Time Out

Time Out

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress


Time Out

I had just spent another long, hot, tiring day helping Janet, my best friend, get her house in order. Over the last two weeks, we had cleaned out three rooms, thrown out years of correspondence and files, and organized her medical and financial papers. We’d also boxed half her book collection and bagged three-quarters of her clothes and knickknacks. Since her strength and concentration were waning from the aftermath of radiation treatment for brain cancer, she spent most of her time sitting or lying down while I did the boxing, bagging and carrying stuff downstairs.

By the end of the day, which marked the second full week of the organizing process, I was almost as tired as she was. Her doctor had told her she needed to move out of her two-story house because she wouldn’t be able to do the stairs much longer. She had already begun making plans to move in with her ex-husband, who had a main floor bathroom and a living room that would double as her bedroom.

We didn’t have much time left. She wanted to get rid of anything she didn’t need in case… although we never said the words, there was the underlying fear that once she moved out she might not come back.

I took the last box downstairs and returned to Janet’s bedroom. “That’s it,” I said, rubbing my back, which was protesting all the physical labor. “Everything boxed or bagged is on the front porch waiting for pickup.” I gazed around the room. “In the twenty years I’ve known you, this room has never looked better.”

She sighed. “Who knew radiation would turn me into a better housekeeper? Though you’re the one doing all the work.”

“Hey, that’s what a best friend is for.” I almost said she could return the favor some day but stopped. Once her cancer had metastasized to her brain, lungs and liver, the chances of her ever being able to do that for me were close to nil. She didn’t need me to remind her. I bit my lip to hold the words in and forced a smile. “Just don’t tell my mother I did a great job on your house or she’ll expect me to do the same on mine.”

Knowing my mother, Janet smiled. “You’d better go home or your cats will think you’ve abandoned them.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” Although I knew her older daughter Denise, who was living with her, would be back soon, I hesitated.

She shook her head and settled herself more comfortably in bed. “Thanks. I mean it. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

I nodded, still worried about leaving her alone. Then thinking of the forty-five-minute trip home, I let myself out.

A streetcar, a subway, and a bus later, I dragged myself up the stairs and into my house. I dumped my bag in the foyer and crashed on the couch. The last two weeks of helping Janet had used up all my energy. My own house was a mess. Dishes were piled in the sink and on the counters. My living room looked as if a hurricane had torn through it, leaving newspapers, books, papers and files all over the floor, coffee table and chairs. The rest of my house was no better.

I fed the cats. Then, too tired to cook, I ate a cheese and marmalade sandwich, promising myself I would go grocery shopping soon. Promising myself I would start to eat healthy again. Promising myself I would go back on my diet. Promising myself I would… the list went on and on.

As I started to nod off on the couch, I reminded myself I hadn’t checked my e-mail since I left for Janet’s that morning. I heaved myself off the couch and trudged down the hallway to my office. Closing my eyes to the mess, I turned on the computer.

Damn, there were two e-mails from the moderator of my online writing group. I read the first one and realized I had forgotten to send in the weekly writing exercise for the group. The next e-mail said several of the members had asked what happened to that week’s exercise. Joyce, the moderator, was going to wait another hour before sending in an exercise herself. I checked my watch. That was three hours ago.

I zipped off an e-mail. “Joyce, I’m so sorry. I just forgot. I’ll do it next week. I promise.”

She responded within ten minutes. “Are you sure? I know you’re under a lot of stress with Janet being so sick. I can easily get someone else to do it. Maureen and Fiona both volunteered because they know how swamped you are. Or I can do it.”

I began typing my response. “No, it’s okay. I’ll just write it in my calendar.” Then I stopped. Sending in the exercise only took a few minutes, but right then I didn’t have those few minutes, let alone the energy or mental capacity. Here were three people offering to help and my first response was to refuse, to hold onto yet another commitment. But this time it was a commitment that could easily be done by someone else.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

Erasing what I had typed, I started again. “Joyce, thank you. I know Maureen, Fiona or you will do a wonderful job.”

I turned off the computer and returned to the living room. Books and papers were still piled everywhere but I realized that in the grand scheme of things, a neat living room, kitchen or office weren’t even on the same list as helping a friend. The mess would still be there tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. I would get to it when I could.

Right now, however, I needed a time out from responsibilities and expectations, mostly my own. I dug into a pile of books, found one that looked like a fun read, and settled in for a relaxing evening.

~ Harriet Cooper ~

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