It is easy to share the personal highlight reel of my life, but I will stutter if you ask me the last time I truly felt vulnerable. I enjoy being independent and do not ask for help from others unless I am put in a tough spot. The first time I purchased a car on my own my parents offered financial assistance, but instead of accepting their offer, I picked up extra jobs to save up. When I was in college, I paid for my own tuition with scholarships and by working part-time. Like many young adults, I take pride in my independence and find it jarring to be put in a position where I have to ask for help.
That all changed when I was in a car accident this winter. The wheels that carried me to work and social outings and on road trips were no more. And, mind you, I live in the Midwest where 10˚ feels good on a brisk January morning. Not having a car meant that getting to work would take the careful negotiating of transit schedules, and sometimes it meant calling up a co-worker to get a ride. I was used to offering rides, not asking for them.
I gave up some personal freedom and in exchange was truly forced to reach out and connect with others on a level that exposed my vulnerability — asking for help. I realized that in many instances post-accident, I had to be bold in my requests from friends and strangers. The Sunday following my car accident, I approached a neighbor who also attended my parish and asked for a ride. I peeled back the layers of vulnerability, outwardly admitting that I needed help from her.
During the week, I was walking to work on freezing winter mornings. One day my boss casually mentioned he’d seen me walking down the street toward work. Instead of brushing off the comment, I answered truthfully, admitting that I was in a car accident and carless. I also said that I was asking co-workers for rides. Sharing my personal struggles with others was new to me.
On the January morning of the accident, the high temperature for the day was -20˚, and I had to find a warm place to wait for a tow truck. The tax preparation place where I waited for the next six hours somehow ended up being a place of rest. A gentleman who worked there shared that he was Catholic and also involved in his church. I asked for his prayers for myself and for the other driver, who actually fled the scene after the accident. Again, I was so used to offering prayers instead of asking for them.
Depending on others and asking strangers and loved ones to help enabled me to share more genuinely what my needs and struggles were. No longer was I the one who would walk around saying, “Oh, I’m doing fine.” I learned to tell people easily about the accident and they offered support, or a kind word, or a suggestion of a dealership.
Believing in the method of always paying it forward, I became eager and maybe a little desperate to find opportunities to help others. In a way, I wanted to give back to all the strangers and angels who helped me through a tough winter. Looking for an immediate opportunity to do that led me back to my parish on Ash Wednesday. The parish staff was looking for people to distribute ashes to homebound parishioners that day. I work near my parish and decided to volunteer. Without a car, though, that meant putting in some legwork. Since I had to walk instead of drive, the distribution of ashes became a pilgrimage. It meant having moments of solitude and silence to talk to God with only the sound of soft snow beneath my boots.
That mini-pilgrimage to distribute ashes to two homes was transformational, and I was glad to have had to do it walking instead of driving. My first visit of the day was to the home of an octogenarian couple. I was not expecting the wife to be bedridden. With her husband close by the bed railing we shared stories of our parish, and we felt connected. We prayed a simple prayer and read the Gospel together.
This was a rare moment in my overscheduled life. The moment I smudged ashes upon their foreheads I felt like I was being transformed. It helped me to see beyond myself. I guessed that this couple had to ask for more than occasional help or rides to and from places. Witnessing their simplicity and humility, I was able to see myself not as a woman who was able to serve but as someone who is a companion.
I cried when I walked away from their apartment. It was not out of pity that tears rolled down my face. Being without a car, I was forced to literally slow down and be patient with myself in many ways. Walking back to work that afternoon, I felt as if God was walking with me and enjoying our moment together.