Mr. Rogers used to share something his mother told him when he was a boy: “If you are ever in a situation where you’re lost, or in danger, look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”
If he were a boy in need of help, he would be looking for me. I am a helper.
The interesting thing about helpers is, their first instinct is to step up; to take care of things. They jump in, exhibit calm, do what needs to be done, and try to make sure everyone is taken care of.
In seminary, we had a course about the different types of people. I learned that these people are, in a way, saviors. They don’t do it for themselves, or for praise; they are naturally service-oriented.
And the downside of that is, “nobody saves the savior.”
When I went to the emergency room earlier this year, I was on my last thread of a nerve. My pain tolerance is almost dangerously high. There are several reason for that, which is a different essay entirely. But that Wednesday, I was in tremendous pain. My left abdomen was bulging, and the pain was so intense I could barely breathe.
My son called that morning … his sister had called him. — apparently with a “check on Mom” alert; I’d told her I might need to head to the ER. He insisted he come and take me. “Mom, you are NOT taking an Uber to the hospital! I’ll be there in about an hour.”
Yes. I would have taken an Uber. But was so happy to have my big, strapping son coming to go with me.
We arrived at Saint Thomas Rutherford and I was quickly admitted. [Ed note: this was before the Covid. No masks were required]
I received the standard issue hospital bracelets and was shown to a room. My nurse, Sam, was a beautiful young girl. She clucked over me, took my vitals, we joked around a bit … when I’m nervous my first go-to is to try and make others laugh. I had Sam laughing.
Lying on that bed in that room in that hospital, I was not the helper. Everyone else was a helper. I was the one being helped. The gravity of that reverse was so ‘opposite,’ I could barely handle it. My eyes teared up several times. The kindness of my son, of Sam, of Dr. Steinberg, of Don the guy who wheeled me down the hall for the CT scan … was almost too much to take. In spite of the pain I was in, the helper in me felt like I should be fixing them all dinner, giving them a haircut, making them an outfit.
I got my CT pictures taken, got my belly poked and prodded, and the diagnosis was, once again, “undetermined.” But that’s good, right? They’d have seen the bad stuff, if there was any. That’s what I’m thinking, anyway.
And I wasn’t there very long, maybe a couple of hours. Chris brought me home, and urged me to come stay with them in Franklin. I declined. I was perfectly fine, except for the undiagnosed pain. And as we continued to rule out the scary possibilities, I was more and more inclined to just roll with it.
But after my son left, and as I looked through the file of papers they sent me home with, I couldn’t help it. I cried. I was feeling pretty fragile, and deeply humbled; so overwhelmed by the kindness everyone had shown me. A helper is not used to being helped and, quite frankly, is not altogether comfortable with it. But I knew God’s hand was in all of it. I could see it.
And I heard one of the messages being given to me: “Let others attend to you.”
It’s been months since then, and the problem seems to have gone away on its own. I’m back to climbing on ladders and taking on projects that are generally bigger than I am.
But I’ll never forget that Wednesday in January, when my daughter, my son, the hospital attendants … they were my helpers.
When I was very young, maybe three or four, I remember waking up each day a little breathless. I was so excited to be here. Thinking back, I wonder how I knew. What was that excitement about?
Going a little deeper, it’s almost like I’d been here before. I’m not sure about any of that, but I remember I had a “knowing” that life here could be terrific, and who wouldn’t want to be in it?
As I grew older, I started discovering that there was a thing called perfection. It was defined as something different than what I saw.
Perfection, I was told, could be found in the hospital corners on a freshly made bed. Everything on square. Pristine. Unsullied. Untouched.
I spent a lot of years trying to live up – or down – to whatever that was. But then, in the later years of adult life, I had an epiphany. Really, it was a sort of ‘going back’ to what I knew at three or four. I began to see perfection everywhere. In the torn edges of an old photograph; the way the table cloth was just slightly askew; The lipstick on Mrs. Flanagan’s teeth when she smiled.
Isn’t there a bit of heartbreaking perfection in all of it? It just seems like we all try so hard to be the perfect thing. And yet, when we step back and look, the perfection is always right there, at the center of our authenticity.
There’s a sweetness in the toddler’s bed head. There’s nostalgia in the old man’s dropping suspender. And a beautiful humanness in the failed loaf of bread.
It’s all good. The good stuff of us. We’ve only to live it, and not judge it. Our loving Father is looking down, and — in human terms — he likely gets a bit misty as He watches us try so hard to correct that which needs no correction at all.
The perfect is already here.
