Thankless Jobs, Unsung Heroes and The Honor Code
On Wednesday we went to Beth Palmer Freedman’s funeral. Her husband Louis, speaking to a large crowd, said, almost bewildered, “She made everything so easy.” Whether it was the clothes she laid out for him or the children she raised or all the little unseen things she did each day, he described it as if it was a Mary Poppins world he’d not really noticed, a kind of magic.
From the view of the outside world, the things Beth did were unrecognized as well. Louis’ standing in his profession, the money he brought in to the house, the way he provided for her, that’s what so many people think of as success. For an educated young woman, the know-it-all I was in my twenties, Beth’s life of unseen service could be dismissed, or even demeaned.
This morning John woke me with a cup of coffee. He said the sweetest thing: “I wish I could always bring you coffee.”
I thought about Dad. What we remembered, despite his amazing accomplishments, were the little things he did. The way he cared for Mom, the way he welcomed strangers into his home, his encouragement to any and all of us.
I remember when one of Tom’s friends was getting married, he asked Dad for advice. Dad said, “Just don’t get caught up in counting who’s doing what. Then you’ll be fine.”
For me, at the time, that counsel was hopelessly old-school. It was contrary to what I was aiming for in my own relationship. Whether it was doing the dishes or waking with our kids, I wanted John to do ‘half.’ My reasoning was that if I didn’t insist on equality, I’d get ‘stuck’ doing it all. He’d not even notice, and in the end, he’d have his career and I’d have no time to aim for any of my own dreams. I felt certain that my striving for gender equity would result in a better end, one in which we both got to do our share of the sh*t work. In the end, neither of us would resent anything, and we’d both get to aim for some glory as well. (I’m not dismissing the importance of a world in which women have struggled for ‘equality’; I’m only questioning the concept that certain kinds of work are elevated while others are diminished.)
None of us are really church-goers, but in some ways, Dad’s advice, and his and Mommy’s example, the thing that Louis was marveling about Beth, was a little bit like “turn the other cheek.” A little bit like “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” Forget the money, forget the glory, just do what you can for those you love and the rest will follow. It’s so counter-intuitive, so opposite the ‘survival of the fittest’ that I begin to understand its radical underpinnings.
Mom ‘offered herself up’ so beautifully, and so invisibly, that she made it look easy. When things got tough these last two years, so many people stepped up to help her take care of Dad. Tere and Ellen and Karen and Ranger and Bob were spelled by out-of-towners who came when they could, aided by the lovely small town network of medical care and friends like Sally Mckelvey or Mark Funk or Bill Toms who’d stop in when they could. Scott flew them to the beach the last year Dad was able to go. Larry was the most highly paid (yet unpaid) flight attendant the world has ever seen.
When I see Mom and we talk about how she’s doing, the first thing she tells me is how lucky she is. She recounts each person’s care for her as if it’s magic. And it is. Whether it’s Mac and Gil waiting on her “hand and foot,” or Tere and Ellen showing up in the middle of the night during a crisis, she’s got that same note of incredulity in her voice I heard from Louis as he talked about Beth.
I said to her, “Mom, you’re the one who did this first, who set the example. Everyone loves you. They want to do it. It’s a pleasure.”
And it’s true. When I mourn Dad’s loss, I’m most grateful for the times I was able to help, to do something he appreciated, whether it was making him laugh or carrying his oxygen tank. As a kid, I always thought we were supposed to aim our sights on those things that get you into the New York Times obituary page, the recognition of the marketplace for true achievement. But when it comes down to it, I think what we’ll remember is that we did for others as we’d have them do for us.
We all have our turn to serve. There are times, particularly when your children are young, that it seems as if it will never end, this so-called opportunity. It does and it will, and when you look back on it, you may be like our own mother, who so forgets her endless days that she will shake her head at someone else’s unswerving motherhood and say, as if it’s an impossible challenge, “How in the world can she do it?”
We’ve all seen those marriages in which the roles are so lopsided we want to rescue the wife, or husband. Their spouse seems not to notice, or worse, to accept the constant caretaking as his or her due. I’ve always thought the ones doing all the taking were exploitive, grasping what they could and giving nothing back.
I had a ‘friend’ in Arizona who came to our book club pot lucks and never brought anything. She didn’t think anyone would notice. She even told me those women were ‘chumps,’ that she was getting something for nothing. If they were too stupid to notice, she might as well come in and take what she could. She thought this was fine, since she was smarter than they were.
As a hopeless counter who’s done her share of grumbling about who didn’t do their part, I am only now beginning to see something my parents recognized a long time ago. It can’t be taught, and perhaps it will never ever make itself known to the person who thinks she’s pulled one over on everyone else. There is a pleasure that comes from giving and a resulting gain in self-worth that can’t be gamed. Let the ‘user’ keep on using, she’ll never know what she’s missed. All she may find is, that much as she acquires, something is still gone terribly missing.
This brings me back to Dad, to a story he told about his time in England with other American pilots. They were at a cocktail party and one of the Yanks was saying he’d forgotten his money and been allowed onto the subway system, which (at the time) had an honor code. All he’d been required to do was write down his name and address. One of the Americans in the crowd said, as if the Brits were stupid, “Geez, who’d write down his real name and address?”
One of the English pilots simply replied “Who wouldn’t?”
On this anniversary of Tommy’s death, I’d like to say thank you to all of you who’ve stepped in and done my share, who’ve taken on a chore I didn’t do. To Mac and Gil, who provided Mommy with a soft berth after losing the love of her life, we all are so appreciative. To Cath and Larry who have offered her a small place to get back her sea legs, this is only one of the many gifts we all have gotten from you two, and again, if you don’t think we’re noticing, we are. Tere and Ellen, for the nights before we came, when you stayed up all night to keep Dad from getting out of bed or helped him walk, each of you holding him up, we noticed.
If I thanked all of you who have helped to shepherd the rest of us through an awful time, I’d take several pages. The great thing is, you all know who you are, and what you’ve done. No one can take that away from you.
Mom, you especially, might underestimate your service, not just in the past few years as Dad needed more help, but all those years, when he sang your tributes. He might have done it out of tune, but no one ever doubted the truth of what he was saying. You were his sunshine, and now you’re ours. The example you set keeps on generating its own little engine of giving, whether it’s bringing home a paycheck or detailing a car or taking someone golfing or making a fabulous meal. The ashes will go back to ashes, and the dust to dust, but in the end, that torch of giving will keep getting passed along, to new generations and to an ever-expanding network of bearers, each warmed in the smallest of ways by the privilege of being able to contribute.
I love you all.
p.s. for any and all of you who've benefitted from HOSPICE, I was just told that in our little town, they'd lost a lot of funding due to federal budget cuts. Their best doctor had resigned so others could be kept on. If you feel disposed, please donate to your local Hospice, for these people are truly unsung heroes.