On showing up.

On showing up.

As a parent to young kids, talk of “rites of passage” brings a wistful smile.

I think of things like first smile, first tooth, first steps. The first time watching Anne of Green Gables or Star Wars, the first time making s’mores around a campfire, the first sleepover with the cousins.

(I’m living in fear of the “firsts” I know are coming: first crush, first kiss, first heartbreak. I don’t want to talk about it.)

But there’s another kind of rite of passage, the kind that comes when our bodies predictably begin to fail: the first time your parent is seriously ill, the first terrifying 4:00 a.m. phone call, the first hopeless prognosis.

We’ve been living through our own rite of passage around here. This is no happy “first.” This is the scary kind.

This weekend we took an impromptu road trip to visit a loved one who’s been ill. We almost didn’t go. Because we left in a mad rush, we weren’t prepared and didn’t have anything to offer: no food, no family photos, not even a bottle of wine.

We went anyway.

The kids and I hit the grocery store first, where we did their shopping (and I picked up that bottle of wine). Then we made lunch and tried our darnedest not to make a giant mess like we usually do. I changed over the laundry while the kids took down all the Halloween decorations, then we headed outside to cut back the spent mums and frostbitten hostas.

I was folding freshly-laundered pillowcases into a tidy stack when Anne Lamott’s words from six months ago popped into my head:

People don’t need as many casseroles as you think. 

When people are hurting, we need to be there for them, even if we can’t “fix” anything for them. (Because of course we can’t.)

But here’s what we can do: Take them cups of cold water. Sit and feel awful with people. Do their laundry.

And that’s what we did.

cold water

*****     *****     *****

We’re back in town now, back to our regular routine. Part of that routine is visiting my grandmother every week or so.

We go almost every week, the kids and I. The kids always make her cards and drawings and we take them with us. Sometimes we bake things and bring them along. We sit and we chat. Sometimes we do a few chores.

She has a hard time moving around on her own, so we quite literally bring cups of cold water.

I try to prevent the kids from wrestling on the floor, and we stay until I start losing that battle.

I’ve been meaning to take her photos for months. (I haven’t even brought her pictures of our new house. Yikes.) I’ve shown her pictures on my phone, but when you’re in your eighties, iPhone photos don’t count.

I was telling this to a friend the other day, saying I didn’t know if I could show up without those photos one more time. She said, “You know, I don’t think it’s the pictures your grandmother really wants to see.”

*****     *****     *****

When I go to visit others, I’m so concerned about what I have to bring, what I have to offer. And when I don’t have anything to offer, I’m tempted to stay home, because what’s the point?

(I’ve been on the receiving end of this, too, and let me tell you: I was grateful for every casserole brought to us by a kind-hearted soul. But I was even more grateful that the food-bearer would sit on our sofa for a bit and chat for a bit, because I needed that. And I wept tears of gratitude for anyone who shined my sink or folded my laundry.)

But I’m thinking that Lamott is on to something: people don’t need as many casseroles as you think, but they need you to be there.

I’ll need you to show up for me the next time we get hit by a bolt from the blue, and you’ll need me during your own depressing rite of passage.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about showing up, casseroles, and laundry in comments. 

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  1. Oh, how close to home these words hit for me. I’ve been there — the parent with an uncertain prognosis and the aging grandmother — and it forever changed my view of how we care for others. My father came through his illness, and my grandmother turns 89 in a few weeks. It’s all taught me that there’s a give and take to illness and grief. Certain gestures — the casseroles and the cards and even the glasses of water — hold as much importance for the giver as they do for the recipient. Photographs are the tangible proof of the past for those whose memories have begun to fade. And, most importantly, our meaningful Hallmark moments never turn out quite the way we planned. So often, I’ve told myself that a thoughtful phone call would make my granny’s day, only to find upon calling that she’s juiced up the motorized wheelchair and headed for the mall… 😉

    • Anne says:

      “And, most importantly, our meaningful Hallmark moments never turn out quite the way we planned.”

      I constantly need this reminder! Thanks for sharing, Heather. (Chuckling at the image of your granny circling the mall. She sounds spunky. 🙂 )

  2. Jillbert says:

    I think you nailed it — showing up is what is important. We’ve had a few years of elderly parent care under our belt. No regrets about being there for my sweet father-in-law for the last few years of his life. He was a tough and demanding dude but I miss him greatly. Now, it’s my mother-in-law’s turn. She has dementia but is still so fun to visit (most days — I get that it can sometimes feel routine and “why bother” but we “bother” and are always glad we did). Photos (and old music) bring her joy — while she often doesn’t remember the more current stuff, the old memories are still there. My hope is that even on the most confusing days for her, when she might not know what we’re talking about, she knows that we are with her and love her.

