Help? Help!

June 21, 2006 at 10:35 am (Uncategorized)

Yesterday I got a package that contained a handmade quilted wall hanging from a group of women, The Cross Country Piecemakers, in Roundup, Montana. On the back of the hanging they had stitched a little note that said, “We hope this brightens your day and lets you know our hearts are with you.” I know only one of these women – a friend of my parents’ – and loosely at that, but the group had heard from my mother that I was sick and so they had wanted to do something nice for me.


When I got back from Philadelphia, I came home to a clean house. The bathrooms were spotless, the wood floors glowed, and the conspicuous layer of dust that usually covers everything in our home was absent. Although I secretly hoped that Jay had finally noticed that there actually is such a thing as dust and had cleaned, he hadn’t had to do any of the work. That’s because my sister hired a cleaning crew to come in to spiff the place up for us. She makes it possible for us to have our home professionally cleaned once a month. Not living in squalor – and not having to actually expend energy to clean the squalor – makes life feel a little more livable.


As I’m typing this right now, Andrew is upstairs playing with Andrea. Andrea is the best babysitter in the world; she has fun with Andrew and encourages his creativity, but she also sets limits with him and doesn’t put up with much of his crap. The only reason we can afford to have someone of the caliber of Andrea is because Jay’s Mom generously pays for most of her salary. She also sends cards, good books, and reminds us constantly that we are not alone with this.

Every time I have surgery, get sick, or tell my parents that I’m feeling blue, they offer immediately to come and help me and Jay. Usually, I take them up on it. I don’t think my parents are enjoying a mellow retirement thanks to me and my illness. Every three months, at least one of them flies across the country at their expense to be with Andrew while I see doctors. When Jay has to travel for work, my Mom usually comes to visit – even when she’s sick or injured. My Mom just got a statewide museum show commission and my Dad is busy working on at least a dozen writing projects, but they routinely put everything aside to come help us. They even took in my beloved dog when it became clear she could no longer live with us; they’ve given us so many gifts that make our lives a little nicer that I’m surprised we haven’t bankrupted them.


Spending most of our disposable (and not so disposable) income on medical bills and medical traveling means that Jay and I often are short of funds when it comes to, say, buying groceries. Jay’s Dad and his step-father Don have “loaned” us a ton of money to pay for plane tickets, diapers, and small luxuries like music class for Andrew. My big brother Ken forgave us a significant debt (which we’re still determined to repay) that we used to pay for hotels in Denver for my treatment. My brother Larry is all but going to give us a car to replace the one we lost in January when Jay got rear-ended.

My friend Amy moved out to Montana last summer to help us for three months. She did our dishes, went to doctors’ appointments with me and listened to their grim predictions, and took Andrew early in the morning so I could get extra sleep. She eventually had to go back to work, but we still talk almost every day. Whenever I have some health crisis, her first response is to offer to come out from California to once again lend a hand. I know that whenever I have a terrible day, I can call her and weep and wail and bitch and moan – and that she will think no less of me.


I have three siblings who are more like friends than family. I sometimes hate telling them bad medical news because I swear it upsets them more than me.

I believe my parents have most of the people in this world praying and rooting for me. Jay’s Mom has covered the rest. And Jay’s Dad and his step-father Don prove there is such a thing as divine intervention by sending us frequent care packages of Harry and David goodies.

Not many days go by without someone calling or writing me to tell me that they’re worried about me or that they want to know about my latest appointment or medical news. A couple of days ago my niece and god daughter (and coolest darn girl in the whole world) sent me an e-mail just to check up on me.

Our friends in Helena, Martha and Geoff, are like family. Whenever Jay is traveling for work and my Mom isn’t in town taking care of six million things, I routinely show up at their doorstep for beer and dinner. Andrew adores their older children.


My cousin Susan, who has health problems that dwarf mine, routinely writes me letters and sends me cards and little presents that cheer me up.


My Aunt Dorothy put together this blog for me, so that all I have to do is cut and paste my entries into the template each day. We routinely get calls – and packages for Andrew – from Jay’s Aunt Barbara wishing us well.


Our friends Sarah and Bob will babysit Andrew on two minutes notice, as well as share their holidays with us. Sarah makes sure all my library books are renewed, crafts beautiful pottery pieces for us, and spontaneously drops off sackloads of clothes and toys for Andrew. She also treated me to a massage; I got the gift certificate for it in the mail on a day that was particularly sour. It turned everything around. Their boys Max and Jacob are the only people in the world Andrew has admitted to the ranks of his “buddies.” “Is Max coming over today?” is Andrew’s almost daily refrain.


My husband Jay, who works full time for the state, frequently has to drive to three of its four corners to try to settle the seemingly insurmountable water disputes between Montana’s Native tribes and its farmers and ranchers. He’s traveled so much for work that he’s racked up something like five months of comp. time. On top of that, he picks up contract legal work from other attorneys whenever he can to help us pay our bills. We’re always scrounging for money (there’s nothing like getting a $20,000 bill from Mt. Sinai Hospital), but never once has he suggested I settle for anything less than the best medical care available. He often can’t sleep at night and his face wears a tight look some mornings; I know this is from worrying about me and our future. But not once – not even in an argument – has he ever let slip a nasty comment about how my sickness has changed our lives for the worse. I know I would not be like this. I am petty enough that I would “accidently” mention how rarely we have fun and how often we travel to various hospitals. But Jay works two jobs, manages the money, and then runs home the second he is done with work to take Andrew off my hands. When Andrew wakes up in the middle of the night or at five a.m. on a Sunday morning, Jay usually jumps out of bed. “You need your rest,” he says. The question he asks me the most often is not, “Why is this happening to me?” but “What else can I do?”


Reading the myriad ways that people near and far have reached out in ways both small and large to help me is thoroughly overwhelming. I have always considered myself to be independent. Taking money or help from others is not an easy task for me. Amy loves to remind me of the time about ten years ago when I was very sick with a case of Hepatitis A I had picked up from bad water on a trip to Mexico. I was so anemic and frail that I had passed out on the street. Amy heard about this and was worried about me, so she hopped into her car and drove the eighty-odd miles from San Jose to Oakland to make sure I was all right. When she knocked on my door, I opened it and said “What the hell are you doing here?” and then berated her for coming to help me and sent her on her way. “That is classic Rebecca,” she likes to tell me – and anyone else who’s around. And she’s right, that was my standard operating procedure up until recently. In fact, part of me still considers it a personal failure that I can’t “handle” this disease without routinely turning to others. Part of me wants to slam the door on anyone who shows up trying to make my day a little bit more manageable – because to need help is to admit I am mortal. But the truth that I am slowly coming to accept is that I can’t possibly handle my life right now without the goodness and generosity and kindness of our friends and family – and of near-strangers like the Cross Country Piecemakers.

In his Meditation XVII, John Donne quipped that “no man is an island.” During my freshman year of college, I wrote an English term paper on Donne’s poetry, including this famous meditation. Fifteen years of real life have erased from my memory the academic angle I used to analyze the poem. It is only now, when I’m struggling to make sense of my illness, my life, and my place in the world, that this poem moves out of the dry realm of the page and demands a visceral response from me.

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Reading the passage in its entirety gives me the shivers. To be truthful, anything that drives home the notion of mortality prickles the hair on my arms these days. But this poem goes one step deeper than simply giving me the willies. For now, I am part of a community of the living, it says to me. And to be alive means that I am frail; to be alive means that I am in dire need of the help and goodness of others; and, inevitably, that to be alive means that soon I will no longer be so.

I think I’m like many other Americans. We desperately need to think we are strong and self-sufficient. We think we can go it alone, so we plant ourselves in enormous houses, lock the doors, and never talk to the neighbors. We think that if we can just hold it all together for one more day, we will be able to control all of the chaos and uncertainty writhing just outside our closed front doors. If we ask for help, we will have to open the door and let the whirlwind come through. Better to leave the door bolted; better to pretend there is no pain and ugliness and death and violence on the doorstep, waiting to be let in. Better not to hear the bell tolling.

I am blessed to have friends and family who routinely hammer on the front door. “Let me in,” they demand. And so I undo the deadbolt. Along with the fear of not ever being able to be an island, into my house comes comfort and strength. I am not alone. Thank God I am not alone. And thank you – every single person who holds me in your heart for a moment each day – thank you for keeping me not alone. Thank you for kindness. Thank you for patience. Thank you for your goodness. Most of all, thank you for your help.

1 Comment

  1. Molly Holz said,

    Hi Rebecca,

    I’m a little sheepish to be writing today, after a long silence and after reading today’s blog entry. I’ve been meaning to email for days. I forget that you don’t know that I am reading and that just because I am up to date and know you are sick in bed, you don’t know what I’m doing.

    Actually, no surprise as to what I’m doing, but I did have a variation in that I went to Cody to a Western Writers conference last Wed. and back Sunday. My cousin from Iowa is coming for the weekend and I’m looking forward to it.

    I don’t know how the posting/not posting thing works. Please tell me if this is not the best way to email you or if it is automatically posted somewhere.

    I am really enjoying the blog, and, golly, you are a great writer. Impressive.

    I would like to talk to you in person or on the phone. Please let me know how best to do that.

    Hello to Jay and Andrew.


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