Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Giving the Gift and Who’s the Recipient

I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.

Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.

Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.

Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.

I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.

He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.

When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.

I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.

It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.

This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.Digital illustration: Stained Glass Flower

14 thoughts on “Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Giving the Gift and Who’s the Recipient

  1. Thank you for the lovely story which was extremely well written. You will probably find that you did more for this man than you actually realise. His gift to you must have some bearing to the fact that you were a pleasure to meet and not a hindrance. What doesn’t feel like much to oneself when helping may mean a lot to others and i’m sure this was the case in this instance. Now you help and inspire people in different ways. In every post that you write you take away a few minutes of a stressful day away; offering insight and words of wisdom with a dose of curiosity in to your life to a large number of readers. I’m sure i am not the only one to think this, (even if you don’t realise it.) 😉 Thank you

    • Thank *you*, Matt. I know from being on the receiving end myself that what might not have seemed like much to the giver can make a world of difference to me, but I think in the main, this particular episode unfolded over time to have so many layers of Ted’s generosity of spirit in his last days that it still fills me with awe and is a constant reminder that giving is never a one-sided transaction. 🙂

  2. Thank you, Kath! Grace, that unmerited favor, given freely. The person you describe yourself to be back then sounds so much like my own past (and sometimes present) person. To often I find myself in the “me” mode. The child afraid, insecure, and confused. Knowing the pain of others, but not sure how to respond to it. Your words have touched me today.

    • I’m glad you found something resonant in here, Tig. I suspect there are very few among us who deal truly confidently and selflessly with others’ needs, whether material or spiritual, so most of us still have plenty of room for growth. And patience with ourselves and each other, as a result. 😉

  3. You always write with such honesty Kathryn and that is what I love about your work. This post just has to be one of my favourites of tours, maybe because I too have had those same feelings you describe here. You most probably never knew the comfort your hand in his gave to him until maybe long after. But his gift to you speaks volumes. Thank you for sharing this heartwarming story, and for writing it so beautifully.

    • I have long since been told that many people with non-contagious illnesses (physical or otherwise), including the dying, feel most isolated because others are afraid or unwilling to touch them, so if the occasion makes it seem okay or appropriate, I try to make contact that way. It’s a good bridge for a person like me who is fearful more of the emotional contact than of the physical, and sometimes seems to allow surprising openings for the other person to let go of some of his/her fear at the same time. Being vulnerable is so frightening, but I try to remember that I’m not the only vulnerable person in the room! I can thank Ted for a lot of that, and many others since for helping me to understand what he was teaching me.

  4. What a lovely man! I think he realized your anxiety, Kathryn, and his gift was his way of ensuring you’d have positive memories of the experience. Few healthy individuals would be so thoughtful, let alone one so near death.

    • I think that’s what was so amazing to me, John. This man had all the reasons in the world to think of nobody but himself anymore, yet apparently he had completely let go of it. What a profound gift.

  5. Sometimes the most beautiful gifts come out of awkwardness, Kathryn. Your experience also speaks of how the briefest of interactions can have a great effect … as you did on this dying man and he had on you. They don’t have to be a constantly conscience part of our lives, but they are in the memory of our souls. XO

    • It’s what made me most fearful as a teacher, that power of the small things (words, gestures, interactions) to have long-term effects on those who share them. I worried constantly that I was putting a foot astray, whether in criticizing real problems or in challenging students that I was certain could do better. I only hope they had plenty of patience and compassion with *my* weaknesses. 🙂 Nowadays I try harder to focus on the positive things I *can* do and not to dwell on any real or imagined failures, and hope that it’s a healthier way for both parties. Still learning, to be sure!!!

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