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Learning to Be Nice

Take a slightly reserved, very shy, and somewhat cynical 47-year-old woman and stick her in a room with people who are doing everything in their power to save her husband’s life.  Add friends and family who offer to watch her children, fold her laundry and bring meals. Mix in some co-workers and even strangers who chip in financially and with cards and prayers and then sit back and watch that woman. Initially, she might be surprised and maybe even a little suspicious.  Why are all these people helping? What do they want?

That woman was me.At one point, I was certain I was going to turn into the Hallmark Maxine character; you know, the crotchety old lady with the dry sense of humor. I was headed in that direction, a true cynic who mistrusted everything and everyone. I instantly disliked most people. I was sure the cashiers were out to refuse my coupons, the dentist did unneccessary work to pay for his new car, the salespeople lied to sell me something, and even my own family and friends were not above reproach.  They had to like me, or I was sure they wouldn’t have.

Something changed during David’s cancer treatment. Perhaps it was seeing so many people give of themselves to help us, even strangers. Or maybe it was the close brush with losing my spouse.  As I sat in a hospital room alternately holding my husband’s hand and watching him struggle to write short messages on a dry erase board, I felt as though my heart was melting. Not only did I fall in love with him all over again during that time, in a way I also fell in love with all the people who were helping us.

I’m a nicer person than I used to be.

I first realized this when we met a couple who were just beginning their journey through the same kind of cancer David had, and I put my hand over the woman’s to comfort her when I saw her eyes fill with tears. I remember watching my own hand as it covered hers, seeing her smile slightly, and thinking, wow, I made someone feel better. And it didn’t hurt or feel fake.  And then I hugged both her and her husband when we parted ways.

Later, I hesitated only briefly before asking the radiation oncologist who treated David if I could hug her too. She deserved a hug.  We will never forget her or her wonderful care. We don’t have to. We still keep in touch with her.

And as the love between me and my husband David grew each day, so did my heart, and before long I found myself turning to strangers in the grocery store line and handing them coupons for the items they were buying, comforting others with a hug (me, a non-hugger!), offering assistance to elderly men and women, smiling at strangers who looked like they could use a smile, and waving others ahead of me in long lines.  My ability to empathize soared through the roof!  A week after my April garage sale when a man came knocking on my door to ask if I had more Mylanta to sell, I didn’t question his motives or wonder aloud why he didn’t just go to Walmart to buy his own.  No,instead I assumed he couldn’t afford the retail price and I not only dug in the cupboard for two more bottles, I gave them to him free of charge and told him to come back to my October sale.  And wouldn’t you know it, he did.

Not only was I becoming kinder, but the world started looking like a better place every day.  I saw the good in people.

The day my husband let two men in ill-fitting clothes inside our home for a demonstration of a carpet steam cleaner (I know, I know) my increased empathy was sorely tested but after a good three hours of their hard work I finally sat these two bumbling guys down on our couch and explained that it was no use; we’d already told them before they came in that we weren’t buying and we just weren’t buying. “Cancer made us strong,” I explained. They weren’t going to wear us down.  I’d asked them before they entered if they got paid either way, because we were not going to purchase anything. They’d assured me that they did and cheerfully began their cleaning. I saw their enthusiasm waning as we reiterated, over and over, that we weren’t about to purchase anything, and I gave them permission to quit mid-demonstration.  I noted the pained look on the face of one and the determination on the other as they asserted that they had to finish or they wouldn’t get paid.

“Go ahead and call your superiors,” I told the one who I’d taken a special liking to, reminding me of a nice gay male friend in high school.  “Tell them I’m not budging.”

I didn’t like the weasel that came to our porch a few minutes later and insisted we needed the carpet cleaner, that we were harming our children with our dirty home, and missing out on the deal of the lifetime.  He was incensed that the two hadn’t done our mattress as instructed, but my husband hadn’t let them in our bedroom.

“I don’t like your boss,” I told my new friend, “He is not allowed in my house again.”  And then I asked him to be totally honest with me and let me know if he really did get paid to waste his time at someone’s house all afternoon. Once again, he assured me that he would. By this time the two young men knew all about my husband’s bout with cancer, along with much of our life history. The couch they were trained to praise was a hand-me-down from my niece, they’d learned. Our six-year-old was entertaining them with her antics, and also wearing them down. I think by this time they knew we weren’t going to buy anything but they had one last trick up their sleeve; the final showdown with a superior, who was a slick character, but at least not the weasel who’d sweated his way through the first pressure sale. 

I wasn’t angry, or even frustrated with this group. They were doing their job and the fault lay with us for letting them in our house in the first place. They’d caught us at a bad time (for them). Just half an hour before their female counterpart had knocked on our door I’d been telling David how dirty our carpet looked in the sunlight streaming through the window.

“Look, these guys were wonderful,” I praised them to their boss.  “We don’t have the money and we explained that to the woman you sent to our door before they got here. This is the same woman who said it would be an hour’s demonstration at most, before we agreed.  That was four hours ago and these guys have gone above and beyond to sell us this carpet cleaner.  But we just aren’t going to. As I told them, we have been through hell and back with my husband’s cancer. We are not going to change our mind.”

By this time the boss was sputtering about his own cancer (yes, he pulled the cancer card), his family to feed, the significant discount he would give us on the very model used that day for demonstration. He swaggered with power, offering the sun, moon and stars if we just signed papers that day. 

I looked him straight in the eye and said, “NO.”

” Train your girl to tell the truth when she comes to the door and maybe we won’t be wasting these gentlemen’s time in a house where the owners said they would not be buying and they just want a clean rug.  And don’t send the weasel to make threatening comments.” 

“We aren’t buying, so please leave.”  

The two guys shook our hands and patted Abby’s head as they left.  Their boss lagged behind and I held out my hand. Surprised, he took it and gave me a half-hearted shake.

“Good luck with your cancer,” I said, and he had the grace to blush a little.

I may be nicer now, but I’m no sucker.

Author:

Author, public speaker, and workshop presenter for community colleges, libraries, women's groups and for grief support groups, Hospice and retreats. Reporter for the Manchester Press newspaper and popular public speaker and workshop presenter on the topics of writing and finding hope in grief. "Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession" was published by Familius Publishing in 2014. "Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage" and "Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace" were released by Familius in 2014. "Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink," co-written with Mary Jedlicka Humston of Iowa City, was published in September 2015.

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