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 “Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.”
– Winnie the Pooh

“Mom, you’re not very good at accepting gifts,” Daughter Summer commented. And then she proceeded to list examples. She was right. As my husband’s cancer progressed, as more people reached out to us, I learned to humbly say, Yes, thank you. And I learned to ask for help.

Let go of self-sufficiency
Gifts of service are a fabulous way to help ease the load of the caregiver. Our toilet clogged and I tried the plunger to no avail. And then I sent a desperate email to a handful of friends who had offered their help. (Daughter Summer would be so proud.) Boom. Just like that, I got several takers and our toilet was unclogged before the end of the day.

Another friend replanted our bird feeder—because I asked—so Hubby could watch the action from his hospital bed in the living room.

One of the tires on our vehicle sported a slow leak. I sent a Facebook message: “Is there anyone who can take our vehicle in for tire repair?” Again, more than one response. And by mid-afternoon, our vehicle was returned with a brand-new tire.

There were also thoughtful gifts of service I didn’t request: Sidewalk shoveled of snow, garbage cans placed on curb and returned to house. Lending a helping hand can also include childcare; an offer to clean house or run errands or provide transportation; an offer to play games with the patient while the patient’s spouse runs errands, gets her hair cut, or soaks in a bubble bath. People really do want to help in meaningful ways. Which means we, as caregivers, need to step outside our pride and self-sufficiency, and speak up.

The Porch Fairy phenomenon
We had a Porch Fairy. A Porch Fairy is someone who leaves gifts on the front porch so as not to disturb Hubby in his hospital bed, and then texts to let us know we ought to check our front porch. Jars of homemade soups. Chocolate. Pumpkin scones. Banana nut bread. Bouquets of flowers; bouquets of colorful fall leaves. Wind-up toys that waltzed across Hubby’s hospital table, bringing a smile. And Chai tea. Every morning at 7:30 for several weeks, a steaming Chai tea was left on our front porch. And after Daughter Summer arrived from New Jersey, Chai tea and Americano coffee. Every morning. Even in snow and ice, against our counsel. I can’t tell you how much that simple and generous act encouraged me at a time when my heart was dazed.

And then a bag left on our front porch with yarn and needles and a card that read, “With love from the Knitting Fairy.” I didn’t even know there was a Knitting Fairy, but a pair of soft fingerless mittens were started in short order.

This text message: “The Marketing Fairies have landed.” Turned out to be the girls from the hospital’s marketing department, who I work with from time to time as part of my job in the cancer center. Pumpkin pie, pumpkin-shaped molded iron candle holders, golden glass to hold tea lights.

Chocolate and other essential food groups
Delivering food is always a much-appreciated way to be helpful. Hubby checked into Hospice House twice. Both times, provision found us there. Full meals of roasted chicken and root veggies; puddings and soups. Fruit smoothies and hot designer beverages. Gift baskets stuffed with dark chocolate, fresh fruit, pretzels. And each offering said, “I was thinking about you.”

Home again from Hospice House and the women’s group at our church asked if they could bring meals. Very kind of them, but Hubby was eating miniscule amounts and Daughter Summer and I aren’t big eaters.

“Thank you, but not needed,” I said.

“Yes, we’d appreciate meals.” Daughter Summer called them because they were ladies she knew. “But, please, small portions and every other day.”

If you’re the organizing type, consider coordinating meals so the recipient doesn’t get too much food. Or too little if there are out-of-town guests. Or the same dish five times in a row. (There are some great online meal coordination applications for the techies among us.)     

Hand-crafted and otherwise
Gifts with a personal touch also spoke love to my heart. A Shutterfly book filled with memorable photos of our cancer-kicking hiking group, created by the wife of our fearless hike leader. A hand-painted angel pin. Our niece, a photographer, came with her family from out of state to do a photo shoot; after the shoot, she had two of the photos printed to canvas and stretched across wooden frames as beautiful keepsakes. Hand-stitched fleece pillow case; fleece hospital bed sheets, because even though chemo was working its way out of Hubby’s system, he was always cold. Great reading materials. The loan of a diffuser with a variety of essential oils that filled our home with the loveliest of scents. Gift cards to Whole Foods because everyone needs groceries; to Barnes & Noble because one can never have too many books. Flannel pajama bottoms for the patient. Mismatched socks for the patient’s caregiver (that would be me) with a manufacturer’s tag that read, “Life’s too short for matching socks.” So much creativity and thoughtfulness.

Color brought indoors
With Hubby’s hospital bed in our living room and the kitchen counter stacked with meds and pads and syringes, our new interior design shouted ‘Turn-of-the-Century Medical.’ It’s amazing how a bouquet of sunny sunflowers brightened up the pharmacy/hospital room that our house had transitioned into. Provided the recipient or family members have no allergies, flowers – whether from someone’s yard arranged in a Mason jar, or purchased in the floral section of a grocery store, or delivered from a flower shop – are a lovely way to bring nature’s color indoors.

Undergirding all of this love was the knowledge that people were praying for us. Family and friends asked if they could share our story with their prayer groups. Yes, definitely. Which means people we’ve never met were praying for us. And we felt those prayers as peace engulfed our home at a time when we shouldn’t have been at peace.

Encouraging words
A card with an incredibly generous check arrived in the mail. The message read: “Always always always always remember you are loved.” And that’s exactly what transpired during this time. We were surrounded by platoons, detachments, legions, an army (you get the idea) of people who were loving us in so many creative and practical ways.

There are a hundred and one approaches to say, “I’m thinking about you. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but here’s something to bring you nourishment, make you smile, help defray funeral expenses; here’s a helping hand; here’s something to add beauty to your life, your home.”

From my experience as cancer caregiver, whatever is done to help a friend whose spouse is going through treatment – no matter how small it may seem to the gift-giver – adds to the grand total in an exponential way. The sheer volume of people who contributed to our well-being at a time when I was overwhelmed wrapped us both in the warmest of love blankets. And I will be forever grateful.

Marlys Johnson is a cancer widow, author, speaker & blogger. We first met her through her work coordinating St. Charles Medical Center’s Survivorship Program and her beloved husband, Gary – a CHN Support Volunteer for many years. Her passion for helping others navigate life’s challenges inspires us every day and we are delighted to share her insights.

To read more of Marlys’ work – and discover her love of all things outdoors – visit her blog Cancer Adventures.

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