A story of courage

I met my friend Gabi when she started dating Zé, who was my (then) fiancé’s best friend.

When I met Zé he was going out with a very peculiar girl who was on drugs and led a very strange life. They had broken up several times but still he kept going back to her. She had a strange ascendancy over him that we couldn’t understand. Particularly my fiancé, who didn’t like her one bit, so when they finally broke up for good, and Zé introduced Gabi, we immediately warmed to her as we found her a nice, “normal” girl.

They were colleagues at work and both had good salaries so soon they were living together. They married two years after we did, and of course we went to their wedding, after all my husband was the best man.

I always liked Zé and we really became friends, so for me he was not just my husband’s best friend. And the same happened with Gabi: from the beginning we got along very well together and, in the course of the years, we grew very close and became very, very good friends. We did a lot of programs together, either the four of us or with the rest of our group, who had also welcomed her.

We went through very similar experiences: first living in the suburbs, then as soon as we managed it, buying old apartments in traditional Lisbon neighbourhoods and going through extensive refurbishing works, and then starting our families. Her eldest son Martim was born exactly one year after my son Afonso and soon they were friends and playing together. Then her second son Ricardo was born a year and a half after my second baby, Pedro. I remember she was very disappointed when they told her it was another boy (she had fervently wished for a girl since her first pregnancy) and when she found herself unwillingly pregnant while Ricardo was still a baby and was devastated, I was one of the persons who told her to cheer up, that this could be the much desired girl – as it was.

I remember being slightly disappointed when she didn’t invite me to be her daughter Matilde’s godmother, but she invited my husband instead to be her godfather, so I didn’t make much of it and our friendship continued as always.

The years went by and Zé’s career took off…he soon became the Managing Director of a multinational company and they had a very comfortable life. Gabi continued with her work but she was clearly not a career woman. Besides, she was happy to support her husband and, after all, someone had to take care of the home and children. She really enjoyed cooking and providing a nice, stable home to her family. She and Zé would travel together in romantic escapades, mostly to Italy, either on long weekends or for some of his business meetings.

And she was happy.

Once there was a very strange episode concerning him: apparently she had left him sleeping on the couch (a habit most of the husbands of our group developed after marriage!) only to discover him in the morning on the floor and with a broken arm…we never understood what had happened and he didn’t explain it at all. I remember at the time some of our friends suggested that he had gone out during the night and had an accident …but we never knew. I suppose by that time he was already having doubts about his marriage and consequently felt upset.

Then came the year of the major changes in our lives.

Early that year they still went on holiday together and she thought everything was fine. But it was not. He was now earning a lot of money, travelling a lot both in Portugal and internationally, and spending a lot of money in clothes, accessories…nothing was too good for him, he had become a veritable “fashion victim”, very conscious of his appearance and status.

And then, one day, she called me. By her voice I could see she was devastated, and soon understood why when she told me “Teresa, Zé has told me he needs some “space” (the old cliché everyone, but everyone uses when they want to break up but want to do it gently…but sometimes, as in this case, to be gentle is to be cruel).

Of course I tried to reason with her, on that day and on the days that followed. Both I and the rest of our friends (the women, of course, with the feminine solidarity that never fails to appear in these moments!). Our experience told us he must be having an affair, and so we told her. She fervently denied it – no, he only needs some time. It’s been too much pressure, his demanding job, three small children, he will be coming back…we shook our heads and feared the moment when she would have to face the harsh truth.

And when that moment came – someone she knew told her she had seen her husband with a much younger girl in an attitude that left no doubt about their relationship – and she inevitably confronted him with that, and he finally admitted he was in love with someone else, her world came crumbling down and she was lost. She was desperate, miserable, she was not herself. As much as we wanted to help, it was very difficult, as she was obsessed with him and the fact that he had left her for someone else (the “classical” colleague at work, in fact someone who was working for him). Over the next few months she got thinner and thinner, to a point where she looked anorectic. She was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and clearly in a sorrowful state. I can’t remember seeing anyone so affected by a separation as she was.

It was not an easy position for me, as I was her friend but also Zé’s. Unlike some of the friends in our group who openly sided with her and barely talked to him, treating him like a sort of pariah, I kept my friendship with him while trying to remonstrate. I told him I understood we cannot avoid falling in love but that he should not have lied to begin with, he should have been brave enough to tell her the truth and not that “he needed some space”. He agreed, but by now the harm was done. On the other hand I went out of my way to support her, but never hid from her the fact that I remained his friend. And she has always understood, and respected, my position.

Strangely enough, in the following months both I, and another close friend of our group, Beli, separated from our husbands (in considerably smoother and less painful processes) and in early autumn we all found ourselves entering new phases of our lives. By that time Gabi was slowly coming to terms with her new reality and slowly, very slowly, getting the pieces of her life back together. We’d go to movies together on “childless” weekends, we’d have coffee and talk for endless hours, and when the children were with us we’d all go out to eat pizzas or hamburgers and then go to each other’s homes and the children would play together and we’d talk and talk. We gave a lot of support to each other and became so much closer in the process, almost like sisters.

