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The notice was posted next to the tenants' mailboxes in the apartment building I'd just moved into in Brooklyn, New York. "A Mitzvah for Mrs. Green," it read. "Sign up to drive Mrs. G in #3B home from her chemotherapy treatments twice a month."
Since I wasn't a driver, I couldn't add my name, but the word mitzvah lingered in my thoughts after I went upstairs. It's a Hebrew word that means "to do a good deed," or "an act that expresses God's will." It is more than that, really, more like a commandment to do things for others.
And according to my grandmother, it also had another meaning. This was the one she was always pointing out to me because she'd notice how shy I was about letting people do things for me. "Linda, it's a blessing to do a mitzvah for someone else, but sometimes it's a blessing to let another person do something for you."
Grandma would be shaking her head at me right now. Several of my friends at the graduate school I attended nights had offered to help me settle in after the moving men left, but I'd said I could manage. Letting them help would have interfered with my image of myself as a capable and independent woman of 21.
Snowflakes had been tumbling past my window for several hours when it came time to leave for class. I pulled on two sweaters, a coat, a wool hat and boots, bundling up for the trek to the bus stop that the real estate agent had dismissed as a short stroll. Maybe in May it was a stroll, but in this December storm it was a hike. As I topped off my outfit with a blue scarf that Grandma had crocheted for me, I could almost hear her voice: "Why don't you see if you can find a lift?"
A thousand reasons why popped into my head: I don't know my neighbors; I don't like to impose; I feel funny asking for favors. Pride would not let me knock on a door and say, "It's a 10-minute ride by car but a long wait for the bus, and it's a 30-minute bus ride, so could you possibly give me a lift to school?"
I trudged to the bus stop, reaching it just as a bus went by.
Three weeks later, on the night of my final exam, the snow was falling steadily. I slogged through oceans of slush to the bus stop. For an hour, I craned my neck, praying desperately that a bus would come. Then I gave up. The wind at my back pushed me toward home, as I prayed, Dear God, how can I get to school? What should I do?
As I pulled Grandma's scarf more tightly around my neck, again I seemed to hear that whisper: Ask someone for a lift! It could be a mitzvah.
That idea had never really made sense to me. And even if I wanted to ask someone for a good deed, which I did not, there wasn't a soul on the street.
But as I shoved the door of my apartment building open, I found myself face to face with a woman at the mailbox. She was wearing a brown coat and had a set of keys in her hand. Obviously she had a car, and just as obviously, she was going out. In that split second, desperation overcame pride, and with my breath coming out in white puffs in the freezing hallway, I blurted, "Could you possibly give me a lift?" I hurriedly explained, ending with, "I never ask anybody for a lift, but ...
An odd look crossed the woman's face, and I added, "Oh! I live in 4R. I moved in recently.ö
"I know," she said. "I've seen you through the window. Then, after an almost imperceptible hesitation, "Of course. I'll give you a lift. Let me get my car key.ö
"Your car key?" I repeated. "Isn't that it in your hand?" She looked down. "No, no, I was just going to get my mail. I'll be right back." And she disappeared upstairs, ignoring my "Ma'am! Please! I don't mean to put you out!" I was terribly embarrassed. But when she came back, she spoke so warmly as we plodded our way to a garage across the street that I stopped feeling uncomfortable.
"You know the way better than I," she said. "Why don't you drive?"
"I can't," I said.
Now I felt inept again.
She just laughed and patted me on the hand, saying, "It's not so important," and then I laughed, too. "You remind me of my grandmother," I said.
At that, a slight smile crossed her lips. "Just call me Grandma Alice. My grandchildren do. And you are ...?" As she maneuvered her carone of those big cars, like a tankdown the slushy streets, I introduced myself.
When she dropped me off, I thanked her profusely and stood there waving as she drove away. My final exam was a breeze compared with the ordeal I'd gone through to get to it, and asking Grandma Alice for help had loosened me so that after class I was able to ask easily, "Is anyone going my way?" It turned out that while I'd been waiting for a bus every night, three fellow students passed my apartment house. "Why didn't you say something before?" they chorused.
Back home as I walked up the stairs, I passed Grandma Alice leaving her neighbor's apartment. "Good night, Mrs. Green. See you tomorrow," the neighbor was saying.
I nodded to them and was four steps up the staircase before the name registered in my brain. Mrs. Green. The woman with cancer. "Grandma Alice" was Mrs. Green.
I stood on the stairs, my hand covering my mouth, as the ... grotesqueness was the only word I could think of ... of what I had done hit me: I had asked a person struggling with cancer to go out in a snowstorm to give me a lift to school. "Oh, Mrs. Green," I stammered, "I didn't realize who you were. Please forgive me."
I forced my legs to move me up the stairs. In my apartment, I stood still, not taking my coat off. How could I have been so insensitive? In a few seconds, someone tapped on my door. Mrs. Green stood there.
"May I tell you something?" she asked. I nodded slowly, motioning her toward a chair, sinking down onto my couch. "I used to be so strong," she said. She was crying, dabbing at her eyes with a white linen handkerchief. "I used to be able to do for other people. Now everybody keeps doing for me, giving me things, cooking my meals and taking me places. It's not that I don't appreciate it because I do. But tonight before I went out to get my mail, I prayed to God to let me feel like part of the human race again. Then you came along ..."
(c)1988 by Guideposts, Carmel, NY 10512. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Chicken Soup for the Surviving Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Patty Aubery, Nancy Mitchell, R.N. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.