After all these years, relearning 'please' and 'thank you'

Helplessness following an injury brings reminders of the meaning of friendship

March 05, 2012|Susan Reimer

"Please" and "thank you." Teaching those words are the first steps parents take in the civilizing of their children. How to ask for something politely and with humility and how to express gratitude for something freely given.

Strange that it should be so hard for me to do that now, all these years later. So hard to find the words to ask for help and the words to say how grateful I was.

Faithful readers know that I fell — over absolutely nothing on my kitchen floor — and broke both bones in my ankle. It took surgery and some metal parts to put me back together.

It happened in early January, just as my sportswriter husband was packing his bags for the National Football League playoffs. He was as likely to get time off then as I would have been had I asked for it in the middle of childbirth. When he left for the airport, I was on painkillers, but I think he felt worse.

I have lots of girlfriends, and there are good neighbors all around me. My daughter lives five minutes away. It was not the medication that made me stumble over my words when I tried to ask for a hand. It wasn't even my pride — though I needed help with the most basic things — or my wish not to be a bother to anyone.

And it wasn't that I didn't have it coming. Like so many women, I have an attic full of good karma. We spend our lives helping each other out. We never tally up the favors. We just hope we will never need to redeem them.

But I did need those favors. All of them. And when it was time to ask for them, the requests stuck in my throat like tears. I am not sure why. Perhaps we would all rather be helping than helpless.

Having messed up the whole "please" part of what was turning out to be a difficult lesson, I then proceeded to screw up the "thank you" part, too.

Those two words seemed completely inadequate when compared to the vulnerability and the fear from which my friends rescued me. So I searched my catalogs and the Internet for gifts for the friends who stood guard while I showered so I didn't fall again. The neighbor who took me in that first weekend when I was so afraid to be alone. The friend who insisted on taking me to the doctor when my brain was clouded by pain. The friend who took me to get my hair cut so I wouldn't look as bad as I felt.

But there was nothing in any catalogs that would say a suitable "thank you" to a daughter much too young to care for a helpless mother the way my sisters and I, much older, had cared for our fading mother. So I popped for her groceries when she shopped for mine and hid my tears from her. There they were again. Those tears.

I know now that I had it all wrong.

By trying to reward my friends for their unselfishness, I was robbing them of the real rewards of friendship: The feeling you get — but never mention in polite company — when you know you have done a good deed.

And I should have known better.

When my friend Annie shattered her leg (she has been in a wheelchair or on crutches since September), I could not have been happier than to go to the local garden center and buy her mums in the colors she requested.

This was a favor different from delivering dinner in Tupperware or guarding against disaster during a shower. This was a bonus favor. It was a fun favor. One that made her confinement more endurable in a way that picking up the dry cleaning could not have.

Annie eventually invited everyone who helped her to dinner. But I never considered that a thank you. That was a party.

The real "thank you" came later — when she hobbled up my driveway on crutches to bring me dinner. She couldn't get up the steps and I couldn't get down. We just laughed at our mutual incapacity.

And I said, "Thank you." Because sometimes only words will do.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is

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