Helping Hands (and Feet)

Last week, when we learned that a friend had severed his Achilles tendon and would be undergoing surgery, my husband’s immediate response was, “Wow, I’ll need to take him a bottle of Scotch.”

This reaction typifies the way many men “lend a helping hand”; Rich and his buddies gift bottles of booze when a friend undergoes anything from rotator cuff surgery to a vasectomy. They “help” the recently “downsized” and divorced in a similar fashion.

In contrast, after our friend Kimberly’s brain surgery last month, a battalion of some 40 women signed up for duty: delivering lattes, walking dogs, helping with shopping, chauffeuring kids, running errands, cooking meals and, as her recovery progressed, taking her out for brief lunches.

Kimberly’s rapid-response team was not unlike groups of ladies nationwide who organize to help friends who have lost loved ones, endured surgery, undergone chemotherapy or suffered a break up. In fact, an entire industry has formed to help women help others, with special calendars, how-to books and internet-based companies such as Lotsa Helping Hands, Caring Bridge and Share the Care.

So, is the assumption that when a woman is ailing, it takes a well-organized village to fill her shoes, but when a man is bed-ridden, all it takes is a good friend or two to keep his flask filled?

I’d hate to think our society has progressed so little. Do we really adhere to the June-and-Ward-Cleaver stereotype that offers up a husband needing slippers and a stiff drink after work, and a wife who handles every detail of home and family life, all while beautifully dressed and coiffed? (In truth, my husband pitches in quite a bit on the weekends, folding laundry, flipping pancakes and cleaning up after meals. And, in my workout clothes and straggly hair, I’m truly the antithesis of Beaver’s mom.)

Instead, I think that the differing male-female reactions are more indicative of how we relate to and nurture our friends.

Women need to be needed, and when a friend is down and out, we search for ways to show our concern. I know for a fact that Kimberly absolutely appreciated the many friends who lent helping hands (and feet) over the past month.  At the same time, I know that not one of those women helped out because she felt obligated to do so. They all felt compelled to reach out. Women seem to be programmed to nurture and support those who are suffering – either physically or mentally.

Often, we help with “hot dishes.” When I flew home from graduate school for my father’s memorial service decades ago, I was shocked to find our family kitchen stuffed with donated food. At the ripe old age of 22, I wondered if people really thought that casseroles and chocolate chip cookies could ease the pain of what was then the most terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing imaginable.

Until that time, I had never known true tragedy, so I didn’t understand the value of friends during crises. However, as life has continued on its bumpy path, I have had plenty of opportunity to experience the kindness of strangers and good friends, and to return the favor many times over.

A few years back, I was driving my kids to school when my SUV was T-boned on a neighborhood street. The car rolled three times – onto the passenger side, then the roof and finally the driver’s side — until it lodged against a split-rail fence. Although my kids and I were quite shaken and the car was “totaled,” we miraculously escaped (through the sun roof) without a single scratch, bruise or sore muscle.

Word spread quickly about the dramatic accident. Strangers combed the lawn where we had landed in search of my wedding ring, which was lost during the ordeal. Friends called to offer support. And one sweet acquaintance, accompanied by her husband and two teenage sons, showed up at my door with a homemade fruit tart.

Now, we all know that a sweet dessert can’t repair a car, cure post-traumatic stress or locate lost diamonds, but it certainly made me feel better, made Barb feel that she was helping in some way and showed me how much she cared.

Of course, the manly “booze cure” isn’t really about the alcohol, either. It’s simply another way to demonstrate concern. On Friday, when asked which brand of Scotch our buddy prefers, his wife texted, “It would be wasted on him… He loves a Duval.” So, that’s what my husband delivered, and both men felt good about the transaction…and their friendship. 

–          Linda Williams Rorem, 24 Oct. 2011

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