I’ve had a couple of people, on hearing about what I’m doing for my friend who recently had surgery (currently in a transitional care/rehab center, and steadily improving), who say “I could never do that.”
And I point out that it’s not everyone’s gift to do the specific things I’m doing. (Scheduling and coordinating are tasks that take me time and energy, but that are not, in themselves, particularly challenging for the way my brain works: I am, after all, in the business of creating at least the simulation of order out of chaos.)
But today, I realised that there are two stories I’ve rarely told but that are key to why it’s so important to me to help in this way. One is a debt I’ll never be able to repay – and can therefore only pay forward. The other is a reminder of why it’s so important to me to build caring connections over time.
My first story:
My father died of cancer when I was 15. But before he died, he was ill for about a year, both before they diagnosed the cancer, and then while going through treatment to prolong his life.
He loved me a very great deal, and one of his deepest wishes was that my life should be disrupted as little as possible by his treatment and illness. Now, there is no way to make that happen – but he was desperate (in a quiet, British, way) – to do what he could.
I was 14, most of this time. And I was deeply involved in two things: music and horseback riding. The music was easy: school choir and orchestra were at school, my music school rented our Middle School building (on my way home from high school), and I could get myself there easily.
But the horse – that was trickier. I was a serious rider and competitor at that time, and I was at the barn 6 days a week (three of them for lessons, one for Pony Club, and the other two for pleasure or competition). At a barn 45 minutes away. And I was 14 – well below driving age.
Chemo takes a lot out of a person so my father was often not up to driving (especially during rush hour as many of those drives were), and my mother needed to be around for some of his appointments.
My mother was, at that time, working at our public library, in a close and friendly staff. At some point, one of her co-workers said “What can I do to help? No, really, anything.” And my mother, in some desperation, said “Could you drive Jen to the barn once or twice a week?”
The friend blinked, and thought about it, and came back and said “You know, I always regret not doing more riding in my teens. Sure.” And so, for most of that year, she drove me to my barn at least twice a week. Since she was a novice rider, and I very much wasn’t, my riding instructor arranged the lesson times so that suitable lessons for both of us would be back to back, and then we’d trek back home.
That year – and my beloved Dorothy – saved my sanity. I’m sure of it. And that friend of my mothers (who had not been particularly close before that) made a *huge* difference to not only my well-being, but to helping my parents feel that my life was continuing to be as stable as they could possibly manage.
That friend went on to continue riding, long after she stopped driving me. When she and her husband moved back to the Netherlands (where her husband was from), she found a new place to ride, and sent back periodic pictures of herself on gorgeous Frisians for a while.
It’s that, in those most formative years of my life, that taught me that helping not only makes life better for the person I’m helping (at least that’s the hope, or why do it). But that it can be a deeply transformative and world-opening moment in my own life.
I can’t deeply help everyone on the planet. I can’t even do it for all of my close and beloved friends who might need it. But I do it when I can, because of that memory of those drives, those riding lessons, those moments in which I could get away from everything else pressing in, and just be.
The second lesson:
The summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I was taking intro German classes in summer school. My mother tends to show affection through driving, so even though I could get myself to and from school by bus and a walk, Mom would often drop me off at a somewhat easier stop.
One day, my mother mentioned – rather off-handedly – that she wouldn’t be able to pick me up at a particular time. When I asked why, she said that someone – my guidance counsellor in public high school, who had also been the guidance counsellor for my older brother and sister – had cancer, and Mom was driving her to chemo treatments.
I asked a bit more, and found out that my counsellor had been single all of her life, was living in another town (because housing prices in the suburb I lived in are not within reach of teachers who work there, as a general rule) with her very elderly and rather difficult mother.
She had no one else to drive her. She’d started treatments during the school year, when all her colleagues were obviously occupied, and couldn’t get free for the couple of hours needed to drive into Boston, wait during treatment, and drive back. Because of her mother’s demands, she’d never developed other close friendships, because her mother wanted her home.
And so Mom, who’d run into her casually at some point when this started, and she was trying to figure out what to do, had offered to drive. She had the time, she knew the routine. And … someone needed to care. This was a woman who had thoughtfully guided generations of teenagers into places they might be happy (so one hopes, anyway – certainly worked for my family).
My former guidance counsellor died a few years ago. But I am still delighted and proud of my mother, and how off-hand she was about it. How “This is just what you do, when you can do it.” Not because someone’s a best friend, or because it’s showy, or because it’s easy. But because you can, and you know it will truly be of help.
I also remember that there are ways to build connections in our community. The school I work at has a Sunshine Club. Most of the time, they coordinate gifts for new babies, or marriages, or other happy things. But if someone is seriously ill, or hurt, or has a family crisis, they also help coordinate a little of that help. If someone has great family support, that might be a few easy things. But if it’s someone who’s single, who doesn’t have family or other support in the immediate area, everyone also chips in with rides and pre-made dinners, and all the other things that can help.
So, those are my stories of why this kind of help – this kind of deeply personal help – are so important to me. Because I can never repay those months of my father’s peace of mind. Because no one should have to go to chemo alone, on public transit, because there’s no one to drive, or comiserate. Because sometimes, the thing that matters most of all is the simple human presence and engaged mind that can solve some – not all, but more than none – problems through creativity, attention, and a little time and effort.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone should go out and devote all their time to helping others. Most of us need to earn a living, and it’s also healthy and needful to have hobbies, spend time with friends and family, and all sorts of other things. But if I had one wish for the world, it would be that people keep their eyes open for situations where their particular gifts and skills fit – with sparkling precision and beauty – into someone else’s needs.
When I have offered my gifts and skills and talents in the ways that best fit (not the ways that look best to others, or seem most showy, or whatever else), I have been amply repaid. There’s not one time I’ve done this for someone that I’ve regretted the time and energy it took: in all cases, it deepened not only my relationships with that person and the others close to them – but it’s filled my life with greater joy and beauty and wonder.
There are few greater transformative acts. Or magical ones.