My neighbor’s wife has cancer. I found out around Christmas when I went to their house to deliver the trail mix that we make for them each year. The cancer was in her jaw and she had to have reconstructive surgery. I didn’t know his wife was ill, and neither did the other neighbors. I did the usual thing and asked if he needed anything and of course he didn’t. I told him to let me know if I could do anything for him. We all know how that works. His wife was in the hospital through the holidays.
Since the first of the year, a few neighbors have asked me how The Wife was doing. Please notice here that they asked me, they did not ask him. One of the neighbors let me know she had just heard that The Wife was having chemo.
A few weeks ago I saw my neighbor and walked over to ask how The Wife was doing. I do not consider myself close to these neighbors. Sure, I know them well enough to wave and talk to them briefly, but we aren’t friends, and along with several other neighbors, they worked on our son’s Eagle Scout project and have supported his fundraisers over the years. I didn’t even know their dog had died until we tried to coax what we thought was their dog into their back yard! See, we thought their dog had gotten out so we were being helpful and trying to make their dog, a girl, go back into her yard. Steve observed the dog lifting his leg to pee on a tree. Oops! Not their dog! We never knew there were two Rottweilers living on our street until that day, when actually by that time there was only one.
So, back to my story. The Husband retired from his job as a motorcycle police officer for a neighboring city a few years ago. It’s been a difficult time ever since. First, he and The Wife went to Hawaii. She broke her foot while horseback riding, but they didn’t find out until they got home so she had to have surgery. Now the cancer thrust him back into that unfamiliar role we know too well, and he became his wife’s caregiver again. Frankly, he wasn’t doing well. For one thing, he needed someone to talk to about his wife. She was back in the hospital because her feeding tube came out. He took her to the local hospital and because she was a cancer patient, they wouldn’t deal with her. Of course they found this out after being there two hours! He then drove her to the hospital, 30 minutes away where her doctor is, but by now they couldn’t just insert the feeding tube, they had to operate to insert it because the opening had closed up.
I went home and made muffins. While the muffins baked, I phoned two neighbors with the update and left messages asking if they’d like to join me in taking food over on a weekly basis. Nothing big, but something that would show we cared. I suggested to one neighbor that fruit and granola bars, grab-and-go type food, would be great. I took six warm muffins to The Husband and he was so appreciative.
First one neighbor came over and explained that she had asked him what he wanted and he said he didn’t need anything, so she offered to help and wasn’t that good enough? I said that people often don’t ask for anything, and don’t even know they could use anything and that it doesn’t hurt to take something over. As she left, she told me to let her know if she could do anything. Hadn’t I tried to do that?
The second neighbor e-mailed me. Now, I consider myself friends with this neighbor although one day she told me she didn’t have any friends. She’s a very nice person. We watch each other’s houses when either of us go on vacation. She told me that she thought about taking over a basket of fruit and granola bars, but felt that it would be weird after all this time. I told her that I didn’t think so, but whatever she wanted to do was fine. She opted to do nothing.
The next day a third neighbor came over. This is the least neighborly neighbor we have. She is friendly only if she wants something. What she wanted was to know what was going on with the neighbor and his wife. She lives in the house between me and these people! I gave her a brief update and she proceeded to tell me that they were very private people so she didn’t want to bother them. Oh my gosh!! I frankly told her that was just a way to rationalize doing nothing! Hadn’t we learned anything when Nour died almost three years ago? I guess not.
Sunday I saw The Husband outside washing the car. Steve was heading out for a walk so I asked him to please swing by and ask about The Wife. He was reluctant, but went. I noticed he was there for a long time before he left for his walk. When he came home he gave me the full report. The neighbor is back home and The Husband is trying to keep her hydrated through the feeding tube. At that point, he hadn’t slept in 24 hours. His diet consisted of quesadilla and frozen food. He hasn’t been able to get to the gym and has gained 20 pounds. The biggest thing was that Steve said all he had to say to start the conversation was, “Hello” and that had never happened before. Steve expressed how terrible he felt for the neighbors. I was making soup for lunch, so after lunch I put some in a container and took it over with the “I made too much” line. He laughed, but was so grateful.
Today I was telling another friend about this. She sided with everyone else and gave the example of a neighbor who lost her husband. She gave the new widow a card and told her to let them know if she needed help. She was pleased that once the widow had asked my friend’s husband for assistance hooking up a new TV, and another time asked to borrow a drill.
I am not above rationalizing myself out of an uncomfortable situation. There is an 88-year-old woman I have been friends with for five years. I found out over the weekend that her identical twin sister had died suddenly. After listening to myself not want to bother my friend, I picked up the phone and called her. I am sure she is with her daughter right now, and I don’t know her daughter’s number, but I did leave a message and then later put a card in the mail. My calendar has a note to call her next Monday with an offer to sit with her or take her out for lunch.
I don’t ask for help even when I could use it and I know other caregivers are that way. I don’t see myself changing any time soon. What I can do, though, is stop telling others to call if I can do anything, stop rationalizing and start showing up with muffins.