The email from a friend here in town was brief and succinct. She explained that her husband had been at the bedside of his terminally ill mother for days and my friend had to drive to West Point to pick up her son and bring him home for spring break. They were all worn out from the hospital vigil but wanted to welcome him home with a nice family dinner. Was there any chance I could make something they could all have together when she and her son returned home?
Of course I could, and I did. This is a task that’s easy for me: cooking a family dinner. I made a Mediterranean beef stew with onions and new potatoes, along with a container of marinated cucumber, red pepper and fresh basil salad. Then I brought it over and left it in their fridge.
Asking for help is so hard for most people, including me. This particular friend is one of the smartest and most proactive people I know, and although she’d never asked me for a favor before, it didn’t surprise me that she was able to do this. For me, it would have been harder. When my first child was an infant, I was constantly turning down offers of help, though politely, I hoped – not from friends and family but from strangers who tried to help me carry the stroller through a subway turnstile or pick up a sock that had fallen off the baby. Then one day when I was in the city with my mother and the baby, my mother noticed this tendency and set me straight. “People offer help because they want to,” she said, and that was all it took for me to realize my lack of courtesy in turning down their offer.
The friend who asked if I could make dinner had never asked me for a favor before, but she’d done me a favor – a big one, last year. She and her husband gave me a high-end laptop computer they didn’t need, which effectively transformed my workday, allowing me to write and conduct interviews from anywhere I chose rather than only while sitting at my desktop computer in my home office. I couldn’t help thinking that a pot of stew and a container of salad didn’t exactly match up to a virtually new notebook computer, but then I realized that in a way, to her, it did. She had something I needed and she gave it to me; I had something she needed – the ability to make a family dinner on a day she couldn’t but particularly wanted one – and I did it for her. The monetary value of the items didn’t matter to either of us as much as the fact that we both had something to offer in the name of friendship.
Being able to ask for help is a gift, even more of one than being able to offer it. I was grateful she asked and grateful I could provide. Her generous gift of a computer a year ago astounded me, but to her it was second nature: if you have more than you need, offer it to someone else. It’s a wonderful, admirable way to treat friends, and I’ m lucky for this opportunity to follow her example.