08/21/2013 11:57 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Parking Attendants and Other Life Challenges

I've written often about the caregiving journey we all take -- how it's a winding road with unexpected twists, turns, peaks and valleys. Chronicling my father's 10-year battle with dementia has been at the heart of mine. And so, a few months after Dad died, my mother, sister and I recently found ourselves traveling to Maine where we frequently vacationed as a family and where my dad loved the rugged coast line and the insanely good lobsters from Barnacle Billy's.

Little did I know that this trip would find me contemplating another's journey, and how it made me reexamine my own.

It was a beautiful summer day, one that made the ice cream vendors and beachwear stores dotted along the road seem like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We arrived at the local beach by noon and already the cars were lined up down the road. I was immediately annoyed that my mom did not have a handicapped parking sticker with her. Her walking had deteriorated in recent years and getting her onto the beach would be a challenge itself, never mind a hike from the car. But the annoyance faded as I heard the crash of the waves and smelled the intoxicating aroma of salt air mixed with hamburgers grilling at a roadside stand.

When I approached the parking lot, I saw the bold red letters glaring at me, "Lot is full." Oh well, plan B, I thought. Drop Mom and my sister off at the beach, than find a parking space in town and hike a mile back. And then there was the parking attendant, a seemingly innocuous woman who, much to my surprise, greeted me with a bark.

"The lot is full. You need to turn back." she snapped.

"I understand." I replied. "But my mother's walking is quite limited. Can I just drop her off?"

"I can't let you do that," the attendant responded. "It's against the rules."

I tried to explain that my mother would not be able to walk a distance from a remote space, but the attendant was unmoved. Now, I'll admit at this point I was more than a little perturbed, but what happened next is still playing out in my mind.

Deciding I'd try my luck, I was thrilled to find an actual parking space. Approaching the attendant to pay the $20 fee (and to share my good fortune), she lashed out. "You are a liar! I told you not to go into the lot!" Now on the surface, I had had it. But upon further contemplation, I surveyed the scene. Here was a woman -- not far from my mother's age -- who was still working, on her feet most of the day, her hours filled with beach goers, smiles on faces and summer fun in hand.

I don't pretend to know what brought her here. (Her love of sun and sand? Somehow, I think not.) Or what caused her to be so abrasive. Perhaps I just caught her on a bad day. No matter the reason, here we both were -0 by all estimates the attendant well into her seventies and tough as nails, and me a spirited Boomer ready to throw fire.

I mustered all the grace I could and found myself saying, "I understand you are trying to do your job, but you could have chosen to be fair and kind. But instead you were mean." The attendant gave no reply, but instead stealthily retreated into her parking hut (to curse me out or to contemplate, I'll never know).

You may be reading this and thinking, "Get off your moral high horse!" or simply, "So what?" But it was this encounter, though small in its measurement, which had me taken aback. Maybe it was because of where I was. Maybe it was because of what brought me there. Maybe it was too soon after my father's death, and now with an even more watchful eye, seeing my mother display the signs of aging.

Truthfully, it was a bit of everything. As I continued on my way to the beach, my mother and sister waiting for me to enjoy the afternoon, share stories of my father and celebrate all the memories we've made in this place, my vindication became short-lived.

I am glad I spoke up. Even when under less-than-ideal circumstances, kindness and respect should not be abandoned. But I also know that this woman has a tough job and how we chose to act or react is always a two-way street. Keeping your perspective, and your cool, when things get heated up can at times be tough. But there will always be bumps in the road and difficult people to navigate along the way. So, wherever your journey takes you, like my trip to Maine, I hope you find it leads to a parking space... and a beautiful day at the beach.