Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Accidental Angels in Our Lives

I recently saw a documentary that featured a man in his forties talking about his unpromising youth: a youth filled with neglect and abuse from alcoholic parents, a life that revolved around drugs, drinking and multiple arrests for crimes from burglary to auto theft. He was arrested 24 times before he was 17. With the threat from authorities that his next crime would lead to an adult conviction and prison, he sat in front of the high school where he was struggling through classes, reflecting on his past and his future with despair. Soon after that, his life changed for the better when he landed a job delivering merchandise for a high-end furniture store. He enjoyed the job and liked meeting the customers, whose lives were so different from his. One day, he made a delivery to the lovely home of a pediatric surgeon. Something clicked. He poured out his heart to the doctor, telling him how he wanted to make something of his life. The doctor said "So do it!" And the ensuing life-changing friendship with this kind, but no-nonsense doctor encouraged the young man to learn to read, to continue in high school and college. In the next shot, showing him washing his hands with his bad boy day tattoos still visible, the young man had morphed from juvenile delinquent to noted thoracic surgeon whose academic progress through college and medical school was mentored and cheered on by his doctor friend.

While most of us may not have such dramatic life changes, we've all encountered many accidental angels in our lives. Who are accidental angels? They're people who were not family, but who came into our lives by chance or for a reason and who taught us life-changing or life-enhancing lessons along the way. As we review our lives from the vantage point of middle age or beyond, we can see with new clarity how many times we were at a crossroads, how many times someone came along to give us a word of encouragement, an extra push or a piece of information that allowed us to grow and change.

Who are yours? Have you paused to think about the people, beyond close family members, who made a huge difference in the course and the quality of your life? Stop and think for a while. Who, in each phase, each season and each challenge of your life, walked with you and made a difference?

Some of my most significant angels are teachers.

There was Sister Rita McCormack, my brother's first grade teacher and one of my dearest adult friends when I was a child. She was a young Irish nun who was playful, musical, funny and deeply caring. (Think Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music"). Rita cared enough to confront my parents about some abuse at home and helped me to recover my confidence after lingering symptoms of my battle with polio caught the attention of playground bullies. She reprimanded them, embraced me and spent hours after school helping me to regain clear speech -- and, at the same time, inspiring my love of acting that would be so important to me in high school and college -- by acting out poetry and short plays with me. She is now 80, a spirited activist, and still incredibly dear to me.

There was Sister Ramona Bascom, my high school journalism teacher, who not only encouraged me to write, but also was a caring and trusted friend to whom I could tell my deepest secrets and feel only love, warmth and total acceptance in return. She taught me what it meant to be a successful human being, quite beyond one's profession or lifestyle.  At 75, she is still giving generously of herself -- now bringing comfort to students as a staff counselor at Stanford University. And we are dear friends to this day.

There was Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita, a tough-talking, chain-smoking Australian journalist, who taught the first writing class I ever took at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. I was terrified when I first saw her and heard her long list of requirements for us as fledgling journalists (the #1 rule was "Don't bore me...").  She wrote almost more on my papers than I did -- and, as painful as some of the criticism was, initially, it was right. She forced me to confront and overcome my shyness by making me do more interviews than anyone else -- and, to help me along, paired me for one assignment with another student, Tim Schellhardt, who happened to teach me an unforgettable lesson about effective interviewing. Tim went on to become, among other things, the White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal, as well as my lifelong friend.  Many years later, Tim called me from his Wall Street Journal office to tell me that news had just come over the wires that Elizabeth, a noted journalist herself, had died of a heart attack shortly after her retirement. We cried together on the phone for the loss of this testy, vibrant, immensely talented and caring woman who had been such an angel in our lives.

There were unexpected angels in bosses -- Bob MacLeod at 'TEEN who encouraged me to develop my writing niche in psychology and health, Betty Price at 'TEEN who taught me crucial lessons in kindness, integrity and living one's faith, Dr. Tiffin Clegg at College Hospital who encouraged me to go back to graduate school for my clinical psychology degree and a new career as a psychotherapist, Dr. Michael Scavio at CSPP for his kindness, inspiration and encouragement and Nora Valdiviezo at UCLA Medical Center who took a chance on me and helped to smooth my way to a new life phase.

And, of course, we all have angels in our friends.  Who have yours been? Among all the dear ones in our lives, which ones helped to make a major difference?

For me, there is Mary Breiner who brings unconditional love to her close friendships and incredible warmth to the lives of those fortunate enough to know her. There is Pat Hill, whose love and loyalty date back to our kindergarten days. Sharon Hacker, who was a long-time friend of my husband's when I met him,  has blessed me with her loving friendship as well through all the ensuing seasons of life. There are a number of treasured college friends -- Tim Schellhardt, Jeanne Yagi, Ruth Woodling, Georgie Watson, Marcia Moore, Robert McVea -- who became my second family then and continue to enrich my life to this day.  There is Michael Polich who was there to share important milestones of young adulthood and whose continuing to care has meant so much. There are the women I worked with at 'TEEN:  bright, fun, supportive of one another and delightful, collectively the best co-workers I would ever have.

There is Liz Canfield, a Holocaust survivor and noted health educator, who has taught me so much about resilience and living fully. There is Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman, to whom Liz introduced me so many years ago, with whom I have written four books and with whom as a friend, I have shared some of the most excruciatingly painful as well a joyous times of our lives.  There are Susan Protter and Gene Brissie, who, as agents and publisher, have made a huge difference in my writing career and have brought as least as much joy to my life as treasured friends.

And there have been patients. I never guessed, when I started training and working as a psychotherapist, how much I would learn from my patients. There was J., my very first patient, with whom I worked for six years, who taught me so much about persistence, patience and listening with my heart and C., with whom I worked for eight years after she experienced some devastating losses in her life, who taught me a great deal about courage and the healing power of humor.

And, not least, there are our spouses -- who may have grown up with us, gone to school with us, worked with us or who may have been chance encounters who changed our lives.

Bob and I met by chance, at a conference, 35 years ago this month.  I was feeling out of sorts that day and almost didn't go. He was so uncertain about attending that he drove around the block a few times before deciding to go in. We had no idea, when sitting down in the same discussion group, that our lives were changing forever. We've learned so many lessons together in love, endurance and loyalty through good times and challenging times over the years. With his unwavering love and support, Bob has helped me to take chances I would not have otherwise taken and to make so many dreams come true. When I think about what an incredible difference Bob has made in my life, I think that could be a blog -- a book -- in itself!

As Bob and I move on to a new phase of our life together, angels continue to appear. When we recently moved from Los Angeles to rural Arizona, we had no idea we would be living next to neighbors -- Phyllis and Wally, Larry and Louise, Jay and Linda, Carl and Judith -- who seem heaven-sent, a loving and accepting new second family in this time of transition for us all.

Who are the angels in your life today?  Think back. Look around. And say a quiet "thanks" to all the special people who have brought so much wisdom and caring and joy to your life's journey!

1 comment:

  1. Very sorry to read about Prof. Swayne. After all these years, of course I feared as much. I had wanted to thank her for one of the two best pieces of advice I ever got at Medill.
    Till next time, Professor!