Be The Helpers
When I was young I used to spend the long summer days with my Aunt. I tried summer camps for a few years, but they were not my thing: the bugs, the heat, the humiliating games of Red Rover and Dodgeball. I much preferred the quiet house of my Aunt, where I could spend as much time as I wanted reading under a giant tree in the back yard and rollerskating down the sidewalk. In the afternoons, I would sit with my Aunt in the living room watching As the World Turns. I can still feel the old leather recliner where I would sit, it smelled like sweet pipe smoke and Old Spice. It was during those hours that she taught me how to needlepoint and embroider. She would always have a giant tapestry she was working on spread across her lap. I worked on smaller pieces.
Invariably I would make a mistake, sometimes it would be too late to fix it and I would just have to live with it there. My Aunt used to say that those mistakes gave the needlepoint some character, just like people, nothin’ is perfect. She would hold up the tapestry and have me look from across the room and she was right, the flaws couldn’t be seen. But they would bother me and I would point out the flaws to everyone when they would say what a great job I had done.
Monday morning my 18 year old son was sitting across the breakfast table from me, drinking a cup of coffee, when he casually mentioned that the night before at 2:30am his ex girlfriend had called him from a car accident in which she had been involved. She was trapped in the car, panicking, and couldn’t get in touch with her mother. So he got up out of bed and went to help her, all the while the rest of us slept in our beds, completely unaware.
Knowing how their relationship had ended (badly) and how she had treated him (badly) I expressed my surprise that she called him.
“She knew I would help her, Mom.”
“I’m glad that you two are friends now. She is lucky to have you.”
“Mom, she doesn’t have me. We aren’t even friends anymore. She just knew she could count on me.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m proud that you are that type of person, my son, the person that helps people. The person who can be counted on. I’m really proud of you.”
“Eh, I’d do it for anyone. How can you not help someone when they need you? It’s not a big deal”
(I would find out later that the first person she had called when trapped in that car was the boy she is currently dating. He wouldn’t come to help her.)
With that my son grabbed his coffee cup and went upstairs to get ready for school. He would take a too long shower, leave the wet towel balled up on the bathroom floor, the coffee cup would sit on his bedside table- a ring forming on the wood beneath it, the light in his room left on, a flash of dimples as he asked if I had any “spare cash for gas.” I didn’t nag about any of those things that Monday morning.
In the big picture, what is important?
I did feel a pang in my heart that he didn’t wake me when he got the phone call in the middle of the night. I am not sure I can even articulate the genesis of the particular pang. He is an adult. He handled the situation perfectly and compassionately. That is what he has been raised to do. To be able to navigate the world on his own. And yet….
Later that afternoon, the Boston bombing happened. What I saw through the chaos were people running toward the bombing, toward the people in need. I thought of Mr. Rogers who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” That is comforting to our children, and to us, that in this world the good still outshines the bad. Even in the middle of unimaginable horror.
This time as I watched I thought, Don’t just look for the helpers, be the helpers. Be the helpers.
When you are parenting and your children grow into teenagers and young adults, there is a tendency, at least for me, to focus on all the things upon which they can improve. They could study more. They could be less sassy. They could clean their room better. They could take out the garbage, put gas in the car, have more patience with a younger sibling. It is easy to get caught up in the small flaws. A lot of time is spent wondering how to help them “fix” a certain character flaw. I wonder if I have handled things the right way. Have I been strict enough? Have I been kind enough? Have I been patient enough? Is my child going to end up on an episode of Hoarders?
I looked at my son Monday morning and realized he has a life of his own, one that is completely separate from me. This isn’t the first time I have had this thought, of course, but it hit me that our family is a touchstone for him now. I only know what he chooses to share about his personal life. My relationship with him is now more of as an advisor, a kind shoulder, a listening ear. Gone are the days of really teaching him, though I think most of our children’s character is caught, not taught. They learn how to react and interact in the world by watching us.
For almost 19 years I have been working on a tapestry. The hours I have spent working on it cannot be counted. I have worked on it with unmitigated joy and other times I have soaked it with my tears. It has been done a long time, save small finishing touches here and there, but mostly I have held this tapestry on my lap agonizing over the small flaws. Things I could have done better. Wondering how to fix any of a number of small missed stitches. Holding it close to me, I lost sight of the big picture. Monday morning the tapestry was lifted from my lap and I viewed my life’s work from the distance for the first time. It was breathtaking.
All I could see was the beauty of its entirety, flawed but perfect in all the right ways. I have never been more proud.Published April 18, 2013. Last updated June 26, 2018.