Common new phrases: ‘shelter in place’; ‘isolate together’; ‘curbside dining room’; ‘together separately’ … and the list will, no doubt, grow as days go by. I’m always happy to expand my vocabulary. Now is no exception.
It’s interesting, the way people are responding to the current unrest. On the one hand, there are guys who bought up all the TP with plans to sell it at premium prices.
I can’t knock free enterprise, but in the midst of a declared national disaster, ‘this’ is not ‘that’. It’s called price gouging, and it’s illegal.
On the other hand, there are those who – when they get an inkling that you might have a need, will throw open their trunk and ask, “How many can I give you? No problem, ma’am, I’m on my way to the church with this stuff and if you need any, I”m happy to share.”
These people … angels on earth. The hands, feet and heart of Jesus. That’s what they are.
They are the ones who help lift our gaze to the road before us, and the higher ground ahead.
I’m a grown woman. Really grown. I mean, I’ve been here awhile. I rarely remember that, and when I get the message to “check on the elderly in your neighborhood,” I start thinking of the ladies down the street. Then I start laughing, when I realize: I’m older than they are. WHAT?! Yes. Yes, I am. But I’ll check on them anyway. Because that’s what neighbors do.
In the main, I’m a hermit. I love being, living, creating alone. I cowrite weekly, via Skype. But I rarely come face to face in person. Rarely in the energy field of other people, rarely experience their scent or the texture of their sweater when I hug them.
Those things I do miss from time to time. But what I realize is, my lifestyle has prepared me for *this*. The need-and-the-call for everyone to, basically, live as I have lived for the past twenty years.
But we are a creative people. We Skype, and Zoom, and Facetime, and text, and call … we will always find a way.
The connective tissue between those who love each other cannot be destroyed.
About a year ago, I finally pounded out the last pages of the first draft. A project that began in 1995. The early chapters are covered with the splatters of someone in the midst of an attack. The blood was boiling as the words hit the page. Twenty-plus years later, I can tell you this much: distance gives perspective. And through the years, as the story continues to write itself, the narrative shifts, changes. It — if you’re doing it right — becomes reflective and wise. I am reflective now, and wiser than I was then. So it’s stunning and a little uncomfortable to look back at the initial writing and see how unwise, how in pain, ‘the writer’ was.
I thought I wanted people to know the truth, as I knew it. Writing it down was a form of therapy; I wrote during the divorce process, sometimes all day through the night and into the next morning. I still have those pages, written on an old IBM Selectric. I haven’t read them in awhile, largely because I can’t bear it. That young woman was so broken, and — because she had no place else to put it — she poured her brokenness onto those pages. Maybe that’s how she was able to keep breathing. To put one foot in front of the other. To get from there to here.
It’s been twenty-four years since I started the book. The woman writing this now is not the same woman who wrote the first one hundred sixty five pages. Yes, all those things happened. But wasn’t it another lifetime? The scars are there, they show that wars were braved, but that’s okay. Everybody has their tragedies, losses, betrayals. Love is the ticket to all of them. There is no love with out them.
Think about that for a minute.
Loving someone is the bravest thing a person can do. To truly love means you’ve cracked your heart open and said “yes” to the utter bliss of it, and to the deepest emotional pain possible-while-still-breathing. A surrender to that depth of caring, of vulnerability, invites it. Invites it all.
My parents were the first example of what a marriage, and love, looks like. Theirs was filled with laughter, and dancing, and alcohol, and drama. It all swilled in the chalice of the Holy Catholic church. Daddy was an usher, Mama was fragile and beautiful. Our family, which topped out at six kids, sat in the front row every Sunday, “those stair step Myers kids.” In our chaotic house Mass, and the prayers we prayed there, were the two things that I could always count on. They became my lifeline.
When I say Mama was fragile, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t strong. It means she was different after she had the breakdown. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember the priest coming to the house. I was young, and confused. My brother Bob was about two, and we were farmed out to family members each day. I went to Uncle John and Aunt Mabel’s. Bobby went to Nanny’s. Daddy dropped us off every morning on his way to work. When I got to Uncle John’s house, it was still dark. But the front door was unlocked. I climbed out of the car, shut the car door, walked up the driveway to the porch, opened the front door, went inside, shut the door, sat on the couch in the dark, and waited for someone to wake up. I was five years old.
Now, sitting here knowing that in March I’ll hit seventy one years of age, it’s a strange feeling; I think back on that little girl. I am she. She is I. We are us.
In a way, it’s like looking at an old movie of someone else.
But I guess if I had to do it again, and was delivered to my aunt and uncle’s home in the dark, I’d still open the door, go inside, shut the door, sit on the couch in the dark, wait for somebody to wake up and turn on a light.
