“Someone wants to give you a gift, and they are asking me what to give you. If you could have anything that’s special and not a necessity, what would you want?” Alma asked me a few months ago. “Time,” I answered immediately. Time was the one thing I wanted, the one thing I needed, the one thing I could not readily give myself. I know me pretty well. We are on a first name basis. I know how to take care of myself. I know how to refill. Self-care, spontaneity, creativity, friendship, family, exercise, nature; I know. I just need the time to do it.
“People who haven’t walked in your shoes can’t understand,” said my mom, a cancer survivor. She knew. Lord knows, and she for sure does, I probably did not do enough when she was facing down the gauntlet of chemo rounds. At that point, I didn’t know. Nearly at the end of her rounds, she hit the wall and wanted to give up. My dad told me this. I don’t think I understood it. In my view, she had been handling the whole mess stoically. And so, you know, fine. But with some people, you have to read the edges of their words, watch the shifts of light and shadow and try to figure out what they need. My mother is one of those people. And so, I can be, too.
Except sometimes, I am not. Sometimes, I am the drowning swimmer who finds herself out beyond the surf. “She seems to be doggy-paddling. I think she’s fine,” some watchers say to each other. They turn back to their books, naps and cocktails. I begin to call out here and there. “I’m okay! I’m a little tired, but I’m okay!” Startled, they look up. “She’s okay,” they whisper, “She just said so.” Time passes. Miraculously, I’m still doggy-paddling. “Hey!” I cry out to the picnickers on the beach,”Hey!” Some keep eating. Maybe they didn’t hear me. Others carefully call out, “Are you okay?” “I think so!” I say. ‘You’ll let us know if you need something!” they say, returning to their distractions. The ones who are sensitive, the empaths, the ones who have also at some point doggy-paddled too long, the ones who are open and unafraid, the ones who understand that fears and insecurities are lifelong challenges to face, the ones who know that you never, ever leave someone who needs you alone in their terror, understand that maybe I’m not okay. Maybe I’m getting tired. They keep an eye on me. Eventually, fatigue catches up. I am deeply aware that I am not okay. I am tired, so tired. I see a gathering of lifeguards, and they are talking to each other on the beach. “Help!” I cry as loud as I can, “Help!” “We hear you!” one says. “We are calling a committee meeting to decide how to best help you!” “What?” I yell over the wind. I’m confused. Did they say to keep swimming? Are they coming? I keep swimming. Time passes. Days. Weeks. “Should I keep swimming? Can you please help me! I’m asking for help!” I gasp out. “Yes!” one yells, annoyance in their tone. “You don’t get to decide how we respond. We’ll get back to you when we have an update.”
I stay confused for a time.
Then I decide to save myself. But not alone. Never alone. I calm my mind. I paddle carefully until I find my footing. So focused on the lifeguards, I hadn’t seen them. They had been watching, listening. They had been waiting the whole time. A cadre of people reaching out to grab hold of me. They pull me in. Give me warm blankets. Feed me. Pat my head until I fall asleep. “Rest, rest,” they say encouragingly. I close my eyes. I feel light as a feather. Another swim will happen another day. “Shhhh,” they whisper.
This is my story. It is an epic story of love and loss and life , and I want it to matter. And I tell you this particular story for this reason: no matter how you are doing and what you think you have to give, someone in your life is probably out there doggy-paddling. They may or may not be calling out for help. They may or may not be calling out specifically to you. But if you see them, if you hear them, you know. Do not look away. Do not be afraid. You can help. There is always a way. You can put out your hand. You can swim out there with some food. You can skywrite them encouragement. There is ALWAYS a way.
Listen. Hear. Respond. Mr. Rogers taught us to look for the helpers. Be the help. Be the helper.