Meg Seitz and Marno Seitz; Christmas 1985. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Back in the late 1980s and 1990s my grandparents lived in a retirement community on the west coast of Florida. The community was oddly reminiscent of a 1950s or 1960s neighborhood, which made it this eerie cross-pollination of The Wonder Years and Cocoon. I think about it now, and it was a pretty odd place. As a kid, though, it was fun because it was just so different from our normal, late 80s, early 90s suburban life.
And that community's pool was about as far from our normal, 90s suburban life as it got. You were prohibited from doing absolutely anything fun there. There was no splashing. No diving. No running. No jumping. No swimming in a lane with someone swimming laps. No swimming in a lane with someone not swimming laps. No loud noises. At one point, my mom joked with another mom there visiting that they should spray paint 'no fun' on the concrete.
I remember sitting there on those pool steps in the shallow end, arms folded across my one-piece Speedo suit, kicking water, wondering on a completely old soul, future English major level how I would ask for help in a place like this. "If something happened, and I needed help, would I be allowed to yell or splash or run for help? Is that allowed? Would I get in trouble for that? How do you ask for help here?"
How do you ask for help?
There's a gross misconception about how we ask for help. We're conditioned to believe the most important pleas for help come at three o'clock in the morning from a pay phone in the rain, mascara running down your cold face. Or you're dehydrated, bleeding and unfortunately wedged between rocks like James Franco in 127 Hours. Needing and asking for help must be big and desperate and emotional expressions.
That's not true.
Since my mom was diagnosed with triple-negative cancer, I've awkwardly, but willingly unraveled a life hint about asking for help. You don't need to ask for help. Because some people will get it. And some people won't get it. The people who get it know you need help. And they will take care of you. They will help you.
Through this entire ordeal from my mom's unexpectedly jarring diagnosis to her lumpectomy weeks later to her intensive radiation therapy to now the beginning of 16 weeks of chemotherapy, our family has asked for very little help. Just like that kid sitting on the pool steps, 31-year-old me sat wondering how I should ask for help, whom I should ask, how to say it or text it or email it without feeling weird or weak or small.
Until it occurred to me -- we haven't asked for help because we haven't needed to ask for help. We haven't needed to ask for help because certain people just get it. We've received flowers, emails, calls, books, magazines, prayers, thoughts, fresh pizza and salad, quotations, short video clips, music, full meals, chocolate cake, prayer shawls from Hudson, Ohio, cards in the mail; I've received Facebook messages with phone numbers from old friends whom I haven't talked to in 10 years, texts from former students reminding me to read my go-to, favorite speech I used to teach, tweets from total strangers who want me to know that they understand and they're there if I need them, a copy of the movie, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, which left me laughing during a weekend all I wanted to do was cry in bed.
I didn't and we didn't ask for any of that. People just understood that this family is sad and hurting and depressed and angry and confused and lonely and scared. And they said something. They did something.
It didn't need to be big or tangible or edible or cost a penny. It just needed to be evidence that someone out there got it and got us. When you're on the receiving end of that, it feels as though you're overwhelmed by fresh, cool air that fills every empty space in your lungs, heart, mind, and soul.
To 'get it' doesn't mean you have to know exactly what it's like to have your mom or a loved one go through breast cancer or cancer or illness or pain. To 'get it' just means you're paying attention -- not necessarily when someone is asking for help, but when he or she is not asking for help. Because when you get it, you see something that can't be seen. You're listening to the unspoken. You're reading people and signs and circumstances. You're receiving a spiritual ping from someone else. And you answer. And all that is human magic. I needed this whole experience to fall back in love with that human magic. There are some really good people out there.
I appreciate these people so much because there are so many people who don't get it and who aren't paying attention. My heart is sad and aching and trying every day to rally through this all, and, if you're someone who doesn't get it, you're launching into a story about how your mom will not get off your back about something or you're confused about where to seat people at your wedding reception. That's hard to hear. Not because I don't care, but because my head and heart are in a different place. I just wish you stopped to think about it and pay attention to that. If my mom doesn't lick this, she might not be at my wedding. So, shut up about the wedding reception seating arrangement.
What's worse than that is you pretending like you get it. I understand you're trying to sympathize with me, but you make it worse when you tell me a story about what is was like when your great aunt went through chemo twenty-five years ago when you were five years old. Hi; that's not helpful. You were five. Do you even remember that? Then, you tell, despite all that chemotherapy, she still died. Hi; that's really not helpful.
There's one level worse -- and you might know this place whether you're dealing with cancer or not -- and they're the people who you thought would show up. The people you thought would be there for you and your family, and they haven't said or done a damn thing. I hear your silence. And I just can't get over that kind of thing. Truth be told though, people don't just wake up and not get it -- they've probably been like that. I wasn't paying attention. Lesson learned.
I don't know if 'getting it' is as much a part of any religious faith or doctrine as it is just about being an awesomely aware human. There's no book out there that says to drop off a casserole 24 hours after a lumpectomy and then follow up three days later with People magazine. You just have to know. And to know, you've got to pay attention. So, pay attention.
As much as I was worried about how to ask for help at the pool that summer, I think I subconsciously knew I'd never get too far or too deep where I'd need to exercise a big, desperate, emotional plea for help. Because my mom, the first one to ever read a spiritual ping from me, was there. She was paying attention. She got it. She had my back. And now you've got hers. You get it. Thank you.