The Give and Take of Gratitude
M. gave me a box of biscotti to thank me for saving her life.
But I didn’t save her life. Our neighbor Kate discovered M.’s pugs roaming the neighborhood and knocked on her door to no answer, not realizing that around the corner, M.’s garage door was open as was the door into the mudroom—steps from where she was unconscious and seizing on the kitchen floor. When another neighbor mentioned the open garage door, Kate went back to M.’s house for a second look. From inside the garage, she heard M. laboring to live. She followed that sound.
I was at a bakery, picking out cupcakes with my kids when Kate called from M.’s house a half hour later. The paramedics had arrived, and the police were on their way.
“She has type 1 diabetes,” I told Kate as quickly and clearly as I could.
My nine-year-old son overheard. All afternoon he repeated, “She has type 1 diabetes. She has type 1 diabetes,” with whispered intensity. “She has type 1 diabetes.”
M. is a neighbor and a casual friend. Because her eldest son is the same age as my son, I put extra effort into getting to know her family when they moved two houses down from ours over the winter before the pandemic began. I’d encourage friendship with anyone who lives that close, short of an animal torturer.
Soon after a pool was installed in their backyard, M. invited us for a swim. The kids divided up along family lines, occupying different parts of the backyard and pool areas and playing with their own siblings. Just as M. and I were connecting, my kids started to yell at each other, taking a few swipes. That was my cue to gather them and go.
“Stop by anytime!” she said. “If we aren’t outside, just ring our bell.”
Really? Anytime? With my two?
We swam in their pool whenever they invited us, our kids splashing in a smaller circumference around each other, though never developing the rhythm of friendship. But M. and I did, chatting poolside as Mom colleagues in the parallel struggles of parenting and family chaos in the midst of Covid. Once, when she had to step inside for a work meeting, I reffed the water-based basketball game, feeling bored without the amusement of a friend.
Every time I let us through the backyard gate, I carried food for all five kids. A plate of cookies I had baked, then a bowl of melon or a pile of grapes.
“It’s really not necessary,” M. said. Once we’d gotten to know each other better, she was more firm with me. “Please just come. Don’t bring anything.”
I got her meaning. The pool-for-food exchange added a layer of formality. I had meant the food as a gesture of appreciation, not as compensation for her generosity, but a counterpoint to it. Once she insisted I not bring it, I realized that the gesture undercut the friendship forming between us.
Three days after Kate rescued her, M. stopped by with biscotti. She stood outside my front door with her pugs, the skin around her right eye a tie-dye pattern of yellow-and-blue bruising.
“It’s good to see you looking so well,” I said, with mixed relief and disbelief. Her pugs jumped at me and jogged back as I tried to pet them, their leashes in her hand as they often were when I met them in the street.
When I asked how she was, she described some tenderness in her face, gesturing toward the bruising. Her tongue had gotten torn up when she was seizing and that made it hard to eat. “But I’m fine, really, no headaches even. What I feel above all else is extremely grateful that my kids have a mom today, and that’s because of you,” she said, holding out a box of chocolate-covered gourmet biscotti for me to take.
Common etiquette offers this simple application of gratitude: when we are struck by unexpected kindness, we distinguish the person who is responsible. We praise the brave. The riskier the action, the greater our gratitude. Similarly, the riskier the outcome would have been in the absence of heroics—as was the case with M.—the larger the statue we encase our hero in.
But gratitude is not always grand. Sometimes it’s a courtesy—the plate of cookies or bowl of fruit I brought as a swim snack. A child thanks a friend’s parents for a delicious dinner, but rarely their own. Parents instruct their children to interact with restaurant staff with a balance of clarity and deference. In these ways, gratitude acknowledges a power differential. It serves as a custom of politeness to people outside our circle.
On the day of M.’s emergency, I dropped my kids at home with cupcakes, then walked to her house where my husband was helping the police track down hers. I’d never seen so many police in one place. Because she’d been found with a head injury behind a cascade of open doors, the police treated her house as a crime scene and looked for a suspect.
