Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

August 28, 2010

“Here. Make Yourself Useful”

Today was my Mom’s birthday.  She would have been 82.  August 27th…

Always on these anniversaries, thoughts float by like leaves on the top of  an ever-moving river.  I am always reminded of how much time continues to pass, even when we cannot account for it. 

Today I heard her voice many times.  When I was a kid, I would come home and she would be there cleaning the windows or something.  She’d toss me a rag and say, “Here.  Make yourself useful.”  Seemed anytime I was just standing there or sitting there, doing nothing, she would put me to good use.  Toss me a rag, hand me a bag of groceries, a pile of corn needing to be shucked.  “Here….”

I was thinking about how many brain injury survivors write to me believing that they are no longer useful.  Caught in neutral.  Stuck.  No longer moving.  Seems we lose what we were able to do and, suddenly, we measure ourselves as having lost our worth, our usefulness, our good measure.

When I was thinking about my Mom’s words today, suddenly it occurred to me: 

I think we’ve been looking at things all wrong.

We’ve been looking at what we can no longer do and judging ourselves now worthless and useless.  I think the secret is, instead, to look around us at the people who cannot do things any longer and then get busy.

I don’t know about you but people in my life are way busy.  Rushing.  Overworked.  Overwhelmed.  Oh, how they are busy.  They have their multiple jobs and multiple kids and multiple obligations…No time, no time, no time…

They sure don’t need me to be a hotel catering manager.  Funny how that works…

One of them works long days and so I do his laundry.  One works long days and so I go check on and feed her cat.   I watch dogs when people go on vacation or take people to eye appointments when they know they’ll be dilated.   I’ll pick up and drop off lunch for someone too busy to leave work or take packages up to the post office for someone who can’t make it there before they close.

Because the people in my life all know I spend way too much time on the Internet, they’ll ask me to look something up for them, to check facts, figure out new meds they’re taking or do a little research on whatever because I have more time.

Because they all know I love to edit and write, they’ll have me check their resumes and business correspondence.  I’ll write speeches for them and admissions letters.  I’ve done proposals and eulogies and whatever people have trouble writing.

And more.

A friend of mine has very sore hands from arthritis so I’ll turn knobs and open jars.  Another gets a sore neck and forearm from work so I’ll massage it.  Another gets terrible sinus headaches so I’ll massage her head and neck as well.  There’s a bugger of a sciatica on one that acts up and a knotted shoulder blade on another.

None of these have anything to do with the catering career I lost to my injury.  But I’ll tell you that, while doing any of them, I feel a lot of things and none of them are useless.  None of them are worthless or unimportant or no longer valid.

I’m helping and it feels fabulous.

When someone needs me to help relieve a horrible headache or back pain or get a letter edited that needs to be in the mail in the morning or a package that needs to get to the post office, they sure don’t care that I can no longer work a twenty hour day choreographing someone’s wedding.

And the best part is-neither do I.

There was one survivor who used to write to me and tell me that he’d spend all his days yelling at God and watching his wife carry on the family chores he used to do.  He’d offer up commentary on how she would drag in the groceries and she’d often bring home lettuce when they already had lettuce.   He said that she was overwhelmed doing so much and would often make mistakes.  He was good at reporting how she failed in the jobs he used to do so well.

I asked him if he ever helped her make the grocery list, helped her do the shopping, maybe surprise her when she returned home to a clean house and a drawn bath.  Did he ever do the laundry for her or rub her shoulders after her long day or make something for dinner or pour her a glass of wine…


My Mom was a tough bugger.  I’ll never forget the time she accidentally dumped a huge pot of boiling water on her belly and never even told us.  A few days later I happened to see her reach up to hang sheets on the line and her blouse blew open to reveal monstrous, angry burn blisters literally the size of water balloons.  She never said a word.  Never complained.

So, when someone like that tosses a rag your way and tells you, “Here.  Make yourself useful,”  you get busy.

You didn’t want her asking twice.


What I’m thinking that, for all of us so stuck in neutral because of the things we can do no longer, maybe it’s time someone tosses us a rag.  Maybe it’s time we stop looking at ourselves and consuming ourselves with just ourselves.

Time moves us forward.  Propels us so.  New things demand our time, our energies, our commitments.   We can’t carry them all.  If we are going to participate in our lives and in the lives of others, then we have to set those old things down so we can take up the new ones. 

Nobody needs us falling back on the hike.  We need to keep up.  And, in order to keep up, we need to get up.  To “make ourselves useful.” 

Time to grab a rag and get busy.

I honestly don’t think that the people in our lives cast us off and strike us from the list of useful because we can no longer do all that we once did.  We’re the only ones that do that to ourselves.