  3. Maryalene says:

    I loved this post and wanted to add that I think there is no one right one way to help others. Every situation is different and while some people need listening ears more casseroles, others may not.

    When my husband was dying of cancer, I was always afraid someone dropping off food would want to stay and chat. That might sound ungrateful but I had screaming kids in the background, a husband who needed pain meds and I was in no emotional state to entertain. The biggest blessing we had was when people would show up with a meal, give me a hug and then be on their way. That’s what I needed just then.

    I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m trying to take away from your post (which I think is spot on for many situations) but I wanted to provide a different perspective. 🙂

    • Melissa says:

      You make a good point About some people not being helped by a visit – although it leaves me wondering….what about a visitor that didn’t expect you to “entertain?” What about someone who offered to play with/tame the kids for a while so you could have a bit of relief, or do a tangible chore without making you feel embarrassed by the state of your kitchen/laundry, etc? It was hard for me to let anyone but family (my mom) help in this way when I recovered from a c-section, but if people are willing and want to show their love for us in a practical way that asks for nothing in return – I try to put myself in their shoes. I know I wouldn’t be judging how dirty their sink or bathroom or hair is, I would genuinely just want to step in for a minute and lessen their load. It’s humbling as the receiver, but helps us live honestly with one another I think….

      • Anne says:

        “I would genuinely just want to step in for a minute and lessen their load.”

        And I would genuinely think most people would be happy to welcome you in, with that being your only intentions. It IS humbling, but we’re all so much better for it if we can let people in to our (sometimes very literal) mess.

  4. Turns out casseroles are very popular here (possibly because it’s not the midwest, so there aren’t so many at any event, even though that’s my natural inclination). It’s been a couple weeks since my coauthor’s wife had a baby and when he mentioned his wife being overwhelmed he was almost falling over himself when I midwesternly offered to have DH and me make a couple of casseroles this weekend. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want us over there. But food that fits in the freezer is welcome.

    For relatives and the ailing, definitely visiting is the way to go, with or without casseroles (preferably with!). With the mourning, I think it depends. Some people prefer sharing grief only with the closest family members and casseroles/thoughtful cards from everybody else, others need someone to sit with.

  5. Jeannie says:

    Anne, thanks so much for this post and for sharing your experience. It hits home since I lost my mom six weeks ago. The calls, cards, visits, emails, and food all meant so much to our family mostly because of the warmth of the thoughts behind them. You’re right — showing up is big. And it can be done in so many different ways. Yes, doing the laundry, for sure!!! When I arrived at my dad’s apt 3 days after my mom had died, a close family friend was there, washing sheets and towels and just being useful and helpful. Blessed are those who see a need and act to meet it. Thanks again for sharing, Anne. I also appreciate all the comments so far.

  6. about casseroles…I still remember the ricotta stuffed pasta shells that I got after I had my first baby. It was the only food I received! I was new to the area…My last 2 babies I have had in a strong homeschooling community, so I received meals for 3 weeks. Wonderful!

    about ‘showing up’- if you don’t have an elderly relative within driving distance (if not- phone calls and letters are welcome)- try to find an elderly friend to visit. As family sizes get smaller, there will be less family for our elderly to see. The isolation must be awful. Of course, the elderly have peers to reach out to- but all the different ages are meant to be together, receiving good things from each with respect to their abilities and talents

    • Anne says:

      Thanks so much for sharing this reminder about visiting elderly friends. My grandmother has loved ones close by and I can’t imagine what it’s like for those whose loved ones are far away.

  7. Dorothy K says:

    One right of passage I am experiencing right now is with my oldest son who recently acquired his own apartment. His first serious illness occurred last week and you better believe that 4 a.m. phone call was answered by me. I threw on my jogging suit and headed over to his apartment 20 minutes down the road. He needed to know that his momma still worried about him and would go to the store to buy him *7Up, Jello and Lysol. I went to work later that morning, then back to his apartment that afternoon. This is definitely not my favorite part of mothering, but I’m so glad I can still be there for him as he “cuts the apron strings” a little more each day. I still have one college-aged son living at home and now my elderly mother lives with our family, so I’m part of that sandwich generation and some days I feel the squeeze more than others. But, I am thankful that my Mom is still living and I can be there for her. Thanks for the wonderful post today!

  8. sonrie says:

    I’ll comment from another perspective. I have had several surgeries for endometriosis and generally a casserole is the last thing I want to eat after a surgery. I wholeheartedly accept them and my husband and visitors gladly eat them but I generally want to eat more simply. And, I love people staying to visit, even if it’s just a short visit. I am glad when they don’t recoil from my uncombed hair or rumpled pjs. It’s always the thought that counts – whether it’s a card, call, visit, casserole.