A paramedic asked if she had any medical conditions and I told him about her type 1 diabetes, even though he must have seen the insulin pump implanted in her body. An officer asked about her kids, their names, probable whereabouts, and the names of their schools. I knew the answers to all of the questions, and after I provided them, I offered to pick up the kids until I realized that I didn’t have a car seat for their three-year-old. His was locked in M.’s car, and none of us knew where the keys were.
“We are taking her to Boston,” the detective said. That meant her condition was too serious for the local hospital.
As they’d rolled her out of the house on a stretcher toward the ambulance, I heard her keening and turned to see her body swaying in what appeared to me as a wretched fight for life. That sound—I turned away from it in tears. Someone slid her into the ambulance where her muffled cries still echoed. She wasn’t wearing a mask—of course. Conscious M. would have felt uneasy about that, had she the privilege of awareness and her usual concerns.
When we’re frail, our options narrow.
Why can't I touch M.’s box of biscotti? It sits on our kitchen counter, half empty now. My kids are sampling the flavors and textures and my husband enjoys them, too, but I can’t go near them.
To M., I was there on the day that she was saved, but to me, I was there on the day that she nearly died. Being in the quake zone of her vulnerability drew me closer to her than I’d been. When she stopped by three days later, I couldn’t believe that she was standing before me with dogs swirling at her feet, looking like a healthy, living person, and offering me a box of biscotti for my trouble. My trouble?
Being a witness to her medical emergency made me feel part of it, a striking reminder of how vulnerable all of us are to catastrophe. Whether the information I shared about her condition had helped her get medical treatment seemed irrelevant to me—a cavalier stance that only a healthy person can have.
The biscotti cut me down to size. It excused me from the intimacy summoned by that day, intimacy that M. didn’t choose. It put me in my place.
The snacks I brought to ingratiate my family to hers back when our friendship was on the upswing—they were clutter that M. had removed, static that obscured the quality of our connection. But she brought food back when she needed clutter and static to separate from her medical emergency. The food served as a reset button on our friendship, but more importantly, it gave her agency. It gave her an active role in her recovery.
This is our story, but it’s mostly hers—her story to live with. Her story to heal from.
Waking up in a hospital room, M. had to piece together how she got there. Long before her husband was questioned as the primary suspect in her potential attempted homicide, M. took her dogs out for a morning walk. Something was not right, but she didn’t yet know that the device she trusted to monitor her blood sugar was malfunctioning, reporting her glucose levels as normal, double what they actually were. She couldn’t close the garage door when she got back, unsure of which button to press. She ambled into the kitchen and fainted, hitting her face on the stone island as she collapsed.
This was not her first diabetic low, although it was the worst, the closest she had come to death. Had she not been rescued before her husband returned home from work that night, she would have died, the doctors said. But, because her dogs fled through the open door, leading our neighbor Kate back to M., miraculously, she was now fine. Brain scans revealed no damage. She checked out of the hospital on the very same day the ambulance rushed her to it. Home by midnight.
How does a person make sense of that experience and slip back into the ordinary responsibilities of adulthood under the palpable threat of sudden frailty? She puts miles between herself and the trauma by addressing the practical fallout. It becomes a ritual, gratitude a step like any other in the process. It goes like this.
The next morning, she calls the device company to log a complaint. She vows to back up the device readings with finger pricks. She texts friends and family that she’s okay. When she’s able, she buys boxes of biscotti for her neighbors and drops them off along with her profound and heartfelt thanks, before returning home for a 4:00p.m. meeting.
"This essay--like so many--was a literary exorcism. I was haunted by the biscotti gift I received, even long after it had been eaten by my family. So I treated the biscotti as I would any ghost. I unearthed its story."
Jenn Scheck-Kahn is a writer and instructor, whose essays and short fiction have appeared in the Washington Post, Poets & Writers Magazine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, and other literary magazines. She's the founder of Journal of the Month, a subscription service that sends an assortment of literary magazines to writers on a regular basis. Find out more about her at www.jennscheckkahn.com.
Jenn Scheck-Kahn reads from "The Give and Take of Gratitude"