The other day, I was scrolling through Facebook when I encountered a status that rubbed me like sandpaper. The gist of it went something like this: “Enough with all the GoFundMe campaigns, already! If you’re alive, you need health insurance. If you have children, get life insurance. If you’re a homeowner, you need homeowner’s insurance. It isn’t anyone else’s responsibility to bail you out if you have a sudden illness or tragedy.” The comments echoed in agreement. One person made the assertion that “digital crowdfunding is the modern equivalent of panhandling,” a popular stance that you may hold yourself. As one of those “reckless” panhandlers, I’d like to politely disagree. Let me be clear: I have health insurance, homeowner’s insurance, and life insurance. These are important, and you do need them (if you’re fortunate enough to afford them). They won’t, however, ensure that you’ll never need to ask for help. For the last six years, my 33-year-old husband has been battling an aggressive form of cancer called mesothelioma. During that time, he has ridden a perpetual seesaw of treatment and employment. Up and down, in and out. As is the norm for anyone with an incurable illness. Ten months ago, I discovered an alarming lump in my right breast and joined him with a cancer diagnosis of my own.
Un-freakin-believable. In a matter of weeks, we found ourselves coordinating back-to-back chemo sessions and trying to maintain the stamina required to care for our energetic 2-year-old. We were both out of work. And despite paying expensive health insurance premiums, hefty medical bills continued to flood our mailbox. Anything registering above the 100-dollar mark got tossed in an I’ll-deal-with-this-later pile. It was a big pile. I have always been frugal. Aldi is my happy place. My closet is comprised strictly of thrift store finds. We don’t eat at restaurants or go to the movies or have cable. We squirrel away any windfalls that land in our laps. But no amount of squirreling or thrifting could prepare us for a 3,000 dollar consultation with an out-of-state mesothelioma specialist. Or the buckling that our savings account would endure once traveling for treatment became a requirement for survival. We needed to ask for help. And when we did, something remarkable happened. Our community transformed itself into a fuzzy, soothing security blanket. No shame or strings attached. A friend set up an online fundraising page. We used the money to pay for medical bills and to stock our refrigerator. As people donated their time, money, and prayers to us, our hearts were filled with an indescribable sense of gratitude.
Not once did I presume it was other people’s responsibility to foot the bill for our personal, family crisis. When I asked for help, I projected zero expectations. In her book, The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer (one half of arty musical duo The Dresden Dolls) makes the following point: “When you ask, there’s always the possibility of a ‘no’ on the other side of the request. If we don’t allow for that no, we’re not actually asking, we’re either begging or demanding.” There has to be a distinction between asking and begging. But how do we establish that line? At what point does asking for financial assistance become too brash, too presumptuous? I’m not sure. But I do know that asking requires unassuming graciousness. It needs to be humble, and it must always be genuinely appreciative when the request is answered.
Palmer is notorious for crowd-surfing at her shows and couch-surfing after them. In her book, she relays a story of how she arrived at the home of one of her couch-surfing hosts: an 18-year-old girl who lived with her family in a destitute neighborhood of Miami. This poor family had so little, and yet they insisted that Amanda and her bandmates take their beds for the night while they slept on couches or on the porch. Amanda, with overwhelming gratitude in her heart, asked herself, “Is this fair?” Is it fair? I think that it is. I’ve had to ask for a lot of help over the last year. I had to ask people to drive me to chemo, to drive my husband to chemo, to babysit our daughter while we were being pumped full of chemo. I’ve had to ask for help with cutting our lawn, stacking firewood, and raking leaves. It’s not always easy to ask for help. For most of us, there’s a level of discomfort with asking. It can feel like an admission of personal failure and ineptitude. It requires vulnerability and trust. Asking puts us at risk of looking needy or weak.
This past summer, during the 3-week interval between my last chemo infusion and my first mastectomy, one of my friends went through a tricky breakup and was moving out of the apartment she had shared with her boyfriend. She needed help cleaning things out, but she couldn’t bring herself to hit me up for a lending hand. “You’re going through chemo. You have a 2 year old. And your husband has cancer, too. How can I possibly ask you for help?” “Please, please let me help. I want to help you. I need to do this.” My use of the word “need” struck her (so she told me months later). Eventually, she relented and allowed me to help in the minuscule way that I could. My sister and I spent an afternoon clearing her fridge of old ketchup packets and emptying her cabinets of stale tea bags. We drank beers and scrubbed floors and laughed about the weird religious retreats our ultra-conservative Catholic parents had forced us to attend as teens. Linked by our mutual sadness and the memories of our Catholic school days, we all felt the positive mark the day had impressed upon us. I had needed it.
There’s so much to be gained from being with others in their need. It shakes us out the self-pitying stupor we can so easily slip into. It connects us. It makes us feel human. After all, that’s what crowdsourcing is all about: humans helping humans. In what way is that offensive or inappropriate? If my asking for help is so obnoxious to you, don’t contribute. Don’t even click on the campaign link. Just please don’t confuse my asking for help during a crisis with personal failure on my part. Don’t wag your disapproving finger at me for accepting someone’s help. And if you need help, ask. Because one day you’ll find yourself at the other end of the question. I hope you’re willing and able to answer.
Liz is a recently widowed introvert living in Buffalo, NY. She enjoys making blanket forts with her 4-year-old daughter and writing about cancer-ish stuff on her blog, NotTodayCancer.blogspot.com
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