“How can we help?”
That’s what people asked as word of my wife Deloris’ stroke swept through our island community. My response was always, “Send prayers and good thoughts.” I couldn’t think of anything else.
My social worker-mother taught me how to lend a hand. Requesting and accepting help, however, was a different story. I grew up in the 1950s, instilled with the American spirit of self-reliance. Asking for help implied inadequacy, an admission I was not self-sufficient. I struggled with ideals of independence and self-reliance juxtaposed against my belief in collaboration and helping one another. It was a dilemma.
But then a friend gave me advice that changed my attitude and, in some ways, my life. She said, “Asking for help is giving a gift. We want to help you and Deloris. Your response denies us that opportunity. Give us the gift of letting us help.”
Wow. I didn’t have to feel like I was a failure or needed assistance. Rather, I could give my friends a gift by allowing them to help. It was that easy. And, honestly, I needed help. The next time I was asked, I answered, “I need food. Anything ready to eat would be wonderful. Thanks.”
Within hours, someone had posted a schedule online asking people to sign up to deliver meals. Over the next few weeks, I arrived home from the hospital to find meals waiting on my doorstep. Expressions of support and concern for Deloris, a joke, or maybe just a name, were tucked in among the plastic containers. Some of the cooks were old friends; others I knew only by name; and a few names were unknown to me. Perhaps they were friends with Deloris or maybe just generous members of the community. I realized that asking for help did not make me feel any less a man, any less independent, or any less competent. Rather, I felt I belonged.
I decided to push the envelope a bit. “The food is wonderful,” I said in an email. “I’m incredibly grateful for both the delicious food and the concern it represents. This has taught me that when I ask for something, it might appear. So, here goes: I need chocolate, really good red wine, gasoline, and ferry tickets. Thanks.”
What the hell, I thought. It’s worth a try. If nothing else, maybe some people will laugh. Within days, chocolate tortes appeared at my front door, as did bottles of red wine. Someone even left ferry tickets.
How did we become so isolated that we think being self-reliant means doing everything oneself? Humans are social beings; we need each other. The image of the independent, self-sufficient American is a myth. Pioneers had families to help with the tasks necessary for survival and settlement. Soldiers in combat rely on each other, as do athletes in team sports. Entrepreneurs form teams of people to realize their vision. Even The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Yet, somehow I’d lost this message. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to find it again.
The idea that asking for help is giving a gift was the first lesson I learned in the months and years I have been Deloris’ caregiver. It may be the most important.
Allan Ament is the author of Learning to Float: Memoir of a Caregiver-Husband, as well as other articles published in literary and academic journals and trade magazines. He is vice chair of the South Whidbey at Home board of directors and the past CEO and board chair of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Allan lives on Whidbey Island with his wife, who is an award-winning writer, and their semi-neurotic cat.