My Challenge to Everyone Who Knows Someone Fighting an Illness
I sat with legs crisscrossed applesauce, eating a bowl of honeycombs with a shameful ferocity before preschool pick-up would end these heavenly moments of silence. Skimming the cable guide’s offerings, I settled on the noonday news. Instantly, an invisible hand was reaching from the television, thrusting open my chest and extracting my heart with skillful precision.
Instead of on a red couch in Florida, my heart now beat in a flurry with a man in Louisiana who struggled to keep his mouth above the water amongst the rushing torrents. Behind him was a beat-up red pickup truck he’d fled. I wondered how many days he’d driven it to work, picked up milk in it after he’d driven the kids to school. And today, he was fighting for his life mere feet from it.
Muddy raging waters engulfed him. Were we all going to watch this man’s last breath on air? But no, there was a hand reaching towards him, stretching just as far as the water would allow without taking him under. That’s when I realized the dying man was bobbing back and forth under the water trying with all of his might to get to the outstretched hand that belonged to a soaked shaking man in a plaid shirt.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think the plaid-shirted man began his day with the notion he’d be saving a drowning man on his lunch break. But he did. And by the time it was all said and done, my shirt was soaked with tears and my honeycombs had long since been forgotten. Is there any greater way to spend our lives than rescuing others?
I saw it again later that day, inside an online chronic illness support group. A woman posted about how the waves of pain and depression were pulling her under. She longed for a single friend in her town she could call upon, but there wasn’t one. Quickly, another member asked where she lived. Locations were exchanged, but sadly, they were states apart. I chewed on my lower lip for a moment trying to think of something meaningful I could offer up from so far away. My computer alerted me to a new comment in the thread. “So do you want to IM?” the woman from another state asked with a smiley emotion. I swallowed hard. Once, twice, three times. All I could see was a drowning woman, swimming to an outstretched hand over a computer screen.
Is there any greater way to spend our lives than rescuing others?
If there is one thing I hear most often in chronic illness groups, it’s “I have no one.” Their families are tired of hearing about their pain and despair. Their friends have moved on to less complicated, more fun relationships. And these people fighting for their very lives? So often, they swim through the muddy, raging water with no hand outstretched to them.
I know you are busy. I know you are tired. I know you are broke. I know you already feel stretched thin. I know it’s sobering to remember health isn’t a guarantee and we’re all just one accident, one bad test result, one genetic mutation away from swimming those raging waters ourselves — but it’s true.
And can I tell you that if tomorrow you were to wake and find it all stripped away, the thing you’d want most would be someone to face it with you?
Can I implore you to love the chronically ill well? Yes, I love that you brought soup to your neighbor when they had the flu. But I’m asking for much more than that. I’m asking for you to really get in this with your friend, your partner, your sister. Whoever it is you feel has been consumed by illness and talks of nothing else. And not in that “pet project” sort of way where you try to change people, either. But in that all-encompassing way where you invite them in and share inside jokes, where you have shows you watch together and favorite restaurants. I’m talking about the kind of thing where when you find them sitting in the closet weeping over the formal gown they wore to that event six years ago, you take them into your arms and weep with them, no questions asked. You know, just like they will when your marriage falls apart at the seams or the 37th pregnancy test comes back negative. The way they’ll text you that hilarious meme to ease your nerves on your first day of your big new job. You know, the way they’ll be in this with you.
I mean, is there any better way to spend your life than to rescue people? Isn’t this community what we were made for?
Today, I’m challenging you to contact at least one person you know fighting to keep their head above those raging waters of sickness and to let them know, “I am in this with you.”
A version of this post first appeared at Chronically Whole.