About a year ago my husband and I signed up our family of four to deliver Meals on Wheels once every six weeks to elderly residents around town. It seemed like the perfect family volunteer opportunity.
What we didn’t anticipate was the mutiny.
Our sons, Noah and Rowan, resisted this family activity from the start. Rowan got carsick and complained of headaches and nausea as we crisscrossed town. Eventually I got smart and handed half of a chewable Dramamine tablet to him before we left the house. But while the pill dispelled the queasiness, it left him groggy and did nothing to improve his attitude.
Meanwhile, Noah couldn’t tolerate the smell of the cooked food that wafted from the warming bins stashed in the back of the mini-van. Broccoli days were the worst. To combat the pungent odor we rolled the windows all the way down, even in mid-February, and blasted the heat while Noah sat hunched, knees to chest, his T-shirt pulled up to the bridge of his nose.
One Saturday my husband suggested that Noah smear Vicks VapoRub under his nose. The heavy menthol scent masked the stench of the food, and that, combined with the frigid air circulating throughout the van, was enough to keep Noah from gagging.
Despite our heroic comfort measures, though, the boys still complained relentlessly. “Why do we do this?” whined Rowan. “I hate it! It’s so boring, and it takes so long.”
“We choose to suffer a little to help those who suffer a lot,” I lectured one day from the driver’s seat, turning up the volume of the “Jesus CD,” as my kids call it, in an effort to drown out their complaints with Christian music.
“This is not suffering a little,” said Noah, in a muffled voice from the backseat. “This is suffering a lot.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror, prepared to launch another lecture about the importance of serving, when I caught sight of my ten-year-old. His brown eyes swam with tears as he held the VapoRub container clamped around his nose like a feed bag.
That was the day we quit Meals on Wheels.
Later that night I struggled to compose an email to Rhoda, the program coordinator. It seemed over-the-top to mention the gagging and the VapoRub and the tears, so I finally explained that delivering Meals on Wheels simply didn’t work well for our family. It was the truth, but it felt more like a declaration of failure.
Rhoda’s gracious response should have freed me: "I absolutely understand…You need to do what’s right for your family." Yet, as I closed the laptop, a dull ache lingered deep in my gut.