When your life takes unexpected turns, if you are paying even the slightest attention you see basic life lessons magnified to extreme degrees. For example, I have always preferred to be the doer. I want to be the one who helps out a friend, sends the encouraging note, organizes the party. I want to be the helper, not the helped.
Life lesson number one: you must be willing to do both in equal measure.
Being the helper is not always a selfless act in the end. I've derived a lot of pleasure when I've been useful to someone or when I've been able to lessen a load. I find that the minute I start feeling sorry for myself, if I can find a way to do something for someone else my mood lifts immediately. And it's not because of that saying that you can always find someone worse off than yourself. I really hate the idea of comparing hurts or trials... just because mine looks worse it doesn't mean yours doesn't hurt your heart more. No, it's because no matter how big or small, doing an act of kindness is simply the right thing to do.
I paid attention to how I treated others, how I wanted to affect the world, but I never noticed as much what others did or did not do. Until I needed help. Boy are people willing to be kind and wanting to be helpful... and boy was it hard for me to let them. I didn't look at it as them getting the same kind of satisfaction as I did when I was a helper. I assumed it was burdensome for them, and by being a burden I wasn't lightening their load anymore. But when I took a step back I had to acknowledge how hard it must be for my friends to watch my body and abilities slip away from me and not be able to do a thing.
It was on a night when I had just gotten home from a hospital stay in Iowa City and three of my friends came to my condo to hang out with me and welcome me home. We were all laying in my bed chatting and my friend Meg noticed the bruises on my hand from the IV, went and got some lotion and started massaging my hand for me. It was the most overwhelming act of kindness to be cared for when you're tired, in a way you didn't even know you needed. People make grand gestures, and I am grateful for that. People think of ways to help that I would never even think of asking about. And I am grateful. But the lesson I've learned is that it is in paying attention to the actual need that makes the biggest impact, even when it is as small as a hand massage.
I began to notice little things all the time. I had gone to visit someone about five years ago, and we were heading into Hy-Vee to pick up something for dinner. I was walking with a cane at the time, and moving slowly. It wasn't until she reached the doors to the store that she realized I was still halfway back in the parking lot. It didn't offend me at all, but it made me realize how fortunate I was that when my friends walked with me in the mall, they walked with me. And they never commented on it, or made a big deal out of it. They adapted to my pace, and for that I am so grateful.
All of this has made me realize that it's also my responsibility to let them help. I notice it the most in my nieces and nephews and how easy it is for them to be kind. My nephew Thomas is always the first, even in a room full of adults, to ask me if I'd like his chair. My niece Anna, when I couldn't go into a room with everyone else and watch a movie because the carpet was wool and I would have a reaction, shrugged and said she'd seen it before. She would rather do something else anyway so she hung out with me. Kindness.
And last summer, when I was home at mom and dad's I was walking up the stairs from the basement, which sometimes feels like climbing a mountain to me. My 7-year-old nephew Christian walked by the top of the stairs and noticed me coming. He stopped and said, "Just a minute, Aunt Sara... I'll help you." I opened my mouth to say that it was ok, he could go play and I'd be up in just a minute. But I stopped and said instead, "Thanks, buddy. That would be so helpful." The look on his face is why I'm writing this post. His face lit up as he put his arm around my waist. His little body didn't help me physically at all, but his spirit and his smile helped my heart. And I know he has it in him to do the same for someone else someday.
That makes a lot of this worth it.