This is my story about learning – again – to receive the gifts of others, about recognizing our vulnerability, our inability to go-it-alone through any and all circumstances and our need, our profound need, for a community of others.
I grew up fed by a stew of manly self-reliance, old fashioned prairie pride where one never asked for help, spiced with a dash of virtuous superiority that I could and would help those for whom I cared but would never deign to ask for, much less receive, help even in my darkest moments.
Confronted with a stark reality, I really did need help.
This time it was an operation at Vancouver General Hospital.
About six months ago, an alert doctor inadvertently but alertly found a potential health issue which required a specialist’s attention. I underwent a number of tests and was told that I was a candidate for elective surgery. I had no symptoms, the procedure was intrusive but not particularly risky so I was put in the queue. I volunteered to be on a 24 hour cancellation list.
The call came four weeks ago, on a Tuesday afternoon. Could I check in that evening and be ready for an operation the next day?
I didn’t hesitate; when the call comes, go!
One of life’s little surprises; it meant I needed help. My plan to go it alone was deeply flawed. Luckily, providence and serendipity worked on my behalf – my better angels showed up in the form of my children, Kristen and Blair.
Kristen happened to be visiting in Vancouver on spring break from her position at an International School in Dresden. She was with me as I swung into action, helped me navigate checking into VGH, was with me in pre-op and – most important of all – was waiting for me when they wheeled me out of post-op to my room in the ward.
Every time I awoke that first night, confused, drugged, tied to tubes and beeping/blinking instruments, prodded by nurses for vital signs, she was there, sitting calmly and quietly by my side exuding comfort and support. She was my guardian angel; a memory that will stay with me forever.
Blair had just finished his winter semester at Grad school at Carleton. He dropped off his dog with his mother, jumped on a plane and headed to Vancouver. They spent a few days together with me and even managed to enjoy some sibling time before Kristen had to depart.
Blair took over, cancelled two weeks of his life and managed my transition back to my apartment and steered me through the first weeks of recovery; medication, nutrition, laundry, groceries, my first tentative walks through the neighbourhood and my constant search for a comfortable place to catch a few hours of sleep; the list could be longer but you get the point. He was invaluable.
Other friends pitched in before and after Blair left and they have been pitching in constantly, daily since his departure.
It has been four weeks, recovery is exactly as outlined by my Doctor and I’m returning to normal. The meds have been put away and the fog has lifted a bit. Already, I’m searching for deeper meaning.
More blinding flashes of the obvious? Yes but they are mine and they’re meaningful to me.
What is abundantly clear is that Canada’s medical system functions extraordinarily well. There is not a single instance in the last 8 months since and including my diagnosis that I could imagine might have gone better. Not one! No bills have arrived at my door. The dozens of health care professionals went beyond professionalism; they were at all times caring and kind. We should be forever proud of our health care system.
Most notable, was my role reversal; instead of noble giver of kindness, I was the recipient of the abundant kindness of others. It is this generosity of others that I have been blind to, oblivious of its breadth, power and strength.
John Steinbeck, chronicler of the great depression, summed up the challenge:
“It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving, you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well. it requires a self-esteem to receive — not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.”
I would fail Steinbeck’s test.
I need to face the folly of wanting to do it all myself; the absurdity of going it alone. I need to recognize and embrace my vulnerability, to allow my needs to be known by others who stand ready to help.
I must do so in the honest recognition that relationships and community are essential to the human condition – to my humanity.
I need my community, we all need our communities; not just for support but for mutual support. Giving to my community is but part of what cements relationships in my community; receiving, receiving gracefully, humbly and with integrity, is also a bedrock of community.
I was trying to articulate this with a friend; how asking for and receiving help was half of the bond we have with people. Her response was insightful; even the act of receiving is an act of giving.
It allows someone’s generosity to find a home. It is these tender mercies that bind us to each other – both giving and receiving. Kristen and Blair helped me see that these acts of kindness were expressions of love from both giver and receiver. For all that I’m grateful.
One final insight. I discovered the tremendous healing powers of PJ’s. I now have several pairs. They may not be fashionable and I doubt I’ll wear them in public like I did when I was released from hospital but, at home….