Monday, February 22, 2010

Kindness Counts (Babble)

Telling people Ian is deployed in Iraq is odd because it isn’t simple.  It means different things to different people, even within our family.

Ian can’t stand it when people react to the news of his getting shipped out in a negative way, usually with what he calls ‘the cancer voice’–where people grimace a little and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”  It’s his job and he likes it.  It’s challenging and important.  He’s a Major, so it’s not what most people first picture when they imagine him ‘fighting.’  The work he’s doing over there right now involves tackling corruption and using his engineering skills to solve basic problems.  He’s perfectly suited to what he’s doing and he’s making a difference.  Whatever you think of the situation in Iraq right now (and personally I hate that we’re there at all), Ian is exactly the kind of person we are lucky to have there trying to fix things.  I’m sure if there were a magic way he could do his job and not be so far away from us he would be happier, but it is what it is.

I remind Ian, however, that the cancer voice sentiments apply to my part of the situation just fine.  There is no feeling of accomplishment at our end.  I’m trying to hold things together as best I can, but most of the time I’m stretched very thin, can’t get everything done that I need to, and I’m scared.  I try not to play what I think of as ‘the deployment card’ when dealing with people, but sometimes at work I need to let people know why my store doesn’t have normal hours.  I have to operate by appointment only in order to spread out the interactions with customers to a manageable level.  There is always at least one child with me which keeps things unpredictable, and rather than let people think I don’t have any sense of professionalism or that I don’t want their business, I explain that my husband is deployed but things should go back to normal in the fall.  Most people are pretty accommodating as long as there is a reason, and deployment is a pretty good reason.

In any case, as much as Ian would prefer not to look at his chance to do the work he’s trained for as bad news, from here it’s hard not to see it that way.  Most of the people I talk to understand it in that light, and when you tell people about your own misfortunes of any kind, they usually say, “If there is anything I can do….”  I know that’s what I say, and I know most of us mean it as we’re saying it.  But some people are profoundly better at following through with that idea than others.  I aspire to be one of those people when I’m in a better position to do so.

I do the best I can, snatching at small opportunities when they present themselves to help make someone’s day a little better or easier, but it’s hard when I’m always scrambling around just to keep my own family running.  I’m in awe of people who are truly prepared and willing to help when it’s needed even when they are obviously busy too, and there are more of them than I can believe sometimes.  I make mental notes of clever ways people can be helpful when I see them so I’ll have more to offer others sometime than the words, “If there is anything I can do….”  Here are some examples I’ve witnessed of kindness in action.

An experience that stays with me from back before I had children and was still commuting 40 miles away to violin making school every day, was witnessing an accident on the freeway.  I was driving behind an elderly man who passed out behind the wheel and crashed into a barricade and flipped his car over.  It was really frightening and my car wasn’t affected, but since I’d witnessed the accident I pulled over to tell any officials arriving at the scene what little I knew.  I didn’t think there was anything I could actually do to help and I didn’t want to be in the way, so I kept my distance for awhile. 

But I was stunned at how many other people did think of ways to help.  Several people pulled over just to offer some small service before continuing on their respective commutes.  One woman asked the old man, still hanging upside down in his car, if there was anyone she could call for him on her cell phone or anyone he wanted to talk to.  He had her call his wife.  Another man stopped simply to leave a blanket to keep the man warm if he went into shock.  I got to watch the paramedics do their jobs brilliantly.  The man who helped the elderly driver out of his car and onto a stretcher, checked him over carefully before smiling at his patient and saying in an amused voice, “What did you do?” which made the old guy relax and respond with a laugh saying, “I don’t know!”  Transportation department people efficiently blocked off the scene, the police gathered information….  It was a tremendous display of everyone doing everything they should have with care and I was deeply moved by the whole thing.  I don’t think enough of us appreciate just how often people do things right in the course of a typical day.  Since then I try to keep a blanket in my car that I can afford to spare should I happen upon someone who may really need it.

A fellow musician in town recently struggled with an ugly bout of breast cancer.  Her medical bills were going to be an increasing problem, so a few people organized a fundraising dinner.  It was a lovely event where we all contributed money and I know the musician was grateful, but it was the creative contributions I learned about while at that dinner that truly impressed me.  One person had volunteered to come out to her house and teach her violin students for her while she was sick.  That was a stroke of genius in my opinion, because I wouldn’t have thought of a way to apply the skill of teaching violin in a manner that was useful to someone fighting cancer, but it allowed her to keep her normal income and not disrupt her students’ schedules.  I love it when people find ways to use what they already do in a charitable capacity.

