Sunday, April 3, 2011

Unlikely Friends

She walked into my office, her face tight with fury, accompanied by her young adult daughter who explained to me that her mother was so angry that her orthopedic surgeon had referred her to me for a psychological consultation that she was refusing to speak anything but her native Romanian. Her daughter was there to translate.

There wasn't much to translate.

Every time I asked a question, the woman -- whose name was Marianna -- would scowl, stand up to her full 4'10" and spit, in heavily accented English, "Is stupid question!"

"Mama!" her daughter would say firmly. "Sit down! Listen to the doctor!"

Marianna, still glaring, her eyes never leaving mine, would sit down, waiting for the next question. This routine was repeated throughout the long and excruciating hour.

"Well," I thought as Marianna and her daughter Dorothy left. "I'm sure I won't be seeing her again. What could I have done? What could I have asked that made sense to her?" I couldn't think of a thing.

The next week, I was stunned to see the mother-daughter duo in the waiting room.  Marianna glared at me balefully. Her daughter pulled her into the treatment room.

Impulsively, wanting to know what made Marianna, an immigrant factory worker who had sustained a terrible injury to her arm and shoulder in a work-related accident, have the will to get up in the morning, I asked "What means the most to you in life besides your wonderful daughter?"

The anger went out of her eyes.  She smiled at me for the first time. "My doggie!" she said. I asked her about her dog -- and if she had a picture of him.  She beamed. "I bring!" she said.

The next week she appeared, not only with a large photo album with pictures of her dog Nanook and a recently deceased and much beloved cat Vladamir, but also with the dog.  After we admired the dog together, she asked her daughter to stay in the waiting room this time.  And we started the therapy that was to continue for several years as an emotional support through several grueling surgeries and prolonged, painful recoveries.

And after her treatment was completed, I would check with her from time to time, just to see how she was doing. As the years passed, what was once a professional relationship blossomed into a friendship.
I came to appreciate her robust sense of humor, her quiet strength as she told me about the long nightmare of trying to leave Romania during the Communist regime, the constant interrogations, the possessions of a lifetime left behind or confiscated at the border, the terror she felt at starting over with nothing, without speaking a word of English, in a new land.

We were, in some ways, peers -- born just a few months apart. But we came from very different worlds. A bright woman, she had been, nevertheless, denied a higher education and put to work in a factory at a young age. She took great pride in her daughter, a community college instructor, who spoke perfect English and who had been at the top of her high school graduating class only two years after coming to the U.S. I admired her generosity of spirit and her love and commitment to her daughter and to her aging mother, who had Alzheimer's, and who lived with her.

We shared, of course,  a love of animals  -- this was what had made that first, critical connection in therapy and, later, as friends. I delighted in her dog Nanook and she loved my cats Timmy and Gus.
She was particularly fond of Timmy, whom I used occasionally as a therapy cat.  He would run to greet her and curl up, purring loudly, on her lap when she came to visit.

And, as a friend, she was there to comfort me when I had thoracic surgery and when our beloved Timmy died of melamine poisoning from tainted cat food.  "The world feels more empty without him," she said softly, tears in her eyes as she grasped my hand.  As friends, we rejoiced at the arrival of her first and only grandchild, when Dorothy gave birth to a son named Darrian.  He grew to be a handsome boy, fluent in both English and Romanian, who would greet me at the door with warm hugs and shouts of "Aunty! Aunty Kathy!"

And then there was that last time when I knew she was leaving us, that her damaged heart could sustain her impassioned life no more, when the light and life went out of her expressive brown eyes.  She died soon after, at age 62, leaving family and friends who loved her dearly.

Marianna was on my mind today as I sent a birthday card and gift to her grandson Darrian, who will be 8 years old this Tuesday, I thought again of my unlikely friend -- and gave quiet thanks for the unexpected treasure of our friendship.

 And I wondered how often I -- how often all of us -- might have had the opportunity to make a wonderful new friend, but may have passed the person by because the possibility of friendship seemed just too unlikely.  Perhaps it was the circumstance of the meeting that seemed not quite right. Or perhaps there seemed too wide a gulf in age or lifestyle. Or perhaps it was simply a failure of imagination at a critical time.

