?”
“Mine and your father’s.” Her tone was slightly annoyed: Of course both our names are on it.
Here’s where I made my mistake. “You’ve already taken Dad’s name off that account,” I said. “Remember?”
“No, Jan,” now she was clearly irritated, “it’s in your father’s name and my name. We took his name off the checking account we have at—” she named another bank.
“Could you get the statements and check?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I should have let the matter lie. It was late. She’d had a good day. There was no need to deal with this matter right then.
She put the phone down with a clunk and went to her desk to get the statements. And I silently kicked myself.
Helping others takes grace, patience, and a careful reading of each situation in which you find yourself. I had let my frustration with the bank’s errors override all that. Now, instead of being happy with her day, Mom was going to go to bed thinking about her dear, dear husband, whose name was no longer on her main checking account.
I suspected that she had simply confused the two checking accounts. It was the kind of thing I might have done in a conversation with Jeff. I could easily have waited a day or so to straighten it out.
Her tone was subdued when she returned to the phone. “Well, I guess you were right,” she said.
No, Mom, I wanted to say, in this case I was wrong.
There was no permanent damage. We chatted a few more minutes, wished each other sweet dreams, and hung up with “I love you.” But I kept berating myself, hoping I hadn’t ruined her night’s sleep.
The nuances of serving others, including our families, are so difficult to master. None of us is going to negotiate tricky situations perfectly every time. But my conversation with Mom provided a stark reminder that it’s unnecessary for me to be right. Ever. I can make suggestions. I can gracefully point out potential problems with the suggestions of others. But insisting that I have the one right answer erodes my ability to work with others. And without real collaboration, there is no service.
How, then, should I handle tricky questions and situations?
If at all possible, the best thing to do is to let them slide, until a point when everyone is feeling strong and the voice inside me--the one that wells up from my best self--tells me the time is right to address them. My prayer is that I will somehow learn to wait for those moments.