In my own life I am continually amazed by which people are the ones who step up to help.  Of course my mom will always help when she can because she’s my mom.  But my cousin out in Minnesota?  I’ve always loved and admired Ann, but when you ask for volunteers to help you move you don’t expect any of the out of state people to respond.  Ann immediately offered up her husband’s muscles and her own child entertaining abilities, and told me to pick a weekend and they would drive six hours with two small kids to come help.  That’s amazing and I will be forever grateful.  (Ann can have her pick of any organs I can spare should she ever need them.)

People who help you move are in a special category anyway, but some of my newest friends were among the first to volunteer.  Moving is repetitive and rough and not easy, and all who have made themselves available to carry furniture across the street for me have been cheerful about it.  Again, several of them are not the people I would have expected to appear at my doorstep, but how wonderful to learn the circle of people you can count on is so wide?  Robyn got her exercise for the week moving all my books, her husband helped hoist furniture, Bonnie Jean and her hsuband found time to pitch in with lots of heavy lifting in the middle of their busy schedule, Kate moved the pachinko machine and children’s books among other things, Howard moved my bed and a ton of things from the garage, and my cousin’s husband Dave tirelessly made a million and a half trips with every heavy thing I own the whole weekend.  That’s above and beyond.

There is Laurie whom I know both through orchestra and mandolin rehearsals, who has started offering herself up at unexpected times to play with my kids so I can run away for a little while.  I’ve always liked Laurie, but I never would have guessed she might be someone to spontaneously offer help when I needed it.  I got to paint part of my new kitchen in peace thanks to Laurie when she called out of the blue and agreed to help Aden use her Easy Bake Oven for a couple of hours.  It’s hard to ask for help, so never underestimate the value of simply handing a busy parent a block of time.  That’s a lesson I’m keeping in my back pocket in order to help others.  I do take other people’s kids for a few hours when I’m able even now while I’m so busy, just because I know how much it helps sometimes.

Another cousin (of my mom’s gerneration), Carol, has made us dinner a couple of times.  Food always tastes better when you don’t have to make it yourself!  She’s cooked the food in our house and kept an eye on the kids while I taught, and she’s also sent along a casserole to make things easier.  (I would love to go cook for someone who could use it, but that will have to wait for a time when I’m not a traveling circus everywhere we go.)

My brother’s girlfriend down in Texas is flying up for a couple of weeks in March just to help.  I liked Kristie the first time I met her, but to find out the depth of her sincerity is amazing.  When we first got the news of Ian’s deployment her immediate reaction was, “I will go up and stay with them for a week to help,” and she’s actually doing it.  Having a second adult in the house is like suddenly being able to fly.  While Kristie is here I won’t have to take everyone with me on errands, I can go out for a walk alone when they are all asleep, and get some real work done in the new house.  That’s a huge gift, and from an unexpected place.  (Barrett, if you let this woman get away you’ll have some serious explaining to do.)

And there isn’t enough room on any blog to adequately thank my friends Carol and Chris.  There is no way I’d be actually moving into the new house anytime soon without their help.  It’s painful to sit in this house with the kids when I can practically see from my window all the work that needs to happen across the street.  I feel trapped some days, wishing I could go paint or organize something in the new house, but I can’t leave the kids alone.  (Occasionally I march them all over there with me, but the noise and running around drives me crazy, and one time Mona ended up in urgent care with a twisted ankle, so that backfired big time.)  I’ve done as many trips as I feel comfortable with, carrying boxes over while bringing along my cell phone in case during the minute and a half I’m gone something happens even though they are just playing with legos.  So Carol and Chris paint and clean when I can’t.  And the nice thing is that even though I can’t be doing all of this house preparation with my husband, it’s nice watching some husband and wife team working on it.  I watch the two of them tackling projects together and checking in on their own kids and wish so much I could have that again soon.

Between all my friends and relatives who have offered their time and effort, there is love going into the work on that house, and that will help make it a real home.  That means a lot to me.  They understand how hard it must be to do any of this alone and they’re doing something about it.  (If I ever run into someone insane enough to move with small children while his or her spouse is out of the country, I will know what kind of help to offer!)

This is the positive result of being willing to tell people about Ian’s deployment.  It’s the kind of situation that inspires certain people to action, and it’s incredible to see.  I met Carol initially because I was struggling during the last deployment with getting my daughter into the school building each morning.  She’s the kind of person who probably would have helped anyway, but she saw a mom in trouble and jumped in, and now I have one of the best friends anyone could ask for.  I don’t know how I’d be doing without the kindness of so many people both near and far.

I’m looking forward to a day, though, where I’m not the one who needs so much help.  I want to be the one who jumps in and rescues someone else for awhile.

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