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How I Learned to Accept Help After My Husband Got Sick

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When Marlys Johnson’s husband fell ill, she learned that asking for and accepting help connected her to others in a beautiful new way. For a collection of wonderful advice and stories that are sure to warm your heart, pick up a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Best Advice I Ever Heard (Amazon, $8.21).

“Mom, people want to help,” admonished our daughter, Summer. “And they want to do it in meaningful ways.” My husband, Gary, was dying of cancer in the hospital bed in our living room. The women from our church had called to see if they could arrange meals. 

“Thank you so much, but it’s not needed,” I replied automatically. “It’s just Summer and me, and we don’t eat much.” Summer called them back because she knew these women. “We’d love to have meals. But, please, small portions, and every other day.” 

The daughter lecture series actually started about the time Gary’s cancer picked up speed. Back then, a generous family member had offered to pay Gary’s salary so he could quit his job. “Oh, wow, thank you, but we couldn’t let you do that,” we said, perhaps because it was too generous, or we were too proud, or it wasn’t comfortable being on the receiving end of such a large gift. 

I told Summer about it later, and she laughed. “Why did you just laugh?” I wanted to know because that had been my reaction, and I couldn’t quite explain it. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe because it’s so absurd. I mean, who offers to pay someone’s salary so they can quit work?” 

Summer called back the next evening. Apparently, our adult children and their spouses had taken a vote. It was unanimous. They decided we should accept the offer. Summer reminded us that we’d been praying for Gary to take an early retirement. “So, you get this offer, and you turn it down. Now what? You’re going to keep praying that Dad can quit work, right?” 

It was sort of like the guy who, when warned about an impending storm, prayed that God would deliver him. A policeman showed up at the man’s front door to evacuate him. The water rose to the front porch, and a fire truck stopped by. The water reached the second floor, and someone in a boat rowed up to the window. Finally, the guy was on the roof of his house with a helicopter hovering overhead. 

He declined all offers of assistance, though, because he had great faith that God would rescue him. The man got swept into the flood and drowned. Standing before God, he was a bit annoyed that his prayers had gone unanswered. God looked puzzled. “What do you mean? I sent a policeman, a fire truck, a rowboat, and a helicopter. I don’t know what else I could have done for you.” 

And so we accepted this startling, over-the-top offer, which allowed Gary to resign his job and apply for disability. “Not only do you need to accept help,” the lectures from Summer continued, “but you need to ask for help.” 

A slow leak sprung in one of our tires. I was unable to leave Gary for very long because he was unsteady on his feet, so I sent out a request on Facebook: Does anyone have time to take our car in for tire repair? Before the end of the day, the vehicle had been picked up and returned with a repaired tire. And the girlfriend who did this seemed so pleased to be able to help. 

Shortly after that, our toilet clogged. I tried using the plunger to no avail, and then emailed a handful of male friends who had said, “Let me know if I can help in any way.” One friend and his wife arrived with more plumbing equipment than you’d think an amateur plumber would own. And just like that, our toilet was unclogged. 

And then the Porch Fairy showed up. (A Porch Fairy is someone who leaves gifts on the front porch so as not to disturb the guy occupying the hospital bed.) She began leaving a steaming chai tea on our front porch every morning. When Summer arrived to stand watch with me, the Porch Fairy added Americano coffee to the daily delivery. Two steaming beverages in cheery red cups on our front porch. Even in snow and ice. Every morning at 7:30 for weeks. 

Because of the Porch Fairy’s whimsical initiative, our front porch saw quite a bit of activity: soup, scented candles, bouquets of flowers and fall leaves, pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie, socks, and bamboo knitting needles with soft yarn in warm autumn colors. It was the season of graciously and humbly learning to say: “Yes, thank you.” And with each generous gift, each acceptance of assistance, each ask for help, God was reminding me I couldn’t carry this load alone. I needed this fiercely supportive team of friends, family, co-workers and cancer community members. 

Snow came early that year to central Oregon. A friend — who believes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission — showed up with her grandson to shovel our driveway and walkways when I was with Gary in Hospice House. She knew if she asked, I probably would have said, “Thank you. That’s so sweet of you, but not necessary.” 

In addition to not asking for help, and not always accepting it when it was offered, I didn’t always take care of myself. There was the time I drove Gary to the emergency room at 5:00 a.m. with a fever and flu-like symptoms. After several hours of infusion with high-powered antibiotics, I brought him home, ran out to pick up his prescription, and hurried home to get him started on the meds. And then I reported to work — near tears and physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted — because I didn’t want to add to my coworker’s load. 

Looking back, I’m pretty sure my lovely coworker would have been glad to take my load that day. Throughout those last months of Gary’s life, there were no small gifts. The sum total of the love that arrived at our doorstep — whether it made it past the front porch or not — was colossal. And every gift carried this powerful message: “It grieves my heart to know your beloved is dying, and it brings me great joy to deliver this ray of sunshine.” 

After Gary’s celebration of life service, Summer commented on how glad she was to be present with me as her dad was dying. “I saw community in action,” she said. “And when you experience that, it changes you. You can’t pay it back, but you can pay it forward.” 

Some of the best advice I ever received came from my extraordinarily wise daughter: “People want to be part of your story, Mom. They want to help in meaningful ways. You need to let them.”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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