    I’m glad you took your kids to visit someone ill, because the lessons in that can help them forever. My paternal grandparents were both ill and passed away before I was 10. My memories of them were when they were sick and suffering but also that they were glad to see loved ones, no matter what we brought, talked about, or did.

  9. jeri says:

    I love your blog everyday but today you have struck our heartchords. Thank you for your reminder to love one another while there is time.

  10. Tina B says:

    I was basically a full-time caregiver for about 3 years. During that time it was such a blessing when someone (anyone!) came to the home or hospital to chat or bring a cassarole. One friend from work brought his wife and young kids along to the hospital because they wanted to teach the children that it’s the kind and loving thing to do. It brightened our day and we will always remember that visit. Sometimes you just don’t know how much one act of kindness can touch the heart of another.

  11. Michele says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful and encouraging post. Thank you for the example you are setting for your children. I’ve learned a hard lesson these past 6.5 years and that is people who do show up are a rarity in life. May you always be blessed with people who show up in your life.

  12. Anne says:

    Really lovely, Anne. Showing up can be defined in so many ways, too, which is a good thing for all the different types of relationships we have. I run a ministry that tends mostly to pregnancy, and we have trouble with people letting us in. So, we just do what we can with those who do let us into their lives. And try to respect that even though I am frustrated by it sometimes. Though, honestly, there are people I would let in the door to do my laundry and people I wouldn’t. So, I get it. I admire you are going every week and letting your children bless her.

  13. Sarah M says:

    Absolutely beautiful post. I wholeheartedly agree. When we lived in the same city as our family (sadly 1800 miles away now), we visited my elderly grandmother every month, two preschool aged kids in tow, for a morning. She is 95 and still wants to make us brunch every time we go over (I one time caught her scrubbed under her fridge!! WHAT?!) and we’d stay until the littles were getting crazy. I’m sad we can’t do that anymore but I try to write to her often and send some artwork along from the kids. It’s not the same, but it’s something. Where we are now, I’m in full throttle hospitality-for-babies-and-new-moms mode, because all our friends out here are in that season of life. I’m happy to do a few chores and bring meals, I’m good at that. The sitting and chatting, not always easy for me.
    Sarah M

  14. Mary says:

    You have totally nailed it. We moved my 89 year old mom to assisted living very close to us last June. She had been living in assisted living close to my sister, who clearly saw this as a giant chore. I think my mom’s (& my) favorite times are when I just pop in unannounced—sometimes with a cappucino from Starbucks. We sit in the front porch and visit. We have also made day trips to see ailing older relatives who my mom wanted to see. She and I NEVER run out of things to talk about! I know Mom loves these times as much as I do—it’s like the commercial: “priceless”!

  15. Tristan says:

    I second the comments about the laundry whole-heartedly — when I was on the receiving end, the casseroles were nice, just having people show up, or call, or write, was awesome, but the greatest gift was when someone did the laundry, or some other oppressive task that I just couldn’t deal with at the time.
    One of the greatest gifts a good friend gave to me when I was recovering from surgery was to come over and wrap all my Christmas presents for me! She asked what she could do for me, and I am glad I had the courage to ask for that…

  16. Faith R says:

    This was such a timely post for me. Today it was just showing up at the park to walk with a friend. We are both going through a tough season in our marriages. We didn’t have any advice for the other, just more of a “me too” and a “we’re going to make it through this” kind of talk. That was really good. That was really helpful. Neither of us solved each other’s problems. But I hope we broke through some of the shame of admitting we are struggling.

  17. Charlene says:

    “Your presence is the present.” That was the subject of a homily at mass one Sunday, and it became my mantra every time I visited my (tragically too young) sister in the nursing home. Presents are lovely surprises, but we should never hesitate to show up empty handed.

  18. Nancy says:

    Recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of the casseroles, thoughtful notes/cards, kind words and hugs. You see, my mother passed away due to complications from Parkinson’s disease just 3 weeks ago. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the things mentioned above that I have received from friends, co-workers, acquaintances, etc. But what struck me most is that the people who have done those things for me are the people I wouldn’t necessarily have expected it of. Their thoughtfulness has meant the world to me. And, seeing that “love” in action has spoken volumes to our family. It has made me realize that from here on out, no matter how well (or not) I know someone, I need to step forward when others have a need or find themselves in the midst of a difficult season of life. A lesson I’ve learned is that even during difficult times, we still receive blessings.

  19. Leigh Kramer says:

    I was just talking to a friend this morning about “the ministry of presence.” So often just showing up means more than the tangible things we can do. Being present to a person’s pain, loneliness, or frustration is a priceless gift. It’s easy to forget that because when we feel helpless, we want to take some sort of practical action, if only to make ourselves feel better. And there can be room for those practical steps- the casseroles, the clean house, the errands run, those all make a difference. But when I think back to my own times of loss, I most remember the people who showed up and sat next to me for a while.