One day she went to a Disco concert in Atlântico pavilion (the big concert hall in Lisbon) with one of her friends and there she met a young man (some 10 years younger than her) and started going out with him. He was very different from her – culturally, socially, etc – single, with no attachments, but he was exactly what she needed to regain her self esteem. He was young, quite good looking, fun, uncomplicated, great in bed…she enjoyed herself when she was with him and I was happy to see that she was becoming her old self again. After all, she had always been a positive, optimistic, strong girl.

Of course it didn’t last. It could not. When they went to Amsterdam for a long weekend and she spent a few days with him, she realized they really hadn’t much in common. He had been great, but he had already fulfilled his role – as much as this may sound awful it’s the truth – to help her recover her much battered self esteem and get her ready to move on.

So they parted with no regrets. After all, he was uncomplicated.

The following summer, while on holidays on the Algarve, she met someone she had known her whole life from afar. Apparently he was a long time admirer, but then she had been married. He was somewhat older (some 15 years) but a very charming man, from a very traditional and large family, very well educated, with strong principles…and conveniently divorced. They started going out and, if at first she was a bit reluctant – she told me she was not “madly in love” – she soon realized that he was really someone who was worth giving it a try and they started building a loving relationship that has lasted to this day. Maybe he was not a knight in shining armour, but he was certainly the loving, reliable companion all women dream of finding one day. And he has proven it in the most difficult moments.

When she turned 40, a few months after, she gave a big party and we were so happy to see her – it was as if she had been reborn. She was finally happy and we all agreed that she deserved that happiness.

That, alas, would not last long, as a few months later when she went to the doctor to do a follow up on her kidneys (she had always had some kidney trouble, but nothing serious so far), he told her her test results were very bad and that she would soon have to begin haemodialysis.

It was as if a nuclear bomb had hit her. After all she had endured – and probably also because of it – now she was in a good phase, with a new love, her children were okay (her middle son had also gone through very serious bouts of epilepsy after the separation), and even her terrible relationship with her ex was now going through a somewhat quieter phase…and now this. It was a terrible blow, and we were also in shock, not knowing how to help her.

The next months, years, were very hard for her: the procedure of inserting a catheter so that she might start dialysis had a lot of complications and it took a long time before she could begin – and the results of her tests were deteriorating daily. Then she started attending a dialysis centre three times a week, where she had to stay for several hours each time while connected to the machine. But it was incredibly depressing, as most of the people there were very elderly and in a terrible condition and this was not good for her spirits and motivation. Which she badly needed. In addition it was very difficult for her to reconcile all these hours away from home with the care of her children, whose custody she had managed to keep (they only saw their father on alternate weekends and Wednesday evenings) after a long judicial battle, so she asked her doctor to switch to peritoneal dialysis, that she might do at home, during 10 hours every night, sleeping while connected to the machine.

And so she did. And all through this, her new boyfriend stuck by her, loving her, supporting her, making her happy… we all thought he was a true gift from Heaven. He never let her down and would do everything to keep her spirits up and to make her believe she would eventually have a kidney transplant and then everything would be okay. Even if she had to wait for years for that.

But, soon, the results of her tests went from bad to worse, and she was told she urgently needed a new kidney or she might not survive. She was put in an “urgent” list for transplant, but still the odds were not good as we knew she had some particularities that made it difficult to find the right kidney for her.

At this point her boyfriend did something that has earned him my eternal respect and friendship: he offered to give her one of his kidneys! She was somewhat scared, and she said she didn’t want him to do that, as she didn’t want to have that obligation towards him. We tried to reason with her and make her see what an incredible proof of love this was…finally she said yes and he underwent the necessary compatibility tests but unfortunately his kidney was not compatible and she had resume her waiting. But his gesture was incredibly meaningful.

The horizon was dark with stormy clouds – but we never lost faith. Neither did she and one day she called me and said excitedly “Teresa, they have a fantastic kidney for me, I’m going to be operated on” and so she was. All through the long operation we prayed for her to have the chance to begin a new chapter in her life. As soon as it was possible – and incredibly it was on the day following the operation – I went to see her, with a mask because of the contamination danger. I was very moved when I saw her connected to all these tubes and screens but she was feeling quite well – considering the complicated surgery she had undergone – and she told me, as if not believing it “Teresa, you cannot imagine – my new kidney is functioning so well – I’ve already peed!” – only then did I fully understand what she had gone through. I was happy to see her so excited, so hopeful. She believed she was finally cured.

And, thank God, she was. During the following months she still had a few scares but, apart from that, her new kidney (that her doctor had defined as a “fantastic” one) functioned very well and she could finally lead a normal life. Not that she had not tