Last night, a Friday, I started to do my taxes and realized I was in the kind of financial situation that people kill themselves over. I took a break and watched something on Netflix in which some schlubby guy did something impulsive and ended up owing $5,000 a month to a rich family for the rest of his life (or until he paid them $5 million). So things could be worse.
Today I’m baby-sitting my father. He’s 87, and he thought he was turning 90 next week until I corrected him, unnecessarily and maybe cruelly. He uses a walker and is nearly blind and mostly deaf, and he’s never sure what day it is. We don’t want him left alone in case he falls or burns the house down trying to make a cup of instant coffee. So I could have it worse.
My mother is taking her own break, attending my nephew’s First Communion instead of staying at home and tensing up at every unexpected noise. “He’s going to run you ragged,” she says, waiting for my brother to pick her up, but he’s never as demanding or impatient with anyone else as he is with my mother.
He’s sitting on the enclosed sunporch, with an Irish-music program at full volume. They don’t play U2 on this station, but I do hear Paul McCartney shout-singing “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” amid the ballads and polka riffs and songs about unicorns. There’s also a drinking song about a brawl at a party with the lyrics “Murphy and his cousin/paralyzed half a dozen”; a song called “The Legend” about the “great Nelson Mandela” as an inspiration for an “Ireland united and free”; and “The Red Rose Cafe,” which my father knows well enough to softly sing along to. (“Down at the Red Rose Cafe in the harbour/There by the port just outside Amsterdam/Everyone shares in the songs and the laughter/Everyone there is so happy to be there.”)
There’s also a song called “The Old Man,” about losing one’s father (“I thought he’d live forever/He seemed so big and strong”), which we both silently listen to. The afternoon is not so bad. I spend most of it reading magazines on my computer tablet (no computers or Internet service at my parents’ house), periodically refilling his coffee cup and accompanying him to the outside porch to see if the April wind has quieted.
A few hours later, it’s back to worrying over Excel spreadsheets. I curse aloud when I go over bank statements and discover that I accidentally bought a few extra monthly subway passes last year. The MBTA’s vending machines don’t always work, and when one fails to update my Charlie Card, I sputter angrily and try another one, acting very much like my impatient father. I didn’t always remember to make sure that my credit-card charge was cancelled. No one to blame but myself if I can’t afford a bottle of wine tonight.
OK, my financial situation is not as bad as… well, not as bad as it is for most people in the world, or even for most Americans. But we all compare ourselves with our peers — best friends, Facebook acquaintances, and former co-workers who went on to better things. My father is from a different time and place, so he didn’t feel like an underachiever when he couldn’t afford a trip to Europe or a barber who would give him anything other than a crew cut. For a few hours, listening to an AM radio station and eating tuna fish sandwiches with my dad, I remember where I’m from and forget where I am.