  20. Beth says:

    It really is the thought that counts, isn’t it? Cliche but true. I try to keep this in mind as I’m visiting a friend of mine who has been going through a rough spot lately. I wish there was more I could do — and I do offer to babysit and such — but what seems to be most appreciated were the times I’d call or text or email to check in with her, even if all I could do was listen. I can’t solve all her problems, but perhaps she’ll have the courage to make it through them if she knows there’s someone standing by her.

  21. Helen says:

    Thank you for this. It’s stayed with me in the few hours since I read it. I’ve received a few casseroles in my time, and been very grateful for them, but yes, it’s the presence,and company, and being treated as normal, that’s really meant a lot.
    I know I’ve been guilty of staying away from visits where I’ve felt I had nothing to take, and I don’t like it that I’ve done this – no one who is dear to me (and so, I’ll assume, to whom I am dear) is going to turn me away at the door because they’d rather have nothing than me-without-goods-or-services.

  22. Jackie says:

    I heard LaMottt at the FFW too. Six months later, her sincere offer of water to someone in need has stuck with me. Showing up isn’t my strong suit, and I’d like to do. David Brooks shared some good words this summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival, sound advice about how to show up, and what to say.

  23. Karlyne says:

    During the last year of my beloved grandma’s life, I would drive the 40-50 miles each way to see her 3 or 4 times a week. I had a toddler and another one on the way, which required me to leave the room often for the X-ray machine, etc., but even though the strokes left her without much ability to communicate, I knew then and I know now that it was important for me to be doing this. And I’ve never regretted the driving or the time “lost”, either. Her life was important to me, and it was the right season to make sure that she and I both knew it.

  24. Jamie says:

    Love this. I hit bottom after having both of my boys. I know this is not a rite of passage, but it happened to me. Twice. The first time, dear friends rallied, women I had only known a few weeks surrounded me, and others I knew called from across the ocean, emailed their love & encouragement, and prayed wherever they were. The second time, for a variety of different reasons, it was later after the birth and harder. I made two phone calls. Those friends called other friends. One dropped everything and put our car seats in her van and took us to her house and told me to sleep. Then she called my husband and fed us dinner. One lives 45 minutes away, but ordered us a pizza the next day from a place near our home and charged it to her card. One who lived next door took me to the grocery store the day after because I wasn’t sure if I could do it by myself. She also checked on me daily for about a week without ever making me feel inept. One just cried with me. They all held the baby I was sure I was failing. Yeah, you’re right. The meals are so wonderful, but the ones who just show up and share in your heartache bond you for life.

  25. Anna says:

    You know…when my mom died, I needed both. Sometimes I just wasn’t able to visit with others or just felt so emotionally drained and a warm meal was like a blessing from heaven. Other times, it meant the world to me when someone would just sit and listen and let me ramble and cry. It just depended…on the moment and the day.

    • Anne says:

      That’s good to hear about it varying from moment to moment and day to day, Anna. And I’m glad to hear people were there for you with warm meals and listening ears when your mom died.

  26. glenda says:

    Love the post today. My husband does what we affectionately call “cameos”. He will show up and may only stay 10-15 minutes, but it is so meaningful. It shows people you care! And that is the whole point. Thank you Anne!

  27. I will never ever forget how one brand new friend at church emailed me with “how’s it going?” — and when I told her that my husband and I were both in casts (his was for knee surgery and mine was from breaking my foot in fitness boot camp)…and taking care of our 2 toddlers… she said “I’m setting up 2 weeks of meals for you.” And did it. Oh my goodness I cried right then and there…. it was something I didn’t even know I needed or could ask for.

    It must have really lightened the mental load, because I got pregnant again over that fortnight!

  28. Kathy Ericksen says:

    I love your thoughts. In some ways just showing up makes you more present. Thanks for taking the time to see and be seen. It’s HUGE.

  29. Mrs. Dee says:

    What a timely post. My mother has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I keep wondering what I can do for her. I have two small children and no one to watch them in order for me to go take care of her. Perhaps whatever it is that I can offer is enough. Thank you.

  30. Catherine says:

    The easiest, yet the worst, thing you can say is “Let me know what I can do.” That puts the effort on the person in need. I like your suggestions. A dear friend of mine went through chemo last year, out of state, and I didn’t know what to do. I sent a lucky bamboo plant (because she has a black thumb); made her husband swear to send me realistic updates; and just tried to be as normal a friend as possible. She had lots of people bringing her food but she couldn’t stand to eat. So my advice would be to talk to someone slightly outside the situation to see what is really needed … whether it is someone to hang out, bring food, whatever.

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