In Your Worst Moments, Cling To The Best Times


These past few months have been difficult.

I lost my mother in December to a fast acting cancer. She was 94 and died at home. I could not save her.

Her death caused my father’s dementia to become much, much worse. He is 93. It is heartbreaking watching him become more and more confused each day. I cannot save him.

Because of my mother’s age, people told me that she had lived a full life. They were trying to comfort me. Could you also argue that the longer you have someone, the tougher it is to let go?

These incidents have reminded me of my son’s first hospitalization. It happened on my birthday. Because he was ill, I was surprised when he handed me a home-made birthday card when I visited him at the hospital.  I described what happened next in my book,  CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.

“He’d remembered.  He also had written down several past events that we’d done together. That list was his present to me. “Good Times with Dad and Me” was scribbled across the page. He began reading the events out loud.

 “Remember when I fell off the cliff?” he asked.

I did. We had been fishing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where his grandparents lived. But five year olds have no patience, and my son had wandered too close to a ravine. The dirt at the edge gave way and he tumbled one-third of the way down the embankment before he grabbed a bush and clung on, hollering for help, his chest scraped and bleeding. I’d made my way down to him, but he wouldn’t let go of the bush until I’d promised that I’d protect him. Over the years, the story had grown. The gully had become a hundred-foot-high cliff.  In sixth grade, he’d written an essay about how I’d saved his life by climbing down to rescue him…..

In the final pages of my book, my son has recovered and we are having a good time together as father and son at a local steak restaurant. In that scene, I write about three truths that I had learned because of his mental illness.

“The first truth and second were intertwined. Nothing in life is guaranteed. And much in life isn’t fair. There was a chance that my son would never again be troubled by his disorder. But statistically, there was a better chance that he would stop taking his medicine at some point in the future because he would become convinced that he no longer needed his pills. He would have a relapse. His illness was not ending because I was writing the final chapter of this book. There would be no living-happily –ever-after sentences on the last page.

“You know what your problem is, Dad?” he said, as if he were reading my thoughts. “You worry too much. Just eat your steak and enjoy this lovely day. Everything is going to work out fine for me, you’ll see. All the stuff that happened is in the past.”

 It was the blind optimism of his youth talking. And yet he was right. At this moment, everything was fine. My son was thinking clearly. He had a job, was making plans for his future, was enjoying life, and seemed genuinely happy.

Which led me to the third truth that I had discovered as a father.

Mental illness is a cruel disease. No one knows whom it might strike or why. There is no known cure. It lasts forever. My son has it. And because he is sick, he will always be dancing on the edge of a cliff. I cannot keep him from falling. I cannot protect him from its viciousness. All I can do is stand next to him on that cliff, always ready to extend my hand. All I can do is to promise that I will never abandon him.”

When I wrote those words, I had no idea that they would apply to my mother and now to my father as well.

I am not writing these words to solicit sympathy. Most of us must deal with our parents’ deaths. If given a choice, we would choose our problems over someone else’s. Rather I am writing this lament as a reminder.


My wife, Patti, gave me a necklace when our son became ill. It was a cross that she wore when her first husband was dying of cancer while still in his thirties. We both were raised protestant. Attached to it now is the Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Lately, I’ve found myself repeating that prayer a lot. I’ve also been thinking about that afternoon when my son was well, the sun was shining, and we were eating steaks together.

Savor the good moments, my friends. Cling to them.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.