Frieda was in her fifties when referred to Hospice for terminal breast cancer. She worked as a bookkeeper until she became disabled. Frieda was gentle, tender hearted and soft spoken. I stopped by her house one day and her hospital bed was peppered with papers. She told me she was using her remaining time to write letters to her family and friends; to tell them how much she appreciates them; to point out their positive qualities and potential she sees in them. But her husband, on the other hand, seemed stressed, sullen, downright angry. I expected him to jump on anything I said, because he looked like he was looking for a reason to explode. He was stretched tight and thin between caring for his wife, absorbing her roles in the home and continuing to manage a local business. They, like most of us, were only one or two paychecks away from financial bankruptcy. He couldn’t afford to take a leave from work, especially with the loss of Frieda’s income. I asked Frank, “What do you wish your family and friends knew about what you’re going through right now?” And Frank let it all out. “If I hear one more person say ‘call me if you need me’, I’m going to scream. You don’t know who really means it and who doesn’t. Then, when you do call someone, they’re busy. Don’t they know how hard it is to ask? Nobody ever says, ‘Frank, I’ll be over Saturday morning to sit with Frieda so you can take care of business’ or,’ Frank, I’ll be over Saturday to cut the grass or change the oil in your car.”
As Frank talked, my guilty conscience wandered and my life passed before my eyes. I wandered how many times I’d said, “Call me if you need me”. Secretly I promised myself never to say it again, but habits are hard to break, aren’t they?” The very next day a friend called and asked if I would pick up some Chinese food and bring it to her. She was in her sixties and was caring for her thirty-three year old daughter, who had bilateral above the knee amputations. I delivered the food, talked for a while, and as I was leaving, I said (you guessed it), “Call me if you need me.” I couldn’t believe I said it! I didn’t even make it twenty-four hours!
As I was walking off the porch, I decided, “Not this time”. So I turned back around, knocked on the door, and this time when my friend answered I said, “I was just thinking; I have about four hours free on Saturday morning and if you need help doing anything I could come over for a while.” She appeared stunned then replied, “There are some boxes that need carried upstairs that I can’t lift. I also need some things carried out to the garage. Do you think you could put up some shelves in a closet for me too?” A friend and I showed up that Saturday and left blessed.
It’s been several years since Frieda died, but Frank’s words still echo through the time. Sure, there are times when I still say, “Call me if you need me”, but I try to make sure the person knows I really mean it. And if I don’t mean it, I don’t say it. But it’s so much better to take away the burden of asking. I’m reminded of what another patient told me when I asked if he had enough help around the house. He proudly declared, “If my family waited until I asked them to cut my grass, it would be up to my rear end. I don’t have to ask. They come in, look around, see and do.”
So, the next time we find ourselves getting ready to say, “Call me if you need me”, let’s take away the burden by asking; let’s look around, see and do.
Loren Hardin is a social worker with Southern Ohio Medical Center-Hospice, and can be reached at 740-356-2525 or at [email protected] You can order Loren’s new book, “Straight Paths,” online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.