“You would never sacrifice a relationship. Not for anything.”
I met Ms. C when I was 15 and in grade 10. I remember that I was leaving my house in the morning to go to band practice and I had just finished having a huge fight with my mom and it happened right in front of my friend who came to pick me up. It was big, because I cried the whole way to school in the back seat of my friend’s mom’s car. I had difficulty concentrating through band practice, and when it was over, that same friend escorted me to the guidance counselling department in our school. Ms. C was the school counsellor who was assigned to me based on my homeroom teacher.
I sat in Ms. C’s office that morning and told her about the fight with my mom. I told her everything about my life – my family, my friends, my struggles, “the divorce,” and everything else that was important at the time. I don’t remember what happened after that appointment, except that she recommended that I come back to see her in a few days to make sure things were okay. She was the first counsellor that I ever saw.
I continued to see Ms. C regularly throughout my time in high school. Sometimes I made appointments with her for school related issues or family issues that I needed time to work through. But most times I would drop in when her schedule was open and we would chat. She got to know me very well. She became my “school mom” – and people in the school even called her that. I am completely certain that I would not have survived my high school years if it wasn’t for the help, guidance, support, and love of Ms. C.
When I graduated from high school, we kept in touch. I visited the school regularly and kept her up to date on life issues and my progress in University. Even when it wasn’t her “job” to counsel me and help me through difficult obstacles in my life, she was there for me, without question. She tacked my graduation portrait on her bulletin board in her office and sometimes she would ask me to come in and give some of her students advice on the realities (and challenges) of “trying to get into medical school” in university, as well as the myriad of other options in the health sciences world.
We kept in touch through the four years of my undergraduate degree. When I ran away from my dad after he threatened to beat me, she was the one I called while my bare feet froze in the snow – and she didn’t hesitate to come to help. She supported me through the decision to work towards a Master’s Degree when it seemed like Medicine wasn’t going to work out for me. We kept in touch for those two years too. When I moved away to a new city, we kept in touch then, as well. I invited her to my wedding and she said she wouldn’t miss it. I visited her almost every time I went back home, and each time she was there with genuine curiosity, wise words, and comforting support for everything that was going on in my life. I shocked her one day when I showed up in her office with a telling, swollen belly after not talking to her for a few months, and then again a few months after that when I showed up with a new baby in my arms and the news that I would be starting Medical school (after all). And for the four years of Medical School, albeit less frequently, we continued to stay in touch. She told me that whenever she has a student come into her office and say they want to go to Medical school, she points to that picture of me, tacked to her board, and tells them my story.
Despite my hectic Christmas schedule and the short amount of time I was “home,” I managed to set up a time meet with Ms. C for coffee. We chatted again like we have for the last 16+ years, with me filling her in on everything that’s been going on over the past year since we last saw each other, and her telling me about everything that she’s been going through lately, as well. I told her about my challenges with starting residency and moving to a new city. I told her about my family life, about the recent challenges with ED, and I told her about what happened with K.
Like every other response I’ve received to my story about K, she suggested that something big must be going on in her life – “this is certainly not about you, G.” We went on to discuss the types of traits that highly driven, motivated people; like those in the field of medicine; have that can often hinder the formation of close personal relationships. She went further on to talk about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships among strong, female physician types (and especially surgeons), who often have a more difficult time making a place for themselves in a predominantly (historically?) male dominated profession. Community, relationships, friendships, and support can sometimes take a back seat role in the lives of these types of women.
“You are different than a lot of people, and I suspect this is especially true when compared to other women in your profession. Since you were a child, you have worked hard to build your own communities of love and support around yourself to replace what you never received at home. Most people never have to do this in their lives because it is just there. You cultivate strong, meaningful, and powerful relationships with people – and that’s not a very common thing.”
When I told Ms. C about my friendship with K and some of the things I’ve done for her in the past few months, she couldn’t help but smile:
“That is just so very you, G – I wouldn’t expect anything less. Isn’t it interesting that she never really took the time to know you, and that she ended up resenting you for being you.”
Ms. C brought up the likely scenario that K felt that what I did for her (or how I treated her, or how much I cared for her) was something I only did for her – she never thought that maybe I do that for all my friends. She went on to suggest the possibility that K’s discomfort with our friendship might come from the fact that she’s never had such a in-depth or personal relationship with another “girlfriend” – because she’s never needed it. Or perhaps, with whatever is going on in K’s life right now, everything was causing too much stress. When she realized that she couldn’t handle it all, something had to go – and a relationship that she doesn’t really “need” or possibly doesn’t understand, seemed like the logical place to make cuts.
“Relationships are a fundamental priority in your life. You would never sacrifice a relationship. Not for anything. That’s what makes you unique, especially in your profession. That’s what will make you an exceptional physician.”
In that moment, I realized that Ms. C was right: Not necessarily about me being unique or me making an exceptional physician, but about the importance and priority of relationships in my life. It suddenly occurred to me that K doesn’t really know anything about me at all: She knows my superficial details, but she never took the time to get to know me.
Finally, for the first time in months, I felt like someone completely understood how I was feeling and what kind of impact the events from the past year have had on me. I realized that Ms. C has known me for more than half of my life (and the significant majority of my formative years), and she really, really knows me. She knows me better than my own mother and father do, she knows me better that my husband or any of my friends do, and she probably knows me even better than I know myself. Even after so long, she continues to provide advice and insight into the challenges I face in my life. And all of this never really occurred to me until I walked away from her outside of that coffee shop.
While my coffee date with Ms. C hasn’t completely healed the wound left by K’s painful words, it did provide me with some thoughts to reflect on as I struggle to come to terms with losing a good friend. It also reminded me that I have been “at this” relationship thing for far longer than I let myself realize, and I can only continue to get better. Finally, I came to really, truly appreciate the role that Ms. C has taken in my life: Although it has changed significantly over the many years that have passed, it is comforting to know that there is someone in this world who is always there for me… Someone who Knows Me.