Friendship Opens a World Beyond the Visible

cici

My friend Pat and I have an agreement about our friendship: we don’t need to attend the other’s funeral, because we’ve agreed to be here for each other during our lifetime.Pat and I first met when I was a senior in college, and she was already mid-career with two grown children who were starting to raise families. Pat’s position at the State Health Department was nearly unpronounceable to me. She was an epidemiologist, and I learned that it had nothing to do with skin. In fact, a few years later, I went on to study epidemiology and become an epidemiologist as well, and we continued as work colleagues for a few years after my college graduation.But that was not the thing that helped us develop our friendship.During my few years working with her, my mother’s and grandmother’s health issues became so exacerbated that I could no longer hide what I was previously ashamed to ever tell anyone: that my mother had severe mental illness (finally diagnosed at that time as schizoaffective disorder), and it was impossible for her to take care of my grandparents.Instead of making me feel ashamed of my family, Pat and my other colleagues helped me by sharing what they understood about medicine and about life. The more open I was about the situation, which included me having to hospitalize my mother during a manic episode and take over caregiving for my grandmother, the more that Pat opened up about her own life and her family. She assured me that her 30s had been the best years of her life. Tall and slender, with a short blond bob, Pat’s graciousness made me think of her as an older Princess Diana. Maybe it was also because she drank tea everyday at 3:15pm, during her break.I longed to believe her, as I felt that she had somehow achieved the perfection of finding a wonderful husband, and she traveled around the world with him. When they came back from Italy, she promised me that I would love Florence. She had managed to become fluent in Spanish by taking classes at a local adult school, so learning a few phrases in Italian seemed simple enough for her.Before leaving for graduate school, I needed a place to stay for a few weeks, and Pat and her husband opened their home to me. I had heard so much about how they lived their lives, it was wonderful to spend time and see how that life actually worked.When I got married a few years later, it was under tragic circumstances as my fiancé’s father was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. We were married at his deathbed. Pat and her husband offered us a getaway to their coastal home in Northern California, but we were too much in shock and grief to take them up on it.I struggled to finish my PhD dissertation during the time following the funeral and start of the marriage. Pat met me on several occasions at the local bookstore cafe, offering to read portions and help me type it up if needed. She assured me that she had experience, because she had typed every word of her husband’s dissertation. Pat was so intelligent, and kind, I needed her friendship like a ray of sunshine in a bleak cave.After successfully defending my dissertation, I found myself in the phase that Pat had promised would be the happiest of my life. I was overjoyed to finally give birth, after several miscarriages. Pat surprised me with a quilt for the baby, with his name and birthday embroidered onto the design.When my marriage unraveled, and I felt isolated as a single-mother, Pat shared more about her story. I learned about her experience as a single-mother of two young children before she met her now husband of over 30 years. Although I was taught to be ashamed of coming from a divorced family, unheard of amongst Asians especially when I was growing up, Pat remained a gracious example of how to overcome life’s challenges.In some sense, Pat gave me hope that everything might “turn out alright” despite all signs in my life to the contrary. I felt lost as my professional and personal worlds dissolved. I re-emerged with a new purpose, as a storyteller and coach. Pat came out to support my storytelling event, and I was able to introduce her to my mom. In the past I might have worried about my mom and how she would react to meeting my friends, but that day was truly special to have everyone together.Last fall when Pat revealed that she had some health issues, I offered to go with her to her appointment but she assured me she would be fine with her husband taking her. During the days that followed, while I waited for word about a possible diagnosis for Pat, I wondered what I could do to make things easier for her. Usually one of us would suggest meeting for lunch, or at least share some chocolate. I had already told Pat some years ago that I thought of her like a second mother, and that I admired her ability to go to the gym for regular workouts. I had already asked her to catalogue all the places she and her husband had visited, and I knew her preference for chocolate without nuts or fruit. But I wondered if she would know that her kindness and caring was what carried me through those dark times, and that her words to me when I was 23 and feeling helpless about my mother and grandmother, would carry me through to my 30s, and again through my separation and divorce.I feel inadequate these days, sending an email to suggest lunch, and bringing along my 7 year-old who prefers to sit on the floor behind me, instead of at the table. Instead of focusing on how Pat is doing, I keep after my son to draw a picture and stay out from underfoot the waitress in the busy restaurant. I want to find the words that tell Pat how much it meant for me to have the quilt she made at school with my son on “blanket day” when each child was asked to bring a blanket and describe why it was special. I guess I could say that our friendship is like that quilt, made by the time we have spent together, and the design shows what we have chosen to share with each other over time. It has the essentials of everyday life, and so does our friendship. And beyond that, there are the invisible threads of hope for a meaningful and joyful life.

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