That was a long time ago. Now, I have five beautiful grandchildren, each one a gift from my son Chris and his wife Shanna. On days when I’m not sure what I’m doing still here, I tell myself that they’re the reason I’m upright and taking nourishment. I know that’s a bit dramatic, but I really am determined to keep myself healthy so I can dance at their weddings. And I’ll foster their creative energy, their sense of humor, and their musical prowess till the day I die.
My mother has ten grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren. Daddy passed away in 2014, and mother lives in the moment, from day to day. She’s sweeter than she’s ever been, partly because she doesn’t have a clue who anyone is, other than Karen. Karen, the youngest of her children, watches over her and makes sure she’s well cared for.
Last time I saw my mother was when I went home to bury my Daddy. We visited, and I probably told her who I was ten times in fifteen minutes. Her response was always, “Well, I’d love to get to know you.” I looked into her eyes, and thought to myself, Mother, you’ve never known me. And for so many years, I couldn’t find you in there. Now, you’re gone completely. I’m trying to learn to be okay with that.
It’s awkward. I’ve worked hard to make peace with the fractures in my family, and with the ones who caused them. I know I’ve built an invisible wall of protection around myself, a sort of PTSD response to family drama and the heartbreak it caused. I wish I didn’t need it, but I do. And so, there it is. But I no longer have the time, the energy for, or the interest in keeping track of who, how, and how often family members have done me wrong. Seriously. Let’s stop.
It’s funny what life does to a person. You start out as a little squirt, being exactly who you are. You can’t really be anyone else, because you haven’t discovered there’s a choice, so you’re just you. Then, with all its pre-conceived judgments, life gets in. You start questioning everything about you. Maybe you were wrong. Maybe you aren’t who you thought you were. So, for the next several decades, you start jumping and adjusting in time to everything that’s said to you about who you are. It’s exhausting; just when you think you’re making progress, just when you think you’ve left that original, ‘unacceptable’ you behind, the bottom falls out. And you’re back to square one … face to face with yourself. But the truth is, that’s the best gift of all. If the world didn’t need ‘you,’ you wouldn’t have shown up in the first place.
I’m still who I thought I was, way back at the beginning of things, and while I’m a little more careful as I navigate, I have not really slowed down. On the scale of “women types,” I’d say I’m a square shouldered work horse with a great attitude. I can clean myself up and be in groups with the best of them, but given the choice I’ll hit the drive through in my pajamas.
As far as what the future holds, I’m planning to write … songs, essays, articles, books of any sort, fiction or non-fiction. My grandson wants me to write children’s books — a “NannyBoo” series which, I must admit, sounds fun and funny. NannyBoo’s their name for me, once I was christened by three-year-old Chloe’. But whether or not I write the “NannyBoo” series, I plan to write whatever comes out; I’ll write it all down as long as I can. And I’ll finish that book. If it doesn’t get published, at least I’ll be able to leave it for my children to read when I’m gone. They can gain a deeper understanding, if they’re interested, of who their mother really was, and why she was that way. They’ll get to know me better and, by extension, themselves. That’s the best gift I can give them, after all.
Knowing the “me-of-me” is, I believe, the lesson at the center of all the lessons we can ever be faced with. I’m here as me, you’re here as you, and we’ve got us. Let’s give authenticity a shot.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help someone. Or to know if what you’re doing is helping, and you should do more … or should you do less? Maybe a little bit quieter … or louder. Maybe do it from way over here. Or not at all. Then again, maybe just shut up and get to it.
My brother’s wife died in January. She was mid sixties, a vivacious woman who finally collapsed into the Parkinsons that took over her body, and her mind. Bob was at work when the call came from Kathy, Lyn’s caretaker:
“You need to get home. Now.” He hung up the phone and rushed to the house.
I don’t know the particulars; I do know the doctor was there. And that it was, sadly, time. Lyn could not have weighed a hundred pounds. She deserved to finally be at peace. So, that January day, she let go.
My brother texted me: “Lyn’s gone.” When I saw the text, I called. He was his typical stoic self, but I thought I could hear past Bob’s weary “take care of business” voice. He was drifting, and putting together what needed to be done now, and next, and next, and then … it was a sort of roadmap that kept him tethered to the ground, kept him from collapsing in an exhausted, heartbroken heap.
I’m his big sister. He’s my little brother. We grew up in the family foxhole together. We dodged many of the same alcohol-fueled, rage-filled bullets. We are the only two of the six of us kids who share that childhood. Our parents changed as parents do, with successive children. But we were the first: Thing one and Thing two.