If we choose to help others, we reclaim our place amongst the doing.   We are helping, we are contributing, we are making things easier on the people we love.   There is nothing useless about that, any way you look at it.

If you do a load of laundry for someone who’s working long hours or you clean up their place so they can come home from their second job to a tidy house, do you think they consider you useless?   If you’re the one who has time to let out their dogs or feed their cat or pick up their drycleaning or run some packages up to the post office for them, do you think they imagine you worthless?

Not for a second.

Helping out and making ourselves vital members of any team doesn’t take any extraordinary set of training or skill.  Only simple desire and some time that so many of us find ourselves with.  All we have to do is look and listen.   It doesn’t take much to please someone who is busy and overloaded in their day.  Do their ironing for them.  Give them a night off from making dinner.  Run up to the store for something they forgot.  Give them a nice long foot massage…

We won’t find participation and investment and keeping up and being a part anywhere we look if we are using only our own inabilities as measure.  But if we focus on the inabilities of those we love instead and try to make things easier on them, however small an act may seem, we will feel anything but useless.  

If my Mom were here, I’ll bet she’d toss you a rag and tell you the same thing.  🙂



  1. I agree with your latest post!! And all of them for that matter. Today, I was up before my mom and dad, I went out and go the paper, let the dogs out, and emptied the dishwasher. I could tell that they were appreciative even though it wasn’t that big of a deal.

    Comment by Stephanie — August 28, 2010 @ 6:14 pm | Reply

    • I betcha it was a big deal to them! 🙂 Brava, Stephanie. Way to go!!!

      Comment by karaswanson — August 29, 2010 @ 6:05 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Kara…more wise words from your pen. I hope you know how valuable and useful they – and you- are to those of us who read them.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts
    C xx

    Comment by Christa — August 28, 2010 @ 6:14 pm | Reply

  3. And you are a gem, Christa. Thank you. 🙂

    Comment by karaswanson — August 29, 2010 @ 6:05 pm | Reply

  4. Right on, Kara and Mrs. Swanson. My Mom used to use the same phrase, another tough old bird. She also used another phrase when she just needed a hand, something fetched, something folded, something picked up…”Wanna make yourself famous?” She’d say. Proving how true your words are, Kara. It’s the little things that people appreciate and that make you “famous” in their hearts.

    Comment by Lynn — August 29, 2010 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

  5. […] August 31, 2010 in Personal Experiences with TBI Kara Swanson has a great post here: https://karaswanson.wordpress.com/2010/08/28/here-make-yourself-useful/ […]

    Pingback by Great post about being of use « Broken Brain – Brilliant Mind — August 30, 2010 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

  6. So true. Very insightful thoughts and good, old armchair (or cleaning rag) wisdom. See, you are being very useful here too! It is up to all of us to find our own worth within ourselves and not from a paycheck or title or looks or whatever. Having a brain injury, as I do also, makes us dig a little deeper and look a little harder still.

    In some ways that has been the blessing in disguise of this ABI. It has made me realize my value…even though I talk funny and don’t write nearly as well as I used to among many other things. It is always our choice as to how to see the world and ourselves. Check out my journey at http://thebestbrainposibble.blogspot.com. Thank you for your wise words.

    Comment by Debbie Hampton — August 30, 2010 @ 9:22 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for writing, Debbie. I’m glad you’ve found good in yours as well. Best wishes to you.

      Comment by karaswanson — August 31, 2010 @ 12:29 am | Reply

  7. In my work, researching how survivors rebuild their lives after a brain injury, there appears to be a direct correlation between volunteering and life satisfaction. Get out of the house, help someone, and make new friends, all at the same time. It’s probably the best single thing you can do for yourself, as well as for someone else.

    Comment by Garry Prowe — September 1, 2010 @ 10:13 am | Reply

    • I sure agree, Garry. We spend so much time being helped and aided after our injuries. It changes the mindset. Getting out and helping someone really feeds the self esteem and allows us to step out from under the umbrella of the aided for a while. It balances things out a bit. Gives us the opportunity to see our strengths and abilities. Just plain feels good. 🙂 Thanks for writing.

      Comment by karaswanson — September 1, 2010 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  8. Hi Kara,
    My mother was born on Aug 6th, 1925 and the day goes much as you reflected about your mom. I still pick up things thinking she would like ‘this or that’, thinking she was still here.
    Your Mom sounds like my sort of gal. I have a sign out by the barn that says “pull up yer bootstraps and get er DONE!”
    I will think of your mom every time I dust.
    Blessings to you my friend!

    Comment by Barb G — September 6, 2010 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: