we have enough Tupperware,
and each time I open the cupboard and see the array, I'm reminded
that we are not alone in this world.
My spouse was recently diagnosed with cancer and people brought
food: comfort foods and exotic foods and labor-intensive foods
like homemade pesto from backyard basil, and fruit salads
with perfectly round melonballs. People also shopped for us,
weeded our garden, ferried our child, walked our dog, and
brought books and tapes and videos and funny hats to mask
the ravages of chemotherapy.
had a brigade of sorts, deftly organized by a couple of friends.
They asked me for names of people to be called and tasks that
needed to be done. I made up lists and handed them over. My
spouse, a self-reliant sort, was touched by the outpouring
of help, but also embarrassed by my willingness to accept
and, at times, even to ask for it. We exchanged some harsh
words. She, rightly pointing out that our friends had stressful
lives themselves, wondered why I couldn't manage more on my
own. I reminded her that, even when we were both functioning,
we barely managed to keep milk in the fridge. Now, not only
was she out of commission, but there were a whole slew of
new tasks--like explaining the situation to Sam's teachers,
and seeking out support groups, and shopping for nutritional
supplements, and running out at odd hours for the black-and-white
frappe she suddenly thinks she might be able to drink. "Besides,"
I shouted, "people want to help. There's nothing wrong with
letting them. Even with asking them!"
I was tearful by now, protesting too much. I knew there were
millions who coped daily, if not with cancer, with poverty,
single motherhood, difficult children, many children, ailing
parents, and on and on, and I wondered why I was so weak and
spoiled that, even with plenty of help, I felt so overwhelmed
that I was screaming at this very sick person I loved. Furthermore,
I knew such questions were self-indulgent at a time like this;
that instead of spending energy obsessing about my own deficient
character, I ought to be doing some of the things I was considering
asking other busy people to do. Like teaching myself to use
the new computer. Or returning the borrowed toilet plunger
that has been in the trunk of my car for months!
It's a tricky matter, this business of asking and offering,
of giving and taking; it raises all the big questions about
what it means to be in relationship or part of a community.
I've spent a lot of time pondering these questions during
those trying months and ever since. Still, I don't know
much: only that few of us are immune to the premium our
culture puts on self-sufficiency, and yet, when we open
ourselves up to being helped, the rewards are many.
I know that our friends' desire to help was genuine, and
the opportunity to do so felt like a gift to many of them.
I know that the help we received made all the difference
to me, to our son, and especially to my resistant spouse.
She, and many other cancer patients I've recently met, say
that the kindness of family and friends has a healing effect.
And I know that those who fear accepting help because it
will oblige them to give help in the future are not entirely
Take that Tupperware. Today, the sight of it is making me
uneasy; reminding me of something I've wanted to forget.
It happened just a few months before my partner got sick.
We received a notice from our son's playgroup, asking us
to bring a meal for another family with a cancer diagnosis.
I definitely wanted to help, but all the detailed instructions
in the letter put me off. Specifically, I remember reading
that we weren't to send any containers that we wanted back.
And I remember thinking, But we don't have any decent containers
that we don't want back!
So what did I do?
I bought take-out.
It was good take-out, and I threw in a pretty card; but
now, knowing the solace I got from all those homemade dishes,
from those specific hands picking and peeling, slicing,
and dicing, I'm filled with shame at the thought of that
family eating food cooked carelessly by strangers. I'm also
embarrassed by the realization that those nifty containers
are not, after all, mine to keep.
Not that I must return each to its rightful owner. I couldn't
remember who gave which, and even if I could, I don't think
their owners, a more evolved bunch than I, are counting
on getting them back. But I am obliged to fill them up and
pass them on the next time I learn of someone in need. That
's the thing about gifts. Unlike items bought or sold, they
are never simply yours to keep. At least they weren 't in
many native cultures as I learned from one of my favorite
books, Lewis Hyde 's The Gift. They were meant to be returned
to their original donor, or better yet, to be passed on
to someone new. They were supposed to always be in motion.
So much for my loaded cupboards! But I don 't mind. Graced
by so many gifts, I 'm a different person now. Less grasping.
Or, so I 'd like to believe.
Leslie Lawrence lives with her family in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, and is a writer, teaching at Tufts University.
Peter Nicholson is a writer and designer. He can be reached