“I don’t like feeling helpless. I would never ask for help. I guess I’m funny that way,” the lady said to me. She glanced over, whether for approval, or sympathy, I wasn’t sure. I looked at her for a moment and then nodded. We were sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and didn’t know each other. I really wanted to say, “How unusual. Most of us look forward from the time we’re just children to the day we lose our independence and can impose on others.” But of course, I didn’t say that.
I was thinking, though, of a different kind of helpless. It was when I moved to Texas and encountered my first “Southern Belle.” Oh my word! I will never forget Sally Jo who give me a real lesson in “helpless.” I had been outside changing the oil in my car and when I came in, there was my brother, puffed up like a peacock, strutting around while Sally Jo babbled on rapturously about how brave and strong he was: “Ah, swear, Skonie, Ah never saw anyone change a light bulb like that! You just took out that nasty old bulb and put in another one and there (snap of the fingers), just like that, the light came on!” If her eyelashes had been batting any harder, I think she would’ve taken off straight up, like a helicopter and I would’ve gotten to see her massive hairdo smash into the ceiling.
Okay, I exaggerate a little. Maybe more than a little. I had not been changing the oil in my car, I had just gone outside to take something to the trash. And my brother wasn’t strutting around like a peacock, although he did look mighty pleased with himself. Sally Jo, however, was the epitome of the “helpless Southern Belle.” I had a feeling she was about as helpless as a doberman. Having been raised on the West Coast (you know, those California Girls), I had never before encountered the phenomenon. I was to meet many more in the months to come. My mother, having observed all this turned to me and said “I think I raised you wrong.” I was inclined to agree.
My parents raised us to be responsible and self-sufficient. When I bought my first car, my brother taught me how to change the oil and change a tire, too. I’ve never done either and I don’t expect I ever will, but it was sort of his way of celebrating my independence. So yes, it’s hard to go from self-sufficient to admitting there are things that you have to change. For instance, I can’t reach down a bottle of 7-Up on the top shelf in the market, I can’t lift a case of water. and even a gallon of milk is just too heavy, so I get it a half-gallon at a time.
But I’m learning a lot about people. They like helping. Sometimes I don’t even have to ask. Last week I was getting into my car juggling my purse, my Bible and Fifi (my oxygen carrier) whose straps had snagged on the door latch. A lady passing by paused and almost without breaking stride, unhooked the straps and handed Fifi in to me. Could I have done that myself? Sure, but it was kind of her and I’m sure she felt good about doing something nice for no reason at all. And at Sam’s Club when I asked a strapping man if he could put a case of water in my shopping cart, he was more than happy, and while he was doing that, his wife rearranged my cart so that Fifi could not slip out. It was totally unnecessary, but again, I’m sure she felt pleased that she had done a kindness for a stranger. (Would that be a mitzvah?) People really do want to help. And although I am not all that helpless, I do appreciate the assist now and then. Asking a man to reach down that bottle of 7-Up for me makes him feel good about himself. (I do not, however, flap my eyelashes as I thank him.)
In the meantime, the lady in the doctor’s office was fumbling with her reading glasses which a moment later slipped from her hand. When I reached down to retrieve them, she stopped me. “No, no, I can do it,” she told me, so I sat and watched as she squirmed and reached, and gave a little yelp at one point, but after nearly 2 minutes, she sat up, triumphant, clutching the glasses. “I would never accept help. I guess it doesn’t bother other people, but I never wanted to be a burden,” she said with a little simper. I just looked at her and made an inarticulate sound like, “ughh” because I was literally biting my tongue to keep from saying “Boy, you must be some special kind of stupid.”
Of course no one ever wants to lose their independence, but there is a time to be smart about this and accept help when it’s offered. Maybe I learned something from Sally Jo after all, like, “Oh, I’m so glad you were here just when I needed help from a big strong man,” and watch him walk away with a little spring in his step.
There is something to be said, after all, for sometimes being just a little bit helpless.