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.
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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.”
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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.