Column: It’s More Than Just A Bagel

By Icy Frantz

Yesterday morning, I found myself pouting over something silly, something that for so many years would have made me ecstatic.

“Let me toast your bagel.”

“I got it, Mom.”

My son was heading off to his first day of work, having just graduated from college a week ago, and I desperately still wanted to be needed. I wanted to work my way into his ever-expanding world and lay claim to part of it, even if it meant simply toasting his bagel. Somehow, the act of toasting would be physical proof that I still had a job. We had been celebrating his success for a week, and now he was beginning new again, and I felt that familiar pang of being needed just a little less.

When I arrived home from a meeting a month ago, I found a puppy sitting in my mud room, looking up at me with wide eyes, seemingly asking, “Are you my mother?” I had no idea who he was or how he had found his way into our mud room, but I knew immediately, “Yes, in fact, I am.” My husband had surprised us, and although my friends all had similar reactions – “How can he do that?!!” –  I was thrilled. Oh, to be needed and needed I am: at 5 AM to be let out, to clean up poop on the breakfast room rug, to feed, and wash after a trip to the thick, smelly mud of the Long Island Sound.

An important and necessary part of being human is to be needed. I believe that is what makes parenting such an exhausting but thrilling job. And beyond parenting, there is the importance of being needed at work or by an organization or a school or by our aging parents or by our community. It gives us worth and value and nudges our insecurities aside. “You are relevant and important and your life has meaning.”

How many times have we heard about someone who retires after a lifelong career, only to find himself back in the workforce or sick or bored. We hear of the chronically unemployed who slips into a state of complete depression or the newly empty nester who is desperately trying to find new purpose. As human beings, we have a deep thirst to be needed, to be of service and to be useful, and we need to find a way to quench that thirst.

I am always amazed at the little coincidences in life. Just yesterday, I was waiting to pick up my daughter at school when I ran into a teacher, someone I had not seen for a while. We got to talking about an article I wrote for a prison blog, my new puppy, her plans to travel to Rwanda this summer and finally, the topic of this current piece. “If you are talking about need, you should really check out the VetDogs Prison Puppy Programs.” She said, and before I returned home, a link to the organization was in my inbox. (Thank you J.D.)

The organization is quite simple but truly extraordinary. Inmates raise and train puppies to work as service dogs for wounded veterans. It’s a win, win, win, win for everyone involved. The inmates’ commitment to the puppies provides more dogs to be placed with disabled veterans. The most skilled dogs come out of the prison puppy programs, so the veterans win. The inmate is able to give back to society and learn a valuable skill. Win. The correctional institutions with the puppy program are calmer and the puppies spend less time in the kennel and are able to be placed more quickly.

I have to believe that the underlying feeling of the inmate being needed by a living creature, a future service dog, is one that is both restorative and healing.

And, as important as it is to be needed, there are also times in life when we, too, are in need. It is so difficult to ask for help. It feels weak and burdensome. And yet, I would argue that asking for help comes from a place of strength, not weakness. Truthfully, we all find ourselves in moments when we need the help of others, someone to help scratch that itch that is just beyond our reach.

I received a special gift many summers ago when I spent three months in bed in Greenwich Hospital. I wasn’t sick, but pregnant with our twins who were knocking down the door to be let into this world far too early. So, there I lay and was forced to do something that was really difficult. I had to ask for help. I needed someone to wash my hair, care for my then one-year old son, and bring me mail. I needed help with everything. I have always thought of myself as self-sufficient, independent and capable (AKA a control freak) and my summer in bed was hard. I hated needing so much from so many people. And yet, it was a wonderful lesson. Life is a give and take, we need and we are needed, and both sides of the coin matter.

We live in a time of great material wealth in our country and yet, we hear more and more about the increase in mental health disabilities. Our communities and families are plagued with depression, anxiety, addiction and other negative feelings and disorders. We must be missing the point. I wonder if we created a society that makes it possible for all, no matter age, race or talent, to contribute to the greater good, could we change the trajectory of an individual’s life and in doing so, connect us in a way that would generate a much healthier environment? By guiding others towards opportunities where there is need and finding our own personal ways of giving, we might produce a society that is a win, win, win.

So, on my son’s second day at work, I tried a new tact. I noticed that my apple phone no longer asks if I want to update the operating system, but rather it has become automatic. With that in mind, I simply toasted the bagel and, when my son headed out the door to the train, I said 

“Hey, I toasted you a bagel.”

“Thanks, Mom,”

And, just like that I had staked my claim, for now, and then the puppy looked up at me with those endearing eyes, reminding me that I needed to let him out.