Jan 7, 2011

Who We Need

Ethel retired a year early due to her failing eyesight. She can no longer drive or read the newspaper or her mail. So Ethel needs a lot of help. She used to feel proud of her independence and self-sufficiency; now she often stops to think about all the people whose work contributes to making her life possible. There’s Lucy, a home healthcare worker who comes twice a week to put the capsules and tablets in her pill box and sweep her floor. And Raul who brings his crew to mow her lawn. Roger comes only once a quarter to spray for bugs, but always spends a half hour chatting with Ethel.

Through her visits with these helpers, she has learned where all of them go to church, how many children they have, and who they’re planning to spend the holidays with.

Ethel’s granddaughter drives her to the supermarket once a week, dropping Ethel off while she runs her own errands.

“I’ll come in and help you, Granny,” the girl offers.

“No, thanks,” Ethel replies. “It’s easy to find help if I need it.”

Ethel asks a stocking clerk or the meat manager to read labels and prices for her. And she enjoys their little interchanges. A few have even gotten to know her so well that they greet her by name.

And then there’s the person at the checkout counter, usually a college student. She asks what they’re majoring in or how their biology class is going.

Ethel spent her own working life teaching in public schools. She saw how the participation by parents – or in some cases, grandparents – was essential to her pupils’ success. Without someone to sit at the kitchen table and work through math problems with a child or to show up at Parents’ Night, a child might not value learning – nor Ethel’s own work.

Ethel is learning that such dependency applies to all stages of life, not just to the disabled or to one’s later years. During her working life, when she tended to pride herself on her independence, Ethel had needed her mechanic to change her oil and keep her car running in order to get to the school where she taught third grade. Some unknown helper had designed and others assembled the computer on which she stored her hand-outs and grades. The custodian had swept her classroom floor every night.

Ethel keeps her journal on her computer now. “We all,” she wrote recently, “are part of an unimaginably large labyrinth of connections, without which I wouldn’t be able to eat my daily bread or take my medicine.” She paused to think a moment, then continued writing. “Most of all, we depend on those little spurts of energy fueling the interchanges that recognize us as human." Those seemingly insignificant conversations about the price of peas or the cashier’s new hairdo, sustain Ethel’s connection to the world, even more than her medicine or daily bread.

What about the workers who make your own life possible?  And whose life does your work sustain?

Photograph used with permission via Flickr.

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