Years ago, my wife Heather referred to an omni-competent physician as a “Swiss Army Doctor” – the sort who seemed to be good at everything, whether they were part of his specialty or not.
She ought to know. Because Heather is one heck of a Swiss Army Person.
She’s a fearless driver who’s undismayed by Denver traffic.
She’s an aunt who speaks fluent Child, winning the immediate trust and understanding of anyone under 10 years old. (Yeah, she was going to be a teacher at one time.)
She’s a patient who’s done everything from diagnosing her own conditions before her doctors did, to fixing her own IV when it threatened to come loose after a home infusion.
Lifehacks? Minor repairs? Odd bits of knowledge? Never bet against the mind of a woman who’s read War and Peace cover-to-cover and is ready to start again.
In short, she’s the kind of person that everyone knows they can rely on. And that’s the trouble.
Because Heather has also been chronically ill most of her life – Crohn’s disease, ankylosing spondylitis, and most recently, multiple sclerosis. And that means two things.
One, it means that life can get very frustrating for her, when something she should be able to do suddenly becomes difficult – say, because of the balance issues that MS can bring, or the “brain fog” that can even make reading a trial at times.
But the second is more subtle. Heather needs to sometimes not be needed. To just be sick, and have everyone else carry the weight for a while.
That’s all too easy to forget. Embarrassingly easy, in fact.
And the truth is, most of us have been in similar situations.
Sometimes it’s on the personal level – the parent, or neighbor, or colleague, who can seemingly do it all, and thus often gets asked to. Whose hands keep getting filled, even when there’s no room left to grip. If none of it gets passed on, something is going to slip. Probably several somethings.
Sometimes, it’s on the institutional level – services and agencies and organizations that you’ve come to rely on, whether local, federal, or in between. You assume things will go on as they always have, and so they do … until the day that there’s a new person in charge, a new policy in place, a new mandate from higher up. Suddenly the secure becomes scary. Suddenly things you never thought could happen are becoming the new normal, while things you could trust are no longer certain.
In both cases, the panic usually comes when a crisis hits – and at that point, a lot of damage has already been done. That’s when you’re scrambling, trying to patch the holes, grab the tasks, juggle the flaming chainsaws that are already in the air. And sometimes that’s unavoidable – but only sometimes.
Most times, the needs and the dangers can be seen far ahead. But seeing them requires attention. Understanding. A willingness to work before there’s a need.
It means anticipating when a loved one might be overwhelmed, and taking the initiative to relieve the pressure.
It means having a plan before the roof leaks or the furnace dies.
It means doing more than vote, but being engaged and involved in the political process before it comes down to casting ballots.
Sure, it’s not always possible. No one can do everything they need to do – and that’s the point. If we all look out for each other, if we all stay alert to jump in where we can, then we can make the ride easier for all of us. We’ve seen this in times as dramatic as the 2013 flood and as quiet as a family’s mourning – when we stand together, we’re stronger. We’re family, neighbors, community.
We all remember that less than we should. Myself included. So here’s the reminder.
Be there. Do what needs doing.
And let the hardest-working hands get some rest at last.