Unlikely friends can bring such richness to our lives. Who have been your most unlikely -- nonetheless treasured -- friends?

 I have warm memories of Mac MacKenzie, who was a pioneer pilot, my father's Army Air Force flight instructor in World War II and who spent years traveling the world working for the U.N. After my parents' deaths in 1980,  which came just before the death of his beloved wife, Mac reached out to me in letters, phone calls and a memorable visit I made to his deathbed in Missouri in 1987. In our time together, he taught me so much about early aviation, my parents' youth and the wisdom of his years. Once, when he called, he asked how I was. I catalogued all my troubles. He listened patiently, responding with empathy to my list of complaints. Then, at last, he asked "But you haven't yet answered my question. How are YOU?"  I suddenly understood what he meant. I thought beyond all the superficial matters that were weighing on my mind, to my essence, and made a sudden realization.  "Oh," I replied. "I guess I'm fine." And I marveled at yet another lesson from this wise old man.

Another unlikely but treasured friend is a young Korean American man named George Sun, now just 22, whom I met when he was a 17-year-old high school senior. I was doing admissions interviews along with a group of Northwestern alums that day when an alum brought a young Asian-American applicant to me and asked if I had the time and inclination to interview this young man.  Inside, I was furious: too many alums balked at interviewing young Asian students in suits because they feared they would be brilliant and scary applicants for Northwestern's 7 Year Honors Medical program -- and everyone knew I loved interviewing these bright kids. But I had just done two back-to-back interviews. I was tired. I was chagrined that this alum was passing this student off quite obviously and, I thought, quite rudely. But I smiled at the applicant and said "Sure."

As our interview progressed, I felt one of those rare connections -- a true meeting of minds. We covered a variety of topics. I was enthralled with his intelligence and wit, his willingness to take risks in a positive way, his courage to take a chance. Later than evening, I got an email from him, thanking me for the interview and telling me that he knew this encounter was something he would remember all his life -- whatever the admissions decision might be.  And although I wrote a glowing report, he was not offered admission to Northwestern. Not missing a beat, he enrolled and excelled at NYU and then at USC.  All along the way, he has kept in touch -- writing an insightful sidebar for a chapter in the 2008 edition of "The Teenage Body Book", keeping me up on the details of his life as a college student, sharing his changing and enduring interests with me, and, most lately, as he completes his education in business and finance, he has offered me some very useful financial insights.  And I marvel at yet another lesson from this wise young man.

These experiences make me more determined than ever to be open to a wide variety of friendships with people of all ages -- people I might meet in the most unlikely places or the most unpromising circumstances. One never knows when a life-enriching experience or friendship is about to happen.

And I think how much I might have missed if Mac hadn't reached out, if George hadn't been handed off to me, if I hadn't  -- quite by accident -- asked the question that brought joy instead of rage to Marianna's eyes. I will always be grateful for the joy that she -- and my other unlikely friends -- have brought to my life.


  1. Thanks for the beautiful story that reminds me that I too must reach out to people.

  2. This is such a beautiful and touching post. It amazes me so many times how the simplest gesture or question can have the profoundest of effects -- and always when least expected.

  3. this is a wonderful story :)

  4. What a beautiful post, Kathy. Thinking of unlikely friends who now matter greatly to me I'd like to mention two. The first is a young graduate music student 20 years my junior who was part of my group at a church weekend. We hit it off immediately and have kept in touch ever since, even though he is now married with 4 children and lives in Norway! The second was a retired lorry driver, again met at a church event, who becaqme a good friend until he sadly died a few years ago. The church is wonderful for introducing you to a very wide cross-section of humanity :-)

  5. Thank you all for your kind comments. There are so many places you can meet unlikely friends and church, with the great cross section of people there, is certainly one of them! I only mentioned three unlikely friends who immediately came to mind -- Marianna first and foremost because I would never have dreamed on first meeting her that we'd even have a second session let alone become friends!