Do you know my friend M?
If you don’t, you really should meet her. She’s pretty awesome. I asked M. to be my first conversation. She hesitantly agreed. I wonder what she thought I was going to ask her. We sat down in her high ceilinged, beautiful decorated but blessedly messy kitchen. M. is one of those people who wakes up looking gorgeous and as she saunters and offers me a compliment! She’s the best! On the morning of our meeting, the dogs were playing with the cat, both her young sons were home from school and her husband was showing a young guy from the neighborhood around to help with yardwork. In a word, chaos. But M. was unfazed. She gave me her full attention. I told you she was awesome.
I first met M. in my work as an occupational therapist and she as a speech pathologist. I was coming back from maternity leave and they had hired her while I was away. My first impressions of M. were that she was beautiful in an exotic way (her dad was caucasian and her mom was Korean). She had an elegant way about her. When I learned that she was a surgeon’s wife, I automatically assumed she had it made. I also remember that on my first day back, she was telling a story about a kid she was treating and she was crying. It was heartfelt and vulnerable. Then I convinced myself she didn’t like me very much. About a month later, she asked me to go to coffee and yoga with her. Hmm. I was wrong.
Brief confession: Some of my first impressions are downright embarassing.
M. grew up in Michigan with her mom, who spoke very little English and worked as a housecleaner in the local hospital. She had come back with M.’s dad after the war. (I am going to remember M.’s mom next time I am complaining about not being able to find a parking space or something silly like that.) The obstacles she must have encountered are overwhelming: saying a permanent goodbye to her family, lack of language and communcation ability, lack of formal education, complete unfamiliarity with American customs and parenting and what M. describes as persistent anxiety.
Comfort is a theme with M. She has a hard time reconciling the comfort her sons experience versus what she encountered as a child. Perhaps influenced by growing up as an only child, M. is most comfortable being alone or with only her “handful” of people with whom she is completely herself. She is wary around those who flaunt their wealth, as this is foreign to her. She was most concerned with her father’s comfort as he was dying of cancer a couple years ago. M. devoted herself to her dad during the last year of his life. She still tears up when speaking about him. Before he moved in with her, before the boys said their goodbyes to “Poppa”, before the confusion, incontinence, suffering and despair, he was her father. M.’s moral compass is definitive and has no soft edges. I admire that about her. She is tough. I would not want to get in the ring with M. She would take me down.
As tough as she is, though, she is still a softie at heart. I tell her she is one of the most vulnerable people I know. She is not afraid to feel her emotions. This is apparent when discussing her son P. P. is 8 years old and full of natural curiosity. He has spent most of his young life struggling with emotional and sensory processing. P. is the greatest kid. You should sit down with him and talk about stars and crystals. You will learn something, I guarantee it. She is a fierce presence with both her sons, but you feel it strongly with P. She loves and protects like a lioness.
My first impressions of M. were about her beauty and my preconceived notion that she had it made because she was married to a surgeon. When I tell her this, she throws her head back and laughs. Our culture rains ideals of beauty and money as worthy goals. I can’t say whether or not they are, but M. shows us that even if you have those, you are not guaranteed a life free of pain and loss. She is the living embodiment of generosity of spirit. I wondered why I had told myself she didn’t like me. Maybe I worried that someone like M. wouldn’t be interested in a friend like me, so faulty and imperfect. But M. reminds me that perfection is a mirage, her living as a real person in emotional honesty is the ultimate goal.
Lastly, with each conversation, I will say what that person’s t-shirt would say:
“I am much more than a pretty face.”
“I feel things deeply and purely and that is more than okay.”
“I may seem stand-offish, but my tendency at first is to observe.”
“There are hard things in life. Whatever happens, I will be okay.”
“If we become friends, I will be incredibly loyal and supportive to you.”
“There is nothing that a glass of wine and some girl time can’t cure.”
Thanks to M. and her boys and dogs and cat.