How to Accept Help: Lesson from a Disabled Mother

Not so long ago I was on my way to a training on a Saturday morning in midtown. The training was scheduled to begin at 9:30am and I was in good time. When I stepped out of the Q subway at Harold Square it was about 9 o’clock and I was looking forward to being early with time to get a cup of tea and get settled.

As I pushed through the turn-style to leave the subway station, I noticed a little girl (probably about two or three years old) and a young mother with crooked legs with a giant duffle bag on the floor between them. The mother was clutching some tightly packed plastic bags, their handles entwined in her fingers. And she was just standing there staring at the giant duffle with her mouth hanging open.

I walked past the two of them and got to the bottom of the stairway to head up to street level, then looked back. They were still standing there with that giant bag on the ground. So I walked back and said “can I help take your bag up the stairs?”

A Very Long Block

The mother looked up at me with big eyes and said “yes, please” right away.  So I hauled the bag off the floor and threw the thick strap over my shoulder. The little girl gave me a bright look, and we set off to walk up the stairs.

I walked the 10 or 15 paces to the bottom of the stairway, then looked back and realized the mom was walking much slower than me. Her disability caused her to kind of lurch and shuffle at the same time. Plus her balance seemed further offset by the awkward plastic bags.

Gradually she made her way to the stairway, and one step at a time pulled herself up, up, up. The little girl could walk up fine, but kept in the general vicinity of her mother. The mother got a phone call part way up the stairs. It must’ve been a concerned relative. “Yes, we’re on our way… yes, I got everything. I’ve got the food…”

By the time we made it to the top of the stairs I was feeling a little concerned about the next leg of their journey.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“We gotta go to Penn Station. Amtrak.” said the mom. “Do you know how to get there?”

I did know. It was one long block away, and back down underground. But considering how long it took them to get up those stairs, and the amount of bags, and the little girl, it seemed like it might as well be a totally different borough.

“I’ll take you there” I said, assuming the mother would say no and shoo me off into my day.

But she just looked relieved and said “yes, thank you.”

“Can I take those other bags?” I asked.

“Yes.” She said. And she unwound the plastic bags from her fingers and gave them to me. I wrapped them around my hands. They were surprisingly heavy. It was probably the food they’d be eating on their journey to wherever.

As I distributed the various bags in my hands and adjusted the duffel over my shoulder, it was just so obvious that I should be the one carrying the bags. I spend my days building functional strength and posture into my body. They were heavy but it was a task I could easily handle. But what was unusually nice was how obvious it seemed to the young mother too, she didn’t resist the help in the slightest. Which felt strangely rare in that moment – that I didn’t have to fight to help her.

One wobbly step at a time, we made our way down the long wide sidewalk from 6th Ave to 7th Ave. The little girl danced along next to the Macy’s windows while her mother took one purposeful step at a time. It took about 10 minutes to traverse the block to 7th Ave. At the corner I pointed across the street at the entrance we’d need to go in. The mom took her daughter’s little hand and when the heavy flow of cars came to a stop, we took to the crosswalk.

Getting Through Penn Station

By the time we got to the entrance of Penn Station to go down underground, the mom was looking pretty tired and overwhelmed. Other travelers were streaming past us. “We just need to go down here, follow a couple hallways, and we’ll get to Amtrak.” I said. She nodded. We three stepped on the the escalator. The little girl gave me a radiant shining smile.

After stepping off the escalator we were again a slow-moving caravan following the signs from New Jersey Transit to the back of the station where Amtrak was. The mom told me which train they were taking: The Silverline to Miami that left at 11:02. They had obviously planned ample travel time.

We made it to the Amtrak waiting area at about 9:25 and the young mom showed the lady at the desk her ticket with the “disabled” mark on it. The lady at the desk pointed out some men in red shirts who could help with the bags when it was time to get on the train.

I walked the mom and her daughter over to some seats, and set their bags next to them. The mom sat down exhaustedly. I went and got a man in a red shirt to come over and say hi to them so he’d know to take care of them. Then I said “well, have a good trip!”

All the Thanks You Need

The mom looked up at me and said, “I don’t know what I would have done if you didn’t help us. Thank you.” Then she looked away. That was it. I waved at the little girl, then strode out of Penn Station and up onto the sidewalk towards my training.

As I walked away I felt so full, so in balance. It wasn’t an inner balance, but balance with the world around me. I was so grateful that this young mother had simply accepted that I was best suited to the job of carrying the bags and ushering them from the subway to Amtrak. It was so wonderful that she didn’t say “oh no you don’t have to” or gush about what a big favor I’d done them. She simply accepted the help, gave clear thanks, and we were both then off into our separate lives.

It is exhausting when people resist your help, when you are so obviously are the one who can pick up the slack or lend the extra needed hand. It is a profound gift when someone accepts your help with simple thanks.

And when you do help, do it because it is obviously needed and you obviously have it to give, not because you are going to get praise. Do it just because it makes sense. I don’t deserve praise for helping this young mother. But I should have been ashamed of myself if I hadn’t.

No woman is an island. By helping others you help yourself. By allowing help, you help others. It is through our interconnectedness that we each realize our wholeness.

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