Despite a significant fall and infection, she and my dad managed to get to our family's holiday gathering over six hours' drive away. She looked awful and was in pain the whole time.

Dear Carolyn,

My mother looks like she is dying. She had a significant fall and went to the hospital. She somehow managed not to break anything and was given antibiotics for a "raging" (doctor's word) infection. She and my dad managed to get to our family's holiday gathering over six hours' drive away.

She looked awful. She was in pain the whole time. They drove home in stages doing some visits on the way.

They live in a continuum-of-care place and have friends and activities and help with medical issues available at the pull of a string. But I just can't get over how awful she looked. Exhausted. Pale or rather ashen. Not renewing her lipstick, which she has almost been religious about since I was a kid.

I'm having a hard time integrating this. I've known this level of decline was coming. But I maybe thought that moving to the new place with more assistance would be a magic cure that got us a few more years? Now, I'm not so sure, even though her not breaking anything in the fall is huge. Help?

— Can't Get Over It

I'm sorry your mom is sick, and that it brings painful feelings sooner than you had hoped.

You sign off by saying you "can't get over it." Remember, we are built for this. We are meant to die and we are meant to witness death. Since we are meant to love, too, that means almost everyone will eventually feel the devastation you got your first real glimpse of this season.

I say this knowing — hoping — your mother may well have rebounded by the time I finish this answer; we are also built to heal. And people can have a look of death when they're ill.

I also know I might already be too late.

So I'm going to give you the answer for all potential outcomes.

Renounce "magic." The more we invest ourselves in an outcome, the more we set ourselves up to lose.

And, more important — the more we miss of the life we have as we wait for a different one to come true.

This goes beyond just involvement with parents in decline: Take steps because they're necessary and/or helpful, but don't expect anything of them beyond their face value. See any future benefits as a pleasant surprise. Think journey, not destination.

Meaning: Choose housing with extra assistance because you know your mom needs extra assistance, not because you think it'll buy Mom additional years.

This is a subtle change in thinking, but it's everything. It changes your orientation from securing a specific future outcome to immersion in your present.

A destination focus is what tells you your mother is dying and you weren't ready for this yet and you can't bear it. A journey focus is what tells you your mother's circumstances have changed, so you need to change, by doing A, B and C instead of X, Y and Z.

Like their road-tripping six hours for anything — that needs to go, no?

She needs you in a different way now, and you need her. So you help more, listen more, visit her more, be more present for her in general. Commit to existing right where you both are now. Even if it hurts.

This attention to inherent value versus specific future payoff is particularly useful in difficult times but can apply broadly, from education to activities to the people you keep in your life.

I sincerely hope your mom is OK. But whether she is or not, presence is the surest way through.

Neighbor's support was needed

Dear Carolyn,

My neighbor, whom we used to be friendly with, suddenly dropped us. It was at the time my teenage son was having problems with drugs and the police had been to our house a few times (nothing violent). This was very hurtful at a very low point in our lives, when we would have appreciated a friendly face and some support.

Fast-forward 10 years. Son has settled down and lives elsewhere. This neighbor has suddenly started being friendly. We are both empty-nesters. Her husband works out of town so I suspect she is lonely.

My husband says, "Just be friendly back." I can't forget how hurtful it was to have them literally turn their backs on us and pretend not to see us. To befriend them again would be to say, "It was OK that you deserted us at the lowest point in our lives." What would you do?

— Suddenly Dropped

I can't know what I'd do. Not really.

But I hope I'd tell my neighbor, "I'd like to be friends again. But what happened 10 years ago? It felt as if you turned your back just as we needed friends most." Why draw conclusions when others can speak for themselves.

— Write to Carolyn Hax in care of The Providence Journal Features Department, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902, or email tellme@washpost.com.