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Opinion: A call can come at any moment. It’s teaching me the importance of ‘one day at a time’

(Hirotoshi Iwasaki / For The Times)

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Early last month, I reread, not for the first time, Lorrie Moore’s short story “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” first published in the New Yorker almost 30 years ago. It’s about a mother handed the terrible news that her 1-year-old has cancer.

A passage in it struck me like a missive from the universe.

The mother, Moore wrote, now lives “according to the bromides: Take one day at a time. Take a positive attitude. Take a hike! She wishes that there were more interesting things that were useful and true, but it seems now that it’s only the boring things that are useful and true. One day at a time. And At least we have our health. How ordinary. How obvious. One day at a time: you need a brain for that?”

As it happens, I am learning, you do need a brain for that.

For the last couple of years, I have been helping to look after my parents. I had thought the experience might teach me something about how to die, but instead it is teaching me how to live.

My parents are in New York, where they have home care. I fly back not infrequently to visit and attend to necessary business. I accompany them to doctor’s visits and make sure the bills are paid.

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If you had told me when I was younger that this would be what I was doing, I would have shaken my head no.

Back then, I wanted nothing more than distance, an escape from the familiar. I was looking for a way around “the bromides,” looking for whatever could not be encompassed in a catchphrase or a cliche.

What I have discovered, however, in caring for my parents is what I’ve come to imagine as the wisdom of the everyday. What is the next right step, the task that needs to be accomplished? What must I do to keep them healthy and safe?

The truth, of course, is that I have no control over any of this, which is where the bromides come into play. The only choice available is to remain flexible and present, to respond to each situation as it occurs. One day at a time.

Last week, as I sat sipping my first cup of coffee in Los Angeles, I got a phone call from New York. My father was dizzy and could not stand. I spoke with a nurse at his primary care provider; she advised an ER visit. Thus began a day of unanticipated challenges: securing an ambulance, checking in with his doctors, setting up overnight care for when he was discharged. There was no other option but to get it done.

I have a friend who likes to say experience is neutral, that what matters is how we react. Across the years, I’ve approvingly repeated that phrase and others like it — “Be here now.” “It is what it is.” — without ever fully recognizing what they meant. I understood them intellectually but not emotionally; they existed for me as ideas if not quite (not yet) as necessary strategies.

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Now, like the mother in Moore’s story, I have been humbled. Even as a part of me continues to resist, I have acquiesced to the demands of the narrative.

Among the particular comforts of literature is the solidarity it can bestow: not that we’re not alone, because we are, but that others have experienced similar events. To me, the stature of a piece of writing is measured by what it offers on repeated encounters, how it reflects, or enlarges, what we are going through.

I have taught “People Like That Are the Only People Here” several times. I have written about it and Moore as well. But I had not previously paid much attention to that passage because I was not yet ready to see it, to hear it. The question at its heart — how do we learn to remain in the moment, without expectation? — did not belong to me.

That’s all changed, of course, I appreciate the lesson. I find solace in equanimity, in other words, regardless of what comes.

For this moment, my parents are safe at home. As for what happens next, we’ll deal with that when it arrives. One day at a time. Experience is neutral. Be here now. It is what it is.

Bromides? Yes. How ordinary. How obvious. And yet, it turns out, precisely what’s required.

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David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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