Monday, May 25, 2009
I often say that my sister “is not a nurturer.” If you need warm and fuzzy, Rachel is probably not your gal. In fact, I once went to her in need of comfort and had her say, rather helplessly, “I don’t know what you want me to do.”
Where Rachel excels, though, is getting things done. If Cameron Diaz and General Patton had a child, it would be my sister – full of boundless energy, huge grins, and ruthless, take-no-prisoners self-determination. This is why, inevitably, my “she’s not a nurturer” statement is quickly followed by, “but if we ever go to war, I want her in charge!”
Faced with prepping my dream house for sale – the house I thought I would get married in, raise my children in, and grow old in – I was immobilized. I had just started Adriamycin and Cytoxan – two of the least fun chemo drugs – and my heart was breaking watching my dreams sink to the bottom of the Pacific. My realtor told me I needed to “de-clutter” the house as soon as possible, and all I could see when I looked around were the hundreds of dollars I had spent shipping hundreds of dollars of knick-knacks that would inevitably end up on a garage sale table, at the local Salvation Army, or packed in bubble wrap for storage until I could afford to ship them back to the mainland. I was overwhelmed with grief, and didn’t know how I was going to do it all.
Thankfully, Patton arrived, and with her, order and comfort. Not the comfort we want when we’re wounded – the Florence Nightingale-ish, soothing kind of comfort – but the structured, decisive comfort that is the other side of mothering. My sister took charge, “Rachel-izing” the house in barely a day, saving me the heartache of de-cluttering it myself. It was the first time, or maybe just the most significant time, that she was able to do something for me, and I was able to appreciate what she did. It sounds so simple, but how many times do people with different definitions of “support” find themselves unfulfilled? Had I insisted that the only way she could make me feel better was the way I made others feel better, I would have missed out on the gift she gave me.
We forget, when we’re sick, that caregivers often feel just as helpless as we do in the face of illness. They are not (usually) doctors or nurses, and can only watch lamely while someone they love suffers. I am reminded of rescue dogs after 9/11, who kept finding body after body, growing more and more discouraged, until officers planted faux “victims” in the rubble for them to find, to keep their spirits up. My sister was listless and depressed watching me go through chemo until I asked her to please do this one thing for me because I can’t do it without your help. I literally threw her a bone, and it allowed her to feel empowered in the face of my cancer.
When someone loves you, and sees you in a weakened state, all they want to do is help you feel strong again. Never getting the chance to help can be discouraging and depressing for a caregiver. Even if you have to muster up the last of the strength you have, find a way that someone who wants to help you can.
The most wonderful thing my sister has ever done for me (and, truth be told, she is a very loving sister who has done lots of wonderful things for me) was to throw me a surprise Welcome Home party after I moved back from Kaua’i. For a week, she had been all over me about keeping the house clean, and my friend Anne had come up to visit another friend further north. I hadn’t seen many people since coming home, as I was self-conscious about my appearance, my unemployment, and my lack of confidence in my future. Who wants to have lunch with a bald, broke girl who surfs the Internet all day? Turns out, a lot of people. Rachel’s friend Pynkee had suggested a surprise party to welcome me home, and my sister, in true Patton fashion, mounted a covert op with military precision. She contacted my friends through my Facebook account and old Evites, and even hid the party food at a friend’s house up the street! When Anne and I came back from breakfast, I was welcomed by dozens of friends and family members, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a year, others who drove an hour or more just to be there and show they cared. At a time when I felt so alone and in need of comfort, it was my sister – General Patton – who called in the troops for me, and made me feel supported and loved.
Everyone has a role to play in your journey to healing. Remember that not everyone is capable of giving in the same way (some people offer shoulders to cry on; others make Bundt cakes), and many may not feel comfortable giving without your permission. We’re not all psychic either, so if you notice a friend acting like a depressed rescue dog in your presence, find one way that they can be of service to you during your time of need, even if it’s picking up your mail or bringing you a Starbucks. Don’t dismiss your needs (and yourself) because you “don’t want to be a burden” to others – those “others” may be waiting for an opportunity to lighten your load, if only you’d let them! Giving someone a way to help makes them feel less helpless in the face of your struggles.
And, most importantly, if someone you love says, “I don’t know what you want me to do,” cut them a little slack, or better yet, throw them a bone. Not everyone can be Florence Nightingale. Sometimes, you don’t know you need a Patton until you ask.