Over the years, I’ve made many an effort to assist when friends and family members were going through hospital stays or illness. I’ve rushed to emergency rooms, waited anxiously through surgeries, and made visits to those confined for a long hospital stay. I’ve put together personalized “get well” baskets stuffed with puzzles and videos and tea and snacks. I’ve cleaned homes and baked pot pies and casseroles and muffins, and brought take-out for lunchtime visits. I’ve sent get-well cards and checking-up-on-you texts, or shopped for and delivered groceries. I’ve cleaned cat litters, and brought fuzzy, warm socks to a friend suffering icy feet following a surgery. In perhaps the saddest situation ever, I drove through a heavy snowfall early one morning to assist a friend, immobile with a broken leg, whose pet cat had just died unexpectedly. I brought a blanket and a box, laid the little fellow to rest, and then did my best to comfort her.
Throughout time, all of this has, I suppose, amounted to a considerable effort. Yet, spaced out as the events have occurred – spanning perhaps 40 or more years–it hasn’t seemed to amount to all that much.
So it was with very ill grace that I received the ministrations of family members and friends when the tables were turned I myself became seriously ill and was then incapable of self-care following surgery. These people were giving up their time—sometimes productive working time, as well as their free time—to look after me when I was incapacitated. And I didn’t deserve it. Of that I felt sure.
I didn’t deserve the errands they ran for me, the nights they spent looking after me—including the several nights one relative spent just sitting with me, watching endless reruns of Downtown Abbey, as I dealt with the reality of my cancer diagnosis. I certainly wasn’t worthy of all the hours they spent schlepping me to and from appointments and taking notes on everything the doctor was telling us—words that mostly went right over my head, as I sat there in a contained bundle of frantic nerves.
When I came home from the hospital and they prepared meals and served me foods, I tried to recall all those pot pies and casseroles and muffins made for others, but I felt like a total fraud, especially as I could barely eat more than a few mouthfuls of their carefully-prepared food. And though I wrote thank-you notes and handed out small gifts to each person who came to my aid, I still felt as if I was running some despicable scam.
Looking at all this through the lens of perspective, I finally understand how dreadfully hard it is for some of us to be the recipient of others’ ministrations. But that reaction has nothing to do with a lack of gratitude, not at all. It’s due to a loss of our sense of independence, coupled with a feeling of unworthiness.
Oh, I’m sure there exist those people who bask and glory in the singular attention of others: the work done on their behalf, the care taken of them. In fact, I’ve known such individuals. I’m sure everyone has. And tending to them has been, frankly, a royal pain in the ass. But, for most of us, to have to put others to the inconvenience of caring for us is not a situation that we willingly adopt.
When I’m next called upon to bring soup and sympathy to a companion in need, I am going to remember the experience of my own reaction in that same situation; to remember that they are likely squirming under the necessity of having others come to their aid. I’ll remember that as they seem grouchy or ungrateful, or when they appear to wish I’d just get the hell out of their home. Because I’ve finally walked a mile in their moccasins, and at last I understand the blisters that journey leaves on the (pun intended) soul.