It was when “Baby Jessica” turned thirty that I felt old for the first time. I was reading People in the Walgreens line (probably buying eye cream). Jessica McClure had two children and a husband, and I felt about three days shy of older than dirt. How could Baby Jessica have kids? Hadn’t she just come out of the well after singing “Winnie the Pooh” as the rest of us, glued to NBC Nightly News, cried? I hadn’t been skirting around water meters out of paranoia for thirty years, had I? But I had. Eventually we all grow up. Even Baby Jessica. And eventually we holler at our kids things like, “Stop trying to squeeze yourself through the railings (or chair back, or into that bucket, or into the toilet...ugh, boys) or you’ll end up like Baby Jessica!” To which our kids pause in their recklessness and ask, “Who’s Baby Jessica?” And then we remember we’re three days shy of older than dirt and that we watched the made-for-TV movie, Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure, when we were eleven on a television that had no remote control and without being able to fast-forward the commercials. Meanwhile, our kids can watch movies on their watches, anywhere, any time, even on the toilet (when they’re not trying to purposefully fall in.) *facepalm*
But besides a lifelong fear of manholes and shafts (and those grates in the sidewalks all over Manhattan), what I think stuck with most of us who remember those sixty hours when an eighteen-month-old was trapped in an eight inch well, is that we were all fixated on it together. It was like the entire country was praying for this baby. The near tragedy brought out heroes -- miners, drillers, and contractors from far away, paramedics who refused to take breaks as they made their way to Jessica, and a trust fund contributed to by total strangers for her future. We all love a happy ending, but I think even more than that, we love to be part of the happy ending. It just feels good to give.
I’m sure Jessica’s mom was the beneficiary of more than just rescue help. She probably had more lasagnas and chicken casseroles in her fridge and freezer than a Stouffer’s warehouse. I’ll bet other people did her laundry for about a month and friends came to her home, armed with Pine Sol and Mr. Clean to take the burden of the care of her home off her shoulders. I imagine she was grateful for the outpouring, but also overwhelmed as the normal actions of her life slipped out from under feet and were being completed without her involvement.
“Where the heck is the pizza slicer,” she might have cried out, rummaging through drawers, after not having cleaned her kitchen, herself, in weeks.
I’m also sure there were times during the sixty hours when well-intentioned friends said, “What do you need?” And she, internally, thought, “Shy of getting my baby out of a well, I have no idea.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if the deluge of support felt both like a warm, comforting cashmere sweater, and also uncomfortable and awkward. Because as much as we love to give, accepting gifts doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
I’ve known for years I have a problem accepting compliments. (Link here.) Saying something complimentary about my outfit or skin tone or how nice my house smells, will be met with every reason why you never should have been so praiseworthy.
“Yeah, but see that stain right there?”
“You should have seen my skin before the clinical trial.”
“Sure, but have you smelled my dogs?”
I am incapable of just saying thank you. Top that eccentricity with cancer and a steady stream of support from people in my life, far and wide, and the result is me taking thirty painstaking minutes to write a text asking someone to drive my kid to swim team for the foreseeable future, careful to not sound too needy.
(**Insert reminder to Annie here. Kid, you have stage three butt cancer. If someone thinks you’re too needy, maybe you’re surrounded by the wrong people.)
But of course no one thinks I’m too needy and that particular brand of self-consciousness is not my only hurdle. A two-week meal train was created for me by a dear college friend after my surgery, and it took strong convincing for me to be honest on the meal train and specifically ask for something as simple as hormone free chicken in the diet restrictions. Imagine having cancer and being too timid to say you don’t want to eat chicken pumped with so many additives it could give a six-year-old boy breasts, or spinach that’s been sprayed with Roundup.
(**Insert second reminder to Annie. Kid, again, stage three cancer. Why in hell would you not refrain from creepy food? Chill.)
But welcome to Crazyville. My hometown, where I’m not only awkward about compliments, but the equivalent to a preteen with braces and acne avoiding a crush at a school dance, when it comes to accepting help.