So I felt a sort of desperate need to help hold his pieces together. I went to him in Memphis.
Through the past six years, when Lyn was dealing with, then coping with, then had no clue about, what was happening to her, Bob had enlisted my help a few times. I was glad to give it. We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.
When I got to Memphis after Lyn’s death, I walked into the house. I was a bit startled; by the looks of things. The house itself was heartbroken.
Lyn didn’t want a funeral, and she’d asked to be cremated. Bob honored her wishes, and instead threw a party in April, on her Birthday. By now we’d chosen paint colors and freshened up all the public areas of the house. The party was a great success, and a weight was lifted from my bother’s shoulders.
Now, he’s learning how to live a life where he can go, and do, whatever he wants. It’s both a blessing and a curse; full of stops, starts, and those moments when the ache of missing her takes his breath. But he’s got this. And I’m here for him, always, ready to help in whatever way he needs.
The weather’s finally turning cool. A fall nip is in the air, the one that tells me, “cozy nights by the fire” are not far off! I smile as I sip my coffee, and am happy that I’ve once again turned my attention to shoeboxes. I mean the shoeboxes filled with gifts that Samaritan’s Purse gathers. They spend their Holiday carrying them to children across the world who might otherwise not have a Christmas at all.
My boxes for this year are just about ready. A couple more things to tuck into them, and I’ll be done.
A couple of years ago, I was in a very tight space financially. In my life, money has ebbed and flowed, and I’ve always been pretty good at rolling with it. But that year the money was especially thin.
I was watching TV one morning that autumn, and heard Franklin Graham talking about Operation Christmas Child. He was saying that people could fill shoeboxes with items for children in third world countries. He explained how the process worked, talked about what to put in the boxes, shared video footage of children exploding with excitement over these shoeboxes, and … while he was still talking …
I went upstairs. I went to my closet and opened the door. Almost like a robot, I dumped shoes out of two large shoe boxes, turned, and carried them downstairs. How will I afford this, I thought. But even before that thought was finished, the answer came: you’ll figure it out.
I pulled out wrapping paper, and went to work. These shoe boxes were the big ones with hinged lids, so the wrapping took its own time. I’ll tell you with no pride whatever that I’m a perfectionist. It is a curse more often than not. The results are usually worth it, but when it came to these boxes I’d call it a draw. I re-did them. Twice.
Once the boxes were ready, I had to find things to put in them. I poured the loose change out of the money canister in the kitchen, counted it … it came to about 12.37, I think. I put the money in a baggie, put the baggie in my purse. I grabbed my coat, got my keys, went to the car, and drove to the Dollar Store.
What was I looking for? I wasn’t sure. Tooth brushes, maybe? tablets, crayons, combs, stickers, a stuffed animal. Two.
I spent more time than anyone should in that store, parsing pennies and figuring out how to get the most with what little money I had. I was able, with my meager sum, to get everything I needed. Yay, Dollar Store!!
I then went to Kohls. My Kohls credit card had a little room left on it, and I knew they had stuffed animals for $5.00 each. I went in and selected a monkey (Curious George) and a bear (Classic Teddy). I found a cute girl’s jewelry set on clearance, and a boy’s shirt.
I went home, and tucked everything inside the boxes. They were looking so cute! My heart was soaring, even though my pockets were empty. EMPTY.
There were only a couple of days left to deliver the boxes to the drop off location. I looked up the address for Lighthouse Baptist Church, put the boxes in the car, and headed out.
When I walked into the church, there were several ladies waiting there.
“Welcome,” they chorused. One woman — whom I learned was “Miss Rita” — came toward me to take the boxes.
“You’ve brought shoe boxes! God bless you!” I had a grip on my two boxes. Strange sensation; I didn’t want to let them go. But I let her take them with only a slight tug; we walked to a long table where she placed them and began labelling them for gender, age, etc. I looked along one wall and there were filled boxes, several deep, stacked about twelve feet high.
Miss Rita finished up and snapped a rubber band around each of my boxes. “I had to do this,” I croaked lamely. My throat was tightening up. Why am I so emotional? My heart was racing.
“You had to do this?”
“Yes. Because I’m broke. I’m flat broke.” She looked confused, so I continued.
“This for me is an act of faith. God will take care of me. He sees me helping these children. And yes. He will.” My eyes welled up. “He will. He’ll see me through this. And Lord, it feels good to give! Doesn’t it?” My speech brightened and I smiled, but there was a tear rolling down my cheek.
