I was at a party a few months ago, and someone asked me how I was doing. I told her that I was okay, managing life day-by-day, and learning how to ask for a lot of help. “The thing about asking for help,” I said, “is that I have to ask people to do things for me knowing that I’ll never pay them back.”
“Of course you do,” the woman said back. “It’s different, of course, but when I was working in government, I needed a lot of help with my kids. It’s been years, but I always say that I’ll be paying people back for carpool when I’m 80.”
I laughed. This woman’s kids were all grown now, so obviously she couldn’t pay anyone back for carpool, at least not directly. But we talked more about how hard it can be to ask for help and offer nothing in return.
It was one thing to accept a lot of help when Shawn was in the hospital, and in the immediate weeks after he died. Of course I needed help. I didn’t feel guilty at all about asking for help, in the same way that someone who is stranded on a log in the ocean doesn’t feel guilty about being pulled onto a boat. I didn’t even really feel grateful, because I was in survival mode. I just felt relief that someone else was handling things.
But time passed. First, I could feel grateful for the help others offered. Then, I started to feel guilty.
I knew it was unreasonable. None of my friends or acquaintances ever made me feel guilty. Nope – this was self-imposed guilt.
After a number of months, I managed to figure out a balance that felt somewhat okay for me. I’d accept help when I needed it, but not all the time. I could do my own grocery shopping, for example, but if I needed something that involved a power tool, I figured it was okay to ask for and accept help.
I actually got to where I could manage on my own quite well. I found myself relying less and less on my friends and well-meaning community members. I found myself becoming much more self-sufficient.
And then the coronavirus hit. Almost immediately, I was back at square one. I tried to do everything for myself at first, but then it became clear that I needed help. Again.
I know that no one keeps a tally of how much they’ve helped me. Before Shawn died, I never did that either. When I offered help, I offered it because I was happy to help. But do you know who does keep score of who helps me?
I mean, not literally. I don’t have a spreadsheet where I note everyone who has ever brought me milk or watched my kids. But I know there are some people who have helped me so much that if I really let myself think about it, I feel a twinge of worry that our relationship has been so imbalanced at times.
I think about how I’ll be paying people back for carpool when I’m 80.
Of course, I won’t actually be doing that, because by the time I can truly offer help, all of the kids I know now will probably be driving themselves places. I won’t ever get the chance to really pay people back for carpool, or for many of the tasks involving young children.
But I’m not sure a tally sheet is really useful for anyone, myself included. Maybe what the coronavirus has taught me more than anything is that I will have more times in my life when I have to gracefully ask for help and accept it from my friends. Yes, I figured out how to to manage most of the parts of my life after many months of widowhood. I felt like things were becoming more balanced in many of my friendships. And then this virus and quarantine happened. When I really think about it, I know that the coronavirus isn’t the last time I’ll need help. Something else will happen after that and I will have to ask for help.
But there’s another piece to this, and it’s something that I tell myself when I start to feel guilty: I am not the only one who will ever need help. Maybe, someday, something will happen to someone I love. Maybe something will happen to someone in my community. Maybe something will happen in our world that doesn’t directly affect me. In fact, I know that all these things will happen, even though I wish that they wouldn’t.
And when that something bad happens, I hope that those people who are in pain know that they can ask me (or someone else) for help. I hope they will remember all of the times that someone helped me and I gratefully accepted that help, even when I knew I’d never be able to pay anyone back. I hope that they remember what it means to be part of a community.
It’s not about keeping score.
Maybe one day, I’ll pick up lots of kids after baseball practice and drive them all home. I mean, maybe I’ll only be paying people back for carpool until I’m 65. Maybe.
Or maybe not. My debt may be too big.
Luckily for me, no one seems to be keeping score.