Tell me a time

How stories heal, if only for a minute

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

My mother has late stage Parkinson’s and has spent a fair amount of her time angry, in large part a progression of her disease but also in sadness about how things have turned out. I often try to talk her out of it – look on the bright side sort of thing – but this never actually works because it’s like telling someone to calm down. But something a co-worker said to me gave me an idea, so just recently I did something different. When Mom started going down the angry road, I said “I know” in a sympathetic way, then switched gears and asked her to tell me about a time she was happy.

My first attempt didn’t work, but I tried again and kept at it, picking the conversation up and putting it back down in the happier place each time she drifted back to default anger. It was like moving the needle on a record back to the good song. Each time she started to shift over, connecting a happiness with an unhappiness, I just kept saying, “I know, but I want to hear more about…,” then returning to the thread that would get us back to the good stuff.

Within 30 minutes we were flat-out belly laughing and I found out things I never even knew – that her dad rode a motorcycle, that she’d tried out for cheerleading, that her 4 best friends in college were all named Anne. An hour later when I rolled her over to the table for lunch, she was happier than I had seen her in a long time. Saying goodbye, she wanted to know when I was coming back but was actually fine with letting me go. And visiting with her has been like that ever since.

This experience gave me an idea. After that first conversation I began conducting a casual experiment, randomly asking people to tell me about a time or occasion they were happy. The outcome? Scientifically, I think this could be landmark in its 100% positive result: across the board only good things have come from this question. As the person I’m talking with returns to the time of that happiness and light sparks across their face, I feel myself going there with them, just like we do when we watch a happy movie. Hearing about someone else’s happy is like getting some of it for yourself.

So, Tammy Thompson up there at A.R. Gould -- thanks for the idea! You patiently kept suggesting I ask Mom about her favorite music, which I never did because she was always too angry. But you were onto something. Right on. Co-workers are something. We get so much from who we work with.