When it comes to a time of crisis, we discover who our true friends are. Some people shrink back or suddenly discover that they’re occupied with other things. Then there are the people who are there for you no matter what, who care about you and what you need, who are willing just to sit there and listen to whatever is on your heart (or just silently absorb all that’s happening.)

When you have a chronic illness (or other sort of long-term trial), you do discover who your friends are. They are people you trust, people who will drop everything to be there for you, people who don’t ask for anything in return, people with the capacity to care and to listen. But I’ve discovered that the same dichotomy plays out with strangers, casual acquaintances, and coworkers.

Earlier this week, one of my classmates asked me for my opinion about my particular graduate program. Taylor is currently in a master’s program in a related field and is considering applying to a doctoral program like the one I’m part of. I told him that honestly I’d been having a hard time, but that is likely due to the fact that I have a chronic illness, more serious than I realized, and the program seems reluctant to accommodate. His reaction surprised me. It was so different from recent conversations I’d had with so many other people, and it was truly telling of his character & person.

I tend to make jokes about my situation because the situation seems too heavy for most strangers to handle. As I told Taylor about my program and my experience, I casually remarked, “Well, don’t forget to keep in mind that I have a chronic illness, which governs my whole experience. Hopefully, that’s not true for you.”

Taylor gave a slight smile but mostly his expression was grave. He didn’t say anything; he just stood there, looking at me and listening. That moment of silence spoke worlds of meaning to me. It was as if he said, “Abigail, just because your circumstances are different, that doesn’t make your experience any less valid. Your journey through the program, your observations, and your evaluations are just as legitimate as that of anyone else.” I realized that, for the first time, someone didn’t discount my experience. I was just as ordinary as the next person.

That moment of silence also was a moment of grieving for both of us. It stands as a moment where we both recognized the gravity and unfairness of the situation and grieved for the loss of what could (or should) have been. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. That moment of acknowledgement was everything.

Taylor was just an acquaintance. He wasn’t in a position to become my friend or to be part of my medical care. But he took a moment in that conversation to validate my experience and to grieve that I felt so different and isolated. For that, I am grateful.

Abigail Cashelle

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