Have you ever wanted to help someone and not been able to? Sometimes they need money you don't have. Or connections you don't have. Sometimes you don't know what they need. Those are the tough ones.
Let's say your mom's hands shake too much to pay her bills. That's the kind of problem I like. I can write her checks for her to sign. Problem solved. But what if she's lonely and bored. Maybe dying. Not dying tomorrow or next week, or even next month, just gradually slipping away. You can't be there three times a day to help her with her eye drops. You can't come over at three in the morning to search her blankets for the little portable radio she keeps in her bed, near her hand, so she can listen to NPR in those long dark hours when she can't sleep. And when she does slip away, you don't tell yourself you did everything anyone could, you only remember the times she was frightened and you weren't there.
Or maybe it's your grown child who has hit a rough spot. When she fell from the monkey bars and gashed her chin, you rushed her in for stitches. Problem solved. There's nothing like the way a child's cuts heal. Fast. Scars so faint they're almost attractive, like badges of a brave and adventurous spirit. But what about when that brave and adventurous spirit gets driven off, frightened away by demons you can't see and, even when they're described to you, you have trouble understanding. These are not the sharp objects and traffic-filled streets you spent your life protecting her from. These are daggers of the mind that cut away emotional defenses and resilience and open the way for fear and doubt.
Like your mother in her last years, your adult child has good days and bad days. On good ones, she's her old self: bright, talented, perceptive, amazing. You think: She's fine. She's going to be fine. Then the clouds come. The days of not leaving home, of crying. The irrational fears. Wounds that can't be stitched up, that need help you can't provide. All you can do is hope for the good days to return; and hope nothing disastrous happens before they do. This person is not a child. You can't cosset her in her childhood bedroom. It won't do any good to sit on her doorstep. She doesn't want you there. It's not as simple as finding her radio for her in the night, and even that wasn't so simple.
When you're thinking about people you love who are suffering, people you are accustomed to helping, people whose problems, some of them anyway, you've been able in the past to fix, doing nothing is almost unbearable. Even though you know these are problems you can't solve, you can't shake the notion that you should be trying harder, that you should be rushing to the rescue, not going to a movie or sitting in a park somewhere in a faraway city while she can't leave her apartment.
On your own bad days, your desire to fix the problem, and your inability to do so, sucks the life out of you. You feel guilty for your own good fortune. You would gladly give up your health or sanity so that she may have hers. But it doesn't work that way. And it leaves you feeling a little like you imagine she does: hollowed out.
Perhaps there is some awful comfort in that. Some feeling that by your own pain you may somehow share her burden. Some hope that by confronting your own guilt and doubt you may find within yourself something that will help you both.