My closest friend and I are like night and day: I'm white, she's black. I'm an awkward, small- talk challenged introvert; she's a vivacious, poised social butterfly whom people were drawn to. I'm a big, sissy chicken, she'll kick your ass (gotta love her!) But from the moment I met Cynthia in November of 1994, we became amazingly fast friends, despite our age difference (she's 13 years older than me) and my difficulty opening up to people.
It soon became apparent that we shared a lot of similarities which drew us together: neither of us are morning people, so each day, on queue, we would walk to the cafeteria, in silence, get our breakfast, and walk back to our desks without saying a word. We share a love of Denzil Washington movies, Garth Brooks music, and playing jokes on each other. Inexplicably, we gravitated towards each other and never got tired of talking, no matter how many hours we spent in each other's company. There's no one else on the planet that I share that with, even to this day.
When I met Cynthia, she'd been with her boyfriend, a younger man (you go, Cyn!) for several years. Michael is cute in a geeky, Urkel kind of a way, and he's extremely smart, competitive, and good at everything he does. I admit that I have a bit of a platonic crush on him, and admire him more because of how he cares for Cynthia because he always let her be herself, never smothering her. He's really a good, decent man. And I dig anyone I can be sarcastic with, who isn't easily offended by my teasing, and Michael totally gets me in that respect.
About 4 years ago, in the summer, July I think, Michael came home on a Tuesday from a softball game, complaining that he felt really queasy and was in a bit of pain. This was enough to raise a flag as Michael is the typical guy and never asks for help, but that evening, he asked to go to the doctor's office. Hours later, he was in one of the best hospitals in Chicago after suffering a heart attack and because of a rare blood disorder that was discovered at that time. A machine was doing 97% of Michael's breathing for him. He was in a coma, but he looked so peaceful as he was lying there, just like he was sleeping. I believed he would wake up any moment.
Well he did several moments later. That Saturday, he woke up, cranky, groggy, but alert and his old self, thank God. That Monday, I went to see him in the hospital, and hugged the stuffing out of him. After remaining in the hospital for several days, and getting strict orders from the doctor, Michael went home, and though he seemed to be fine, it was some time before he could go back to work. Yet over the next several months, their lives settled into a routine again, and soon Michael was back out on the softball field, or bowling, or playing darts. Some activities he was banned from by his doctor because of his health, but Michael was not going to spend his life in front of a television.
Almost a year later, well, it was exactly 11 months later, Michael complained of severe dizziness and asked again to go to the hospital. Once there, he told his doctors about his condition and that he felt he was suffering from vertigo. When Cynthia got to the hospital, he told her he was sure he was having a stroke, and Cynthia told the nurses and doctors again about Michael's condition, yet because the tests showed no blood clots, they were skeptical about a stroke.
But Michael knew his own body, maybe from what he'd been through the previous summer, and sure enough, he suffered a stroke. A massive one that left him completely paralyzed. He could only communicate with his eyes by blinking. Livid with the hospital, Cynthia's first concern was taking care of Michael. So her, her family and Michael's spent their time trying to find options and take care of Michael as best as they could. They truly believed with God's help and their determination that Michael would get better, if not today then someday. Until that day came though, many changes would have to take place.
For one, Cynthia, an extremely private person, would have to open her home to Michael's family and caregivers because Michael needed 24-hour care. She would have to learn how to take care of his treach tube, how to feed him, bathe him, help him dress. She would lose sleep, give up her privacy, talk to doctors and experts and the ADA. Try to schedule eye appointments and dentist appointments because no one would treat him in his condition. She continued to work a 40+ hour work week and still managed to take her dear friend Karen, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, to chemo and be there for her when Karen's mother was in hospice.
It's been almost 3 years since Michael's stroke, and in all that time, nothing's changed in Michael's condition. This past week he's been in the hospital, very sick with infections, so Cynthia has not slept more than a few hours total as she has been staying at the hospital with him, going home briefly to shower, deal with phone calls and mail. Getting back to Michael is her first priority.
Throughout this whole ordeal with Michael, she has never once complained about how unfair life is. If anything, she's become extremely protective of Michael and making sure he is being taken care of because out of everyone, he's the one who is suffering the most. For her, Michael is just as important as when he was talking and running around, only now he can't really say what he needs so easily, so she has to figure it out for him, and she does, eventually. For her, losing sleep or bathing him is not a hardship. Her faith in God has gotten her through many difficult nights.
As you can imagine, it has not been an easy time. Sometimes Michael is suffering and she's not always aware of it. Once, while getting him ready for a doctor's visit, his own mother had broken his toe because she tried to put his shoe on and when it wouldn't go on easily, she forced it on his foot. It wasn't until Cynthia saw the tears in Michael's eyes that she knew something was wrong. Another time, when she was at work, someone tried to break into their house while he was home with the caregiver, and Cynthia knew Michael felt both guilty and frustrated for nothing being able to protect this young lady who took care of him. Other times, Michael's family forgets what it's like for him when they are going to family reunions and come home but forget to bring over pictures and videos until several days later, after Cynthia gets on their case because of their neglect. Some of his nieces and nephews haven't seen him for three years, even though they only live a few miles away. It makes me angry that they can be so callous, and it breaks my heart because I know deep in my heart Michael would never treat them the way he's been treated.
Sometimes, because Cynthia and I have always been so close, people ask me how Michael is, and sometimes I have nothing to tell them because when her and I are together, she doesn't always want to talk about him or what her days are like. We might sit outside while it's nice, enjoying the breeze on our faces, complaining about our jobs or giggling over some of the stunts we've pulled on each other over the years. I can't give her much, but I can make her laugh so she doen't cry, and I can be there when she just needs a moment or two of silence. Sometimes we sit by the pond and watch the baby ducks, the size of cotton balls, waddle near their mother.
As close as Cynthia and I are, we still keep some secrets. She has no idea I have this blog. I don't even know if she knows what a blog is, or if she cares. She probably doesn't realize how much her friendship means to me, and how I believe she's in my life for a purpose. I don't question the reason, though I probably should, I'm just grateful that she's here. Cynthia has taught me, or has tried to teach me, never to complain unless you have a solution to the problem. She has taught me the importance of valuing myself, of not caring what other people think, and the value of a good prank. I learned from her that sometimes friendship is not what you say, but what you do. That feeling sorry for yourself can sometimes be the biggest waste of time, and that others always need more than you do.
I don't know if Michael will ever talk again, if he will never throw a dart, or even eat a potato chip. But as long as he is on this earth, Cynthia will be there by his side, never letting him forget that he is just as important to her now, even more so, as he was 4 four years ago, and that his life matters regardless of how he lives it. For that reason alone, she is truly special. She is my role model, my hero. Thank You, God, for my dearest friend.