“Baby, God sees you, He KNOWS you, and He knows your heart.” She reached up and wiped my cheek, wrapped her arms around me. “Would you like some hot cider?” I nodded, blinking fast so I wouldn’t cry. What in the world is wrong with me, I thought.
She handed me the cider, and said,
“We always pray over the boxes, and we would also like to pray over you today. Would that be alright?”
“Oh, my … yes, I would be so humbled. Thank you.” Eyes welling again. I looked down, swallowed hard, and took a sip of cider.
The ladies gathered in a circle around me, hands linked. Miss Rita prayed. She prayed loud, and proud. She asked God to bless my shoe boxes, and to bless me. She prayed me so big, and so full, that when she ended it and all the ladies shouted, “Amen,” I could hardly breathe.
I hugged Miss Rita. “Thank you. So much.”
“No,” she said, “thank YOU. Baby, you are the blessing. And God uses you to bless others. He’s got His eye on you.”
We said our goodbyes and I went to my car. The woman I was climbing into the car was different from the woman who had climbed out. I’d been changed. I was lifted. Lightened.
I turned on Christmas carols; I sang, and cried, and laughed along with them all the way home.
A few days later, I was watching a morning show and there was a handsome young man who was talking about the scarf he had around his neck. It was a muffler like we wear in the winter. But his story was incredible:
When he was a little boy, he’d received that muffler in a shoe box of gifts at Christmas. He said that shoe box was all he got for Christmas, and he chuckled when he talked about taking out that scarf. He said,
“Where we lived it was never cold. Ever. I had no idea what that scarf was for. But I knew it was something important. So I kept it. I used the toothbrushes, and the crayons, and the toys … but that scarf I kept with me.
“And now, here I am, a grown man in New York City. It’s winter time here, and look:” He held up the tail of the scarf around his neck. “This scarf. This is my shoe box scarf. I’ve always kept it with me. And I always will. It’s more than just a piece of cloth. It’s a message that I’m not alone, that the world is bigger than I know, and it’s filled with good people.”
That man’s message stopped me in my tracks. I pray that the shoeboxes I pack will help fill the hearts of those little children with hope, and the knowledge that God sees them. God loves them. They are never alone.
That’s also true for me.
And for you.
The depth and breadth of the things in this building suck the oxygen out of the room.
- First exhibit, childhood. Promises to hold, support, love … to encourage and protect. They lie in pieces on the ground, dusty and forgotten. Forgotten to everyone but me. Check check check. Check check.
- Up the escalator to the mezzanine, is high school, and teenage years. Potential recognized and undermined. The remnants of hope’s fire, a burnt offering of the dreams held there. A young girl with no one to reflect back to her the truth of who she was, gifts she brought, or the light she shined.
- Shattered glass on the second floor, shards of a dark and betrayed relationship. Two beams glow bright, the children born, and a third, the tender flame of one who left too soon.
- Top floor, on golden shelves sit baskets, overflowed with bit and pieces, half-made promises of friends and family. Those whose only real crime was that they failed themselves before they ever could fail me.
- The ceiling above is open to the sky, dark and starry. Constellations weave a spiderweb, a language all their own. They tell of secrets yet revealed, and assure me that … no matter how it seems, I am not alone.
I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, and drink harder. I was their first child, born to them when they were still young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love. When I was a little girl I would shyly study my mother’s face … her wide eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star in hiding. I wondered what she was doing in this little life, in this house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and one parched sapling in the front yard. Even at five, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, I took on the job of laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. No one. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal,’ so imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families have no foxhole at all.
I lurched through the decades, reinventing myself over and over, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. It took over forty years, and one spectacular betrayal for me to stop, and turn my attention to the whisper of truth. It was there all along, but I hadn’t heard it before, because I wasn’t ready. Not only had I become ready, I threw up the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. And I was exhausted.. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
I remember the date. May 12, 1991. My attorney’s call that morning woke me up. She was calling to let me know the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I got off the phone, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought surely I would feel … something. Relief? Excitement, maybe? All I got was silence. I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared in the mirror. I looked into my own eyes, searching for … someone. Who will I be now? I whispered. I had no idea.
Ever since I was a tiny girl, there’s been … something … like a tiny thread … woven deep inside me. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have broken, or suffocated, or disintegrated. It never did.
Like a flower finding its way to the sun through a crack in the stone, that shimmering little strand found its way back to me.
The very thing I feared would be most difficult has become easy, feels natural. Coming home to myself is simple, and honest. I am moving back toward the center of someone I’ve always known. It warms my heart, settles my belly, and brings perspective into sharp focus. I know where home is now. And I see that I was right here all the time.