Compassion, Empathy, Muscle
Life’s most persistent question: What are you doing to help others?
Martin Luther King
My sister lived alone. Well, not exactly. For three years she had a constant companion — cancer.
Their apartment was small, certainly not big enough for the two of them. They shared a bedroom and bathroom. It was cozy for one under normal circumstances but together easy to accumulate clutter, life’s necessities and things my sister just wanted to have because, well, like all of us, she just did. They defined her.
For instance: My sister was a fashionista of the avant-garde. She particularly loved her closet full of colorful, unique-looking sneakers, the kind she could get away with wearing even with a fancy outfit to a fancy affair. Her collection of scarves, baseball caps, sweaters, corduroy and denim overalls, socks and a wicker basket of multi-colored soft cotton gloves were known to many.
Her hundreds of books — novels, how-to’s, nursing texts, bios of her favorite women, thrillers, beach-reading romances — were shelved and stacked neatly around the cozy living room in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, next to, in front of and behind the couch and her oversized stuffed armchair that, as the cancer took a tighter grip on her, on more nights than not, substituted for her bed.
Hung and still-to-be-hung paintings, photos and her near-perfect condition LP records from the 1960s and ’70s told the stories of her life. Every kitchen cabinet and drawer was filled to the max with our grandparents’ and parents’ cherished tchotchkes, handwritten recipes, cookbooks and her own coffee mugs collected from
travels from just about everywhere.
She knew precisely where all these items lay, in and out of sight, some in use and some tucked away for years, untouched but just as coveted. But as far as she was concerned, every item was at the ready “for when I’ll need it,” she’d say.
Only one item she couldn’t find. “I know it’s here somewhere. I just don’t where right now.” It was her cherished tiny, gold pinky ring gifted to her on her sixteenth birthday by our dad decades before. She was always searching for it.
Over time, cancer’s invasion created less room and more clutter with its own necessities that squeezed the already overly squeezed spaces. My sister had no choice but to make room where there wasn’t any. She was a nurse. She understood.
Like always, she remained the fiercely independent woman everyone knew her to be and demanded of herself even as the cancer tightened its vice grip. She never liked asking for grocery shopping help, rides to medical appointments or help of any other kind. Even as the chemo treatments and medications drained her, she refused help to clean her home, if only to “just tidy up a bit” as friends and family would say in their gentle urging.
But that didn’t happen, because of what author Amanda Palmer aptly explains in her book, The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help:
“It isn’t so much the act of asking that paralyzes us–it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one.”
Gradually, most everything, the books, LPs, photos, sneakers, heirlooms, everything, collected dust. In her normally spanking clean bathroom spills were left unattended. Kitchen grime and neglected dishes in the sink became the norm. Exhaustion, sleepiness, sleeplessness, weakness, nausea, pain and depression, all cancer’s thugs, had taken over.
Cindy and David Bearman know cancer all too well. Together they have battled and overcome Cindy’s battle against it. The hardship, heartache, exhaustion. For this reason, together they created Cleaning Up for Cancer, a 501 (c) (3) charity whose mission is cleaning cancer patients’ homes free of charge with ecological sensibility and know-how.
And just as importantly, with empathy.
In “Wife, Widow, Now What?: How I Navigated the Cancer World and How You Can, Too,” Rachel Engstrom writes about when she contacted David and Cindy and “… This lovely couple who would later become family friends agreed to meet our needs.”
Eventually, time and the cancer defeated my sister before she could utilize Cindy and David’s cleaning service godsend. Given more time (and a bit more persuasion), I think she would have eventually accepted and welcomed their restoring her small apartment to its former — let’s call it “lovely chaos” — creative, colorful, clean home it was.
After she died, right before leaving her now-empty apartment for the final time, I was doing a final sweep-up. There on the kitchen floor, wedged between two floor tiles and under the refrigerator, lay my sister’s gold pinky ring.
I believe David and Cindy would have found the ring had they had the opportunity. On second thought, I am certain they would have.
Here’s why: Cleaning Up for Cancer is not just about mopping, tidying, and scrubbing. Far from it. Clients who have used their services will tell you about the empathy, compassion, companionship and welcomed normalcy of chit-chat that clients crave and “Cleaning Up for Cancer” workers provide. They’ll tell you about these workers’ genuine concern for each client’s well-being. No patronizing and artificial sympathy here. They really mean it. And they show it.
For sure my sister would have loved the chit-chat once she warmed up to “strangers” in her home. Knowing my sister well, I know this would have segued into her oft-told “mystery of the missing gold pinky ring.” And no doubt, knowing that, David and Cindy’s cleaning contractors — if not David and Cindy themselves — would have made it their mission to find it, which no doubt they would have.
If only there had been more time.
No truer words better describe the purpose of Cindy and David’s Cleaning Up for Cancer:
“Be the sun in someone’s dark sky.” ― Matshona Dhliwayo