Sharing the Blessing of a Special Friendship
Lessons from Nici
I have a friend with whom I have long since lost touch, but whose spirit is still very present in my life. Nici (nee-see) was God’s gift to me and though we were friends for a brief season in one another’s lives, knowing her has changed me forever. Every relationship we have is a powerful one, and every person we encounter in this world has the power to deeply affect or even change our lives, some for worse and others for better. Even the simplest exchange of an ‘hello’ from one stranger to another touches us some place inside though we rarely are aware enough to notice. We learn from one another each day in imperceptible ways. Everything we say and do affects someone we meet and encounter. Then both we and they take those lessons into tomorrow to share anew. These are the lessons I learned from Nici. Today I am sharing them with you.
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
I first met Nici while I was working at Big Brothers Big Sisters as a paid volunteer. She was interning for her Social Work degree until the end of the semester. I remember asking one of my co-workers whether she was a girl or a boy. She was extremely thin with a boyish figure, had short wispy hair that framed her face, and wrist braces on her arms. Even her clothing looked like it had come from the little boy’s rack. I thought she might be anorexic, and though I’m sad to admit it, I avoided being her friend or talking to her for the first month I knew her. She walked very slowly as though her entire body ached, and I noticed it took her a long time to fill out her paperwork.
I was so caught up in her strange appearance and mannerisms that I never thought to ask if there were anything really wrong with her until one day when she missed an important staff meeting. I had never heard her complain of any kind of illness or pain so I was really surprised to hear that she had been hospitalized due to complications with her Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). I had never heard of RA in someone so young (she was only in her early twenties). I had always thought of it as a disease of the elderly. I just thought it was something that affected the joints and caused stiffness in bones, not some life-threatening condition. Without realizing how serious the illness was or her history with it, I went to the store on a whim and bought her an encouraging card. I went around the office and had everyone sign it for her. Some of the staff members decided to go visit her at the hospital and though I declined the invitation to follow, I sent my card with them. I had no idea that giving her that card would actually bring me the gift of her friendship.
When she returned to the office a few weeks later, noticeably worn-down, but in good spirits, she made it a point to come to my desk first and thanked me warmly for the words of encouragement I had sent to her in that card. We then had our first real conversation where she opened up and told me the entire story of her battle with RA and all the long-term illness. Her appearance made complete sense to me then, and I was ashamed that I had been so shallow as to have judged her for it. Through the coming months as I got to truly know her, I could see that she was in fact the most beautiful person I had ever met in all my life.
Sometimes Life Just Happens to You and It’s Not Your Fault
One evening I was giving Nici a ride home from work and as I was helping her out of the car, she turned to me and asked me if I thought the illness was her fault. I looked into her sweet face and adamantly told her it was NOT her fault and asked her why she would even think that. It turned out that some of the people she was attending church with at the time told her that she must be lacking in faith and that she must not be praying hard enough or confessing all her sins. I became so angry when I heard that. Nici wasn’t born with RA. It didn’t even run in her family. She was completely healthy until around the age of 20 when she started mysteriously getting sick. I had seen pictures of her from her freshman year of college. She was strong, athletic, and a star soccer player. Then she began contracting a lot of weird symptoms and subsequent illnesses like lupus and even cancer. Once the doctors realized her immune system was going haywire, they did a few tests and diagnosed her with RA. She did nothing wrong. There was nothing she could have done to even prevent it, and the doctors didn’t even know what caused her to contract it. Her suffering was a mystery, as it is with most of us, and became a potential place of spiritual growth in her life. It wasn’t a punishment after all, but perhaps a gift.
Live in the Moment Because the Present is All You Have
Nici had dreams just like any young woman. I remember so many conversations with her when she would wistfully talk about meeting the man of her dreams, having a family someday, and working with children. These were all things she had taken for granted growing up as a girl, thinking she would have the opportunity to do everything “normal” girls grow up to do. Once she was diagnosed with RA, however, her entire life changed. Her body wasn’t strong enough after all the medications, treatments, and chemotherapy to support having children. She actually was wearing clothing from the little boys’ section of the store because her body had wasted down to practically nothing and even the petite women’s sizes were too big for her. What amazed me about her though is that she never dwelled too long on the past or complained about her future plans being broken. She took each day as it came, focused on it and the tasks at hand, and did her best to make the most of each one because she knew it could truly be her last.
Whatever You Do, Find Happiness Doing It
Nici’s dream had been to work with children. She was working toward a Social Work degree, and her entire adult life had been focused on helping others, especially children. But when she was diagnosed with RA and began physically suffering debilitating symptoms from it, she had a hard time finishing work in her classes and doing the more hands-on requirements of her courses. When it came time for internships, she found that most of the places she chose to work at were turning her down because of her inability to directly interact with the children on a regular basis. Finally, Big Brothers Big Sisters agreed to let her work there, but she didn’t really go out into the field much and spent most of her time doing clerical work in the office which was a major disappointment to her. Nevertheless, each day I came to work, she was the happiest person there. I had never seen anyone so excited to come to work and push paper around all day. I teased her once about it, and she explained to me that at first she did hate the job until she realized that all the work we did was important and necessary to helping the kids. She said she would rather have been out on sites or organizing activities, but that she knew somebody had to do this other work too. It was equally important, and she was just glad to have the opportunity to do her part.
