My daughter, the Helper.
I announce this morning that I’m heading out to water the flowers and put a few of the veggies into the ground.
Opal, now 20 months, scurries up from a seated position, stumbling over herself and tripping her pants to a half-mast position, anxiously exclaiming Opal Hepyoo! (Opal Help You!) She’d abruptly emerged from intently focusing on the workings of her new Duplo-blocks, specifically the Dalmatian with paws that fit like a puzzle into the hollows. So I am shocked by the velocity in which she speeds forth.
She is instantly at my feet repeating outside-outside to herself, the way her thoughts often leak out in sort of a prayer-like whisper, looking up with the eager expression of a little girl who hungers for practice in Big Girl Activities. A look that is oh-so common these days.
She tromps behind me with safer, snub-nosed and plastic versions of gardening tools and crouches next to me, purposefully making messes and flinging dirt in her best interpretation of what mommy is doing. She helps me water the flowers by lifting the elephant watering can with all her might as the water trickles from the holes in its sturdy trunk down her arms and onto her shoes. Opal Hepyoo! Opal do it! she says to herself as she’s working, with eyebrows pinched into a face of acute concentration. An impressive amount of dirt is smeared on her shirt and face.
In the house, she steals items that are nestled in their proper places and delivers them to their rightful owners. Shoes from the shoe-rack, (Here mama, shoes!!) laptops left overnight on the couch to charge (Here mama, pyooter!) and half-glasses of water set too close to the edge of the table are things she sees as her responsibility to announce and deliver. We usually catch her as she heads towards them but there have been a few incidents of laptops having been dropped right next to her toes and glasses of water sloshing about in the hand-over.
She relishes making these kinds of announcements. When we had our dear friend Lisa visit with us for a few chunks of days, Opal noticed Lisa-things more readily because they were new and different. What dat, mama? she would say. Those are Lisa’s shoes/sunglasses/clothes, honey. To which Opal would respond to with LISAAA!!!! SHOOOES!!! Wanting and expecting for Lisa to materialize immediately to receive the blessed found-object.
Ever the helper.
A 30-second trip downstairs to throw a load of laundry into the dryer takes a good 20 minutes with a helping toddler-in-tow. She wants to go down the stairs herself—one at a time, some on her belly, some on her bottom, pausing to consider the cat’s scratching post, notches in the paint, fuzzies in the carpet —with mama standing by to remind her to keep moving. Once we reach the end of the stairs—hurray!—she races for the cat’s food and water, hollering Kitty Food! with the special sense of pride that comes with having noticed something before the adult did. After filling the kitty’s food and water and accomplishing the original task at hand whilst keeping an eye on the toddler who roams a very not-child-proof basement, we return upstairs one step at a time. Opal carries an object of interest she discovered during our Voyage Below in one hand, a book or a cat toy, as she shuffles up up up.
Helping daddy get the mail is a responsibility she takes very seriously. He makes a big adorable deal out of the whole thing, saying Opal, Daddy needs help getting the mail! She squeals with delight as he scoops her up and carries her to the mailbox a few houses down. I can hear them coming back up the walk as he says this one’s for mommy, this one’s for daddy, this one’s for Opal (junk mail). She barely waits for her fleshy little feet to touch the floor before barreling over to me with a pile of mail hollering HERE MAMA! HERE MAMA! MAIL!
The overwhelming desire of a child her age to help is heart-wrenching (if not a bit inconvenient at times). When Opal is in mid-tantrum, digging her tiny heels in the carpet with no desire or intention to budge, moments when a battle of the wits seems immanent, there are times when a simple request for her help dissolves the entire agenda. The NEED to be of assistance trumps whatever bristly emotion was ruling the show for her.
I’ve been considering this whole thing quite a lot lately. As I have mentioned before, my current livelihood is made giving massage to ladies with Alzheimer’s. There are a few of my clients who like to wander, to walk and pace and constantly be in motion. One, in particular, gets up numerous times during our massage sessions and walks down the hall or into her bathroom to fidget with the nozzles on the toiletry bottles. The one thing that brings her back to the couch or edge of the bed is to ask her to come help me with something, something as simple folding a Kleenex.
I have another client who doesn’t particularly like to be massaged but it was prescribed by her doctor and is necessary for the circulation of her aging body. When she starts to show resistance I tell her that I’m just learning how to do this and could she please help me to learn by letting me practice on her? Oh sure, dear, she’ll say, and who are you again?
From where I stand, the inherent aspiration to be of service is just as present long before the rules of society are imprinted into a person as it is long after those rules have fallen away. And if this need to help is just as much a part of us—a part of our being— as muscles and eyelashes, I must admit I’m a bit curious when and why these actions become subject to feeling like a drag, like something to arbitrarily resist. It seems to me there is something about the eventual learned need to rush, to get it done and get on with the next thing, that threatens to bury the joy in helping, accomplishing, feeling purposeful in all of it.
I’ll just say this: it requires some real effort to be humdrum about executing a task when a tinier version of yourself is executing the same task right next to you in her gleeful, unbridled, little-girl way. It also requires effort not to break out into a spontaneous Mambo Italiano! song and dance while the whole thing gets done in a manner that is forced to be as un-rushed and harlequin as a musical. With the toddler front and center working tirelessly as producer, director and star performer of a world in which she is an indispensable player, I’ve found it to be wisest to simply go along for the ride. It never ceases to surprise me to learn that just as much gets accomplished wearing Mardi Gras beads and stickers. Eventually.