“We see each other maybe every 4 or 6 weeks, but we don’t vacation together and we haven’t shared living space in years.”
Debbie Freeman and her older brother Victor are having a heated argument. Well, may not all that heated. It’s kind of an argument in politeness.
“Just take the money,” Debbie orders her brother as she tries to shove several large bills into his hands.
“I’m not taking it,” Victor yells back. “I told you five times!”
You see, the issue is the Victor is on his way to the grocery store. And Debbie wants to chip in. She figures it’s the least she can do. After all, Victor and his wife Cindy have been hosting Debbie and her husband John for several days now. They’ve slept in his bed, ate his food, watched his TV. Debbie feels this big cloud of debt hanging over her shoulders.
“Just take the money!”
But the older brother is going to win this conflict. With loving eyes that are burden free, that show no signs that he has been put-upon or inconvenienced, Victor ends the discussion with just a few words. “Just stop.” He tells her.
“Please… just stop.”
This is a story about one of the hardest lessons any of us will ever have to face. Storms, whether real or proverbial, teach you things. Above all else, they educate you about patience and priorities. And you learn a lot about the people around you. But then there’s that other thing, the wisdom most of us spend a lifetime trying to avoid. Sometimes enduring a storm becomes a degree in learning how to accept help and receive love.
“We’re closer now. We’re weren’t all that close when we were teenagers. It just took us some time to appreciate one another.”
Debbie and her husband John waited until almost the last minute to figure out if they were staying or going. Of course, if they decided to leave, exactly where would they go? For a while, it looked like Hurricane Florence was going to make landfall further North, which meant Raleigh or to their daughter’s home in Maryland were out of the question. And then things shifted to the south, and so on Wednesday morning they packed up the photographs and headed to Victor and Cindy’s house in Cary.
“Leaving was very emotional,” Debbie remembers. “You look around at your home and you don’t know if anything is going to be there when you get back.”
Victor house made the most sense. He was the nearest relative, it was big enough with plenty of room and their 89-year-old mother was already there, she had evacuated a couple of days earlier from Winston Salem. Plus there was something else. Like many older brothers, Victor was always the protector. He protected Debbie from bullies and boys and maybe even covered for her with the parents on occasions. Now he’d be there to help keep her safe from the storm
Riding out Florence would turn out to be kind of like an impromptu family reunion. They all had meals together, had a few drinks, played a few board games. Debbie’s mom loves a game called Sequence. It really was a good time.
“Oh, there was tons of laughter. Those first two nights were really very special. Cary never lost power, the cable flickered a little bit, but we were able to watch the news and realized our home would be okay. So it was just a very relaxed atmosphere.”
In each of our brains lives a hidden scale, science can’t confirm its location, but it plays a crucial role in our relationships. It’s there to measure how much we take in and what we give back. Most of the time we spend energy making sure the scale is balanced. But all of a sudden, perhaps because of a natural disaster or other circumstances beyond your control, it dramatically starts tipping in one direction. And so you do anything you can to keep things even.
“Imposition, that’s the word that comes to mind. After a couple of days, I started to feel like an imposition or a burden.”
Most people can deal with being on the receiving end as long as there are limits, as long as they can keep the help coming their way down to a manageable level. It’s kind of like, Okay you can buy lunch today, but it’s on me next time. Or, in exchange for putting us up for a couple of days, allow us to take you out to a fancy dinner tonight.
But for Debbie, after a couple of pleasant days visiting her brother, Friday came rolling around followed by day 4 and day 5. The roads were still not open and there was no way to get back.
Come Monday, for Victor and his wife, life returned to its routine. They went back to work and normal schedules. But Debbie was still stuck in their house, feeling very much like an intruder.
“They kept saying the same thing. ‘Don’t worry about it. Stay as long as you want. We’re happy that you’re here. But I had to do something’”
The something became cooking and cleaning. She tried to show her appreciation through acts of service. She made them her famous cauliflower crusted pizza one day, chicken fajitas the next and spaghetti on the third day.
It would have been an awkward situation for anyone, but somehow it seems that it hit home with Debbie more than most. She is a former therapist, who worked with special needs children. She knows the role she is supposed to play in this world. She is the one who is called to be there for others.
“It’s hard for other people to help me because I am the helper. It’s who I am. It’s what I did. It was my career.”
Isn’t it true, how often have you observed, that great human strides and growth take place exactly at the times when we are forced to take on new roles? The roles we play have the danger of not just becoming our identity, but also our comfort zone. And so we embrace them because to stay in that role is to stay in control.
It didn’t matter how spic-and-span the house became, nor did it matter how many meals she cooked, there was never going to be away for Debbie to repay the hospitality. And after a while, she stopped trying. Oh, she still helped, but it was no longer with the ulterior motive even things up…
“Because you can’t even things up. I can’t repay them, You go through something like this and all you can do is learn how to say ‘Thank You’”