The Lesson My Seven-Year-Old Nephew Taught Me About Compassion

It’s hard to interact with my aging father sometimes. He can’t hear well, he can’t speak at times, and he is frequently confused. His mobility is limited, as he has had a progressive neurological disease for decades. Occasionally he will focus on one idea — a specific Rolling Stones song, for example — and cannot think about anything else throughout the day. Conversation with my dad takes patience and focus.

My nephew, Riley, took extra interest in my father as soon as Riley was old enough to be aware of the situation.  

Many people talk over or past my father, but Riley goes out of his way to include him. If the conversation is about sports, Riley will tap his grandpa on the shoulder: “Grandpa, who is your favorite baseball player?” he’ll ask. It might take a few minutes, and the question may need repeating. If so, Riley does it.

My seven-year-old nephew focuses on who his grandfather is now. (Photo courtesy of Heather T)

My seven-year-old nephew engages with his grandfather in a way others don’t

My father has a collection of car posters displayed in his basement. Unable to use the stairs for years, we took photos of the signs so my dad could be reminded of them. That wasn’t good enough for Riley. He knew my dad loved his basement. He knew there were memories of ping-pong, collecting, and general man-caving just 15 steps below.

“Grandpa, do you want to see your posters on the basement walls?”  Riley asked recently. Of course, my father did.

Riley recruited his three uncles to carry my father down the stairs. They brought his wheelchair down, and my dad spent an hour reminiscing. I don’t know which smile was more magical: my dad’s or Riley’s, as he watched his grandfather’s enjoyment.

Last weekend, walking to a firework display, I watched from the back as Riley walked next to my father’s scooter, engaging my dad as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  

“Did you see fireworks when you were a kid?” I heard Riley ask. I didn’t hear my dad’s reply. Then I heard Riley’s voice again: “Do you like fireworks, Grandpa?” Twenty minutes later, the two watched the sky light up with color.

My young nephew focuses on who my dad is now, not on who he used to be

When we watch the ones we love age, we often become nostalgic for who they were. I wanted to let Riley know what Grandpa was like before his disease. I told him how my dad used to throw a football better than anyone in the neighborhood, how he used to wear bright yellow swim trunks and do perfect dives off cliffs.

Riley was interested in my stories, but not as much as I thought he’d be. Riley is focused on who his grandfather is today.

Riley’s compassion humbles me. He has reminded me that understanding is not always convenient. It takes work and persistence sometimes. It can also be emotionally complicated, in a way, because it forces you to acknowledge painful truths — such as my father’s aging mind and body. 

Yet — if I step away from my feelings for a moment — I can better remember to think of his.  I can bring my dad a coffee and sit on the porch together. I can ask him about that Rolling Stones song.

Riley has reminded me that compassion, at times, can also be relatively straightforward.

More Great Reading:

Life Without Memory: I Will Never Forget You, Mom, Even If You Forget Me

About Heather T

Heather has taught high school English for nearly 25 years.

Read more posts by Heather

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.