I live in a world with little certainty, but plenty of answers. The number of things I know with certainty I can count on one, maybe two hands. Beyond the love of family, my life has taught me that nearly everything is up for grabs. From where I live to how I earn my living, any of that can change, and sometimes as quickly as a snowflake melts.
A pilot friend of mine likes to say that such a view of the world teaches you “situational awareness.” Answers change from day to day, moment to moment.
Knowing that Matthew’s condition yesterday may not be his condition today or tomorrow may mean less certitude, less assurance for me, but it means I’m less surprised by changes. In my life, that outlook leaves me feeling calmer, perhaps because I think I’ve got a better handle on reality that way. Some of the answers the doctors give us aren’t what we’d expect, sometimes they are better, but I try not to make the mistake of assuming that any improvement he notches is the new path of his growth.
That sort of thinking leads to real estate bubbles.
And though there are plenty of answers to even the most mundane questions in my life, I’ve been presented with one question to which I simply don’t have a response.
“What can we do for you?”
I’ve received texts, emails, notes on Facebook and phone calls. From family to friends and even acquaintances, people have reached out with generous offers to ease what we’re going through. I see this as a demonstration of the idea that it really does take a village to raise a child. This is a community coming together in the kindest way possible.
I have no idea how to respond. I went through this just a few months ago with my crash. Friends asked what I might need, and I told them honestly that I didn’t know. Had Robot and Eric not set up the beer fund, there’s a lot of love out there that people would not have found a way to express. The genius of the beer fund was its simplicity—buy a guy a beer. That it wasn’t my idea made it easier to accept. There’s an odd dynamic at work in crisis; I can say this is true for me, but I suspect it is also true for a great many people. When the glue melts, very few of us are against assistance. What is far more challenging is articulating what we need. Certainly, I have seen friends who can marshal the forces and get their house cleaned, fridge filled and laundry mastered. But there are those of us for whom naming a need has a difficult, two-fold effect.
In cycling, rendering aid is easy to do. If a rider is falling off the pace, you pull ahead, give them your draft and close the gap. If a rider crashes, you render first aid. If the pace is meant to be hard but output drops, you go to the front for one more pull. If your friend’s bottles are empty, you share yours. None of this requires a request or a response. This is the unwritten etiquette of the peloton. I don’t mind admitting that cycling taught me these lessons in concrete ways, that prior to cycling I’d been too much of a lone wolf to really understand the social contract.
If only real life were as easy.
Putting a name to what you need means acknowledging that your shit is not under control. That’s tough to verbalize because it requires vulnerability. Implicit in naming that need is a kind of request as well. Even if the help was offered, where things go wrong for the helpee is that by naming something specific, it feels as if we’ve asked for something, and again, that means making ourselves vulnerable.
The real trouble is that I’ve already acknowledged more vulnerability than I’d prefer. I’ve admitted to thousands of people that I’m terrified that my son might die, that even if he doesn’t die, that he might be in for the ultimate unmaintained fire road to good health. Isn’t that enough? To ask for help is to drop yet another rung down the ladder.
Matthew is frightfully fragile even now. When we’re in the NICU, hand sanitizer punctuates each interaction. Take a picture—hand sanitizer. Touch your hair—hand sanitizer. Type an email—hand sanitizer. I look around at the other babies in his pod and they are all premies, beings of such frail composition that they don’t yet look fully human.
As to that phrase, “When we’re in the NICU,” well, it’s taken on a more conditional flavor. Our other son Philip had a runny nose for half an hour or so on Sunday afternoon and now Shana, her mom and I all have some virus that prevents us from visiting Matthew. It’s not just not visiting Matthew, either. It’s that we accept that to step foot into the NICU would put every child, every doctor, every nurse and every staff member, not to mention every other parent there, at risk. I love my son and want to see him, but going to the hospital is a level of selfish that’s just unconscionable.
Each day of not seeing Matthew is excruciating; never have I loved anything so new with such abandon—college girlfriends included.
Of all the qualities I admire in other people, grace is the one that most consistently leaves me in awe. I think that’s due to how slow I am to recognize it. Grace is a souplesse of the soul, an effortlessness of self that makes interacting with some people a kind of endless joy. Those are people who make me feel better about being me. It’s the rarest of gifts. I think that if I had their grace I would know how to accept help in a way that gave me what I most need while allowing them the opportunity to show some love.
And that’s what this is about. The offer of help is just a matter of people showing that they care. They want the chance to stand up and be counted. Helping out new parents is part of the brotherhood into which all parents have been initiated. Not to answer is a kind of “no” and declining the offer of help is tantamount to telling someone you don’t respect their path as a parent. To find that I’d done that, even accidentally, would be as painful as insulting my mother.
Recently some friends said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to bring you lunch on Saturday. What would you like?’ It turns out that was easier to answer. I offer this as a kind of apology for all those who have reached out with an offer of assistance—I’m not unwilling to accept aid, but articulating a need is like talking about the future when all the verbs you have are present-tense.
Allow me to breathe some life into a dog-eared cliché: It’s not you; it’s me.