Pursue Your Passion at the Best Pace You Can
It took Nici twice as long as she had intended for her to finish her Social Work degree. She had planned to be done with it by the time she turned 21, but had ended up working on it until she was almost 25. At times she was frustrated with her setbacks and tired of being sick, in and out of hospitals, surgeries, and recoveries. But she never gave up. She had a passion for helping children and loved to work with them. It was worth it to her to retake a few classes here and there, do summer school, or to work a little harder than the average person if it meant she would get to do what she loved to do in life. I admired this drive in her the most. She gave 150 percent even if that only meant she got half the work of an able-bodied person done. She even went on to apply to Master’s degree programs and pursue a Master’s in Social Work degree. People advised her against it at times and tried to discourage her from it because they thought she would never be able to actually accomplish it, but she followed her passion anyway. It didn’t matter whether she achieved it or not, she just knew she had to try.
Don’t Take the Little Things for Granted
Nici used to write me little notes of encouragement and cards all the time. I still have many of them and love to read them when I’m having a down moment in my own life. When she first wrote me a little card thanking me for my friendship, I didn’t think too much of it. I had other friends who had given me similar tokens of appreciation before so I never thought of it as anything extraordinary. Until one day, Nici explained to me about the braces on her wrists. The RA had caused such swelling in the joints of her hands and wrists that she had to have surgeries on both of them. They hurt her daily to the point where it was intensely painful for her to even pick up a pen, let alone use it to write. It took her half an hour to fill out a small card for someone and even longer to compose full letters. Her hands ached so badly that she’d have to take medication afterwards. Yet, every day, she came to work and filled out paperwork for people and had a thank you card or encouraging note for someone.
Have the Heart of a Child
One thing Nici and I loved to do was go shopping for trinkets and toys at the dollar store. We would buy some picture and color it together or find some fun toys to keep around the office in case a few of the children happened to visit or we needed to take a break from working. That year we found a box of edible Christmas ornaments that you decorated with colored icing and could hang on your tree. She was so excited to find them and couldn’t wait to get back to her place to decorate them. I loved her child-like spirit and the way she took pleasure in the simplest things. She was kind and innocent, generous and giving in that way. Her gift to me that year was a magic painting from the Dollar Tree that had a white marker and a picture of a jungle that revealed colors with the use of the “invisible” ink.
Cherish Your Friends
Nici taught me the importance of appreciating your friends. She cherished all the people around her because she had to rely so much on others to help her. She never wanted anyone to feel like they were used or unappreciated. She always went out of her way to send a note or card or to give thanks to someone for doing something kind for her. She needed people to be there for her, but she didn’t expect them to just do it. Whether it was getting a ride home, getting a lift off a chair, getting her medication open, or getting a hand with something around the office, she was always gracious and thankful to whomever happened to be helping her at the time. Friends were important to the very quality of her life and so she appreciated them much more than most people do. I often thought that if we all treated people with the consideration and kindness Nici chose to treat people, the world would be a harmonious place and no one would ever feel left out or hurt.
Money Isn’t Everything
At the end of the year we worked together, Nici was supposed to go back home to Austin. She was not able to drive herself so several of us who worked with her decided to caravan and take her there. We made it into a fun farewell roadtrip, complete with walkie talkies between two cars. Once we made it to her parent’s home, I was surprised to find that it was a gigantic three-story house with several bedrooms on several floors, two dining rooms, and a spacious kitchen. In gratitude for our help, her mother had made an expensive meal for us as well. I, who had grown up extremely poor, was shocked to find that Nici’s home was literally a mansion. Yet she was the most down to earth, humble, and unpretentious person I had ever met. She never spent money in any noticeable way and didn’t even seem to think much about it. I realized that she would have given up all her material comfort to be healthy again. She had nice things, but it wasn’t everything. She still suffered like the rest of us, maybe even more so. She couldn’t live the life she had always dreamed, and I could tell she sometimes envied me because I had the physical ability to do all those “normal” activities.
Be Honest with Yourself about Your Limitations
Nici knew what she could and could not do. She pushed herself to her limits each day, but she always knew when to ask for help and when to stop working. It was a hard lesson for her given the fact that she went from being such an extremely athletic young woman to having a body that was more like an elderly person’s. She had even been told she should work in the Geriatric ward of a hospital for her internship because she moved at the same pace as older people. While she knew she wanted to work with children, she also knew it would be a challenge to do so and something she would have to compromise at.
It’s Okay to Cry
There were many nights Nici and I either sat in my car and swapped our disappointments or exchanged letters and grieved our losses with one another. People lose so much in a lifetime, but we hardly ever take the time to process it right. She had met a man in the cancer ward who had passed away six months later and was having a difficult time accepting his death. She wrote to me about her special love for him and how unfair it was to lose him. She told me that she was frustrated with not being able to do more of the work she wanted to do with children. She worried that she would always be too sick to ever meet the right man and fall in love. She cried she would never have a normal life like someone else. And we both sometimes asked, “Why me?” But in the end, she always chose to get up another day, put a smile on her face, and make someone else’s day just a little bit better. Though I’ve lost touch with her through the years and can’t even be sure that she is still alive, I carry her spirit around with me in my heart. I keep her picture on my dressing table and think of her each morning as I prepare for another day in this world.
© 2013 maramerce