But compromising positions are foreign. Who thinks their kid is going to fall down a well? What forty-two-year-old thinks she’s going to have cancer? And asking for assistance when we’ve trained ourselves to be self-sufficient feels like wearing someone else’s skin. Before cancer (BC), I prided myself on my supreme Uber-Momness. I dared my husband one hundred times over to try, just try, to nail my Thursday after school schedule -- swim, football, ballet, plus another swim obligation, and have dinner, bath, story time, and bed signed, sealed, and delivered, with an episode of Law and Order after ten to spare. Did I ever once think to ask him for help? Of course not. I was too busy doing it all on my own and bragging about it. Not that there's anything wrong with basking in the glow of “I don’t know how she does it?!” That is, until she can no longer do it, and she is too proud to admit she just can’t anymore. And worse, when she isn’t comfortable asking, from even those closest to her, for what she really, really needs because she doesn’t want to be an inconvenience.
“Anne, please!!!” a good friend texted me last week when I refused her offer to get something for me at the grocery store. I could feel her exasperation through the phone. “You have got to let people help you.”
I relented. It reminded me of that time when I was in high school and unintentionally dyed my hair orange. Wanting to maintain a semblance of control, I just kept on trying to fix it myself, ignoring the hairdresser, friends, and my mother who urged me to let them help. My hair just kept on getting more orange until it looked like one of the mid-century modern accent chairs in my grandmother’s groovy living room. Eventually, I listened. My senior portraits thanked my hairdresser, mother, and friends years later. Just as I thanked my friend who came to my door with Tide, laundry crystals, toilet paper, and toothpaste. And I realized when I saw her smile that it is kind to accept kindness. It is generous to accept a gift. There is a glow to someone, high on the euphoria of being helpful, equal to that of the very person on whom their overwhelming generosity was bestowed.
Don’t be an asshat, Annie. When you don’t accept acts of kindness, you’re more harmful than helpful to the bigger picture.
Equally harmful, however, is not being honest about what isn’t helpful. I’m sure that if Facebook had been around during the Baby Jessica event, her mama would have been the recipient of not just lasagnas, but also stories. This person’s baby got stuck in their car seat. That one’s nephew once stuck his head in an empty tub of ice cream and had to get it surgically removed. He lost an ear and an eyeball, and will have a weird twitch for the rest of his life, but overall the kid is fine. And I’m sure Baby Jessica’s mom would have felt loads better, truly comforted, by such uplifting anecdotes. To quote vintage Annie, circa 1990’s and flannel, “Not!”
Just as people like me are clumsy when they receive kindness, some folks are just plain disastrous when they attempt to be sympathetic. I’m sure I’ve inadvertently let slip to an expectant mother that I hemorrhaged so badly in my first childbirth that I needed two blood transfusions. I’m sure the poor mama-to-be was left with newfound anxiety and also a certain loathing toward me for scaring the crap out of her. And she would be justified. She doesn’t need unsolicited anxiety. She needs unsolicited encouragement, prayers, and optimism. As did Baby Jessica’s mom. As do I. As do all of us. So here’s a good rule for all us well-intentioned folks moving forward: When someone’s in a vulnerable position -- whether their kid is stuck in a well, they’re pregnant, or they have unglamorous butt cancer -- if our personal experience is more unnerving than uplifting, it’s better left unsaid. I know enough to know the alternative is certainly more hurtful than kind.
“God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) Ideally, it should feel as good to give as it does do to receive. Generosity brings glory, grows communities, and keeps hope alive. True helpfulness is pure; a reluctant gift isn’t particularly cheery. Neither is the wrong gift. If it’s kind to accept kindness, then one could say it’s unkind to be dishonest about what doesn’t help. If Baby Jessica’s mom didn’t particularly like lasagna, I hope she said something. I wish the expectant mother I frightened had told me to buzz off and save my story for some hemorrhage echo chamber chat room. And I hope that I have the courage to say to the myriad people who want to help me and my family through this extremely sensitive time, “Thank you. I’d really love that delicious organic chicken you offered me. What a perfect gift...but hold the scary story, please.”