“What the hell were you thinking?” Gary said when I got home.
At a meeting, during that awkward silent moment when the facilitator asked for a volunteer and everyone else faked looking at their cell phones, my hand shot up. Wait, what did I just do? I could have looked at my cellphone – there must have been something I needed to see, text or search, but instead I volunteered.
It’s been a long time since I’ve acted on that impulse, and before I had a chance to change my mind, my affirmative hand gesture was entered into the meeting minutes. Being noted in PTO minutes, I imagine, is no different from having a grave transgression on your Permanent Record, the stain every middle school student fears. I couldn’t change my mind; it was done.
My new job is to head up the end-of-year breakfast for my daughter’s eighth grade class at school. Five hundred kids want pancakes, sausage, donuts, and fruit parfaits. They wanted frappaccinos too, but thankfully, school policy forbids it. No one needs to see a bunch of fourteen-year-olds jacked up on caffeine.
Before cancer, volunteering was a regular part of my life. As little girl I candy-striped at a local old folks home. My mom would drop my sister and me off for a few hours on weekends, and we delivered fresh water and magazines to people who rarely saw youthful skin. I remember one oldster stroking my cheek with bony fingers and wondering what the big deal was. “They love seeing children,” my mom told us. “They love your dewy freshness.”
As a young woman, I volunteered with adult survivors of incest, worked at a soup kitchen, and signed up regularly to lend a hand in other projects. When Lauren came along, I volunteered at her school and my local Chamber of Commerce.
Cancer changed all that.
That disease swallowed any idea of taking on anything extra. Between traveling thousands of miles in California traffic for treatment, feeling crappy between chemo sessions, figuring out how we were going to pay for my survival, and enduring a few close-call ER visits, I was full. Beyond capacity in fact.
And then life marched on and exhaustion set in. We moved to a new city into a house that needs a lot of work. A wild fire claimed one of our investment properties. Then my mom died. Care giving made my husband sick. Someone drove a car into our family’s coin-op laundromat business. And then another fire took another property.
Am I tired all the time because of the chemical stew still sloshing around in my veins, or am I wiped out because life just keeps dishing out angst? I don’t know, but for the past three years, I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet at meetings, not offering to help even when I know my skill set would come in handy.
What if I get too tired? What if my brain fogs up? I can’t even remember anyone’s name anymore. My energy level is still shot, and I never know when a feeling of profound fatigue is going to overwhelm me. Can I push through it? I don’t want to let anyone down.
This reluctance to get involved contributes to feelings of isolation that come with cancer, a situation compounded by our move.
So volunteering to head up this breakfast? It’s a little thing that for me is a big thing.
Jennie, the grand poo-pah of the eighth grade committee, handed over budget money: $750. “That’s it?” I asked. I’m frugal, but come on, pulling off a decent meal on $1.50 per student will require a loaves-to-fishes miracle. But to be honest, the pauper’s budget is part of this project’s appeal.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been engaged in the challenge.I developed a strategy, found sources for cheap supplies, and recruited students to help. Someone came forward to sponsor the donuts, and two ladies offered to make fruit cups and yogurt parfaits. A food bank donated sausage – and it’s not even expired. Everything is coming together.
But the best part? I’m back.
Cancer took away my willingness to volunteer. But let the permanent record show: ready or not, I raised my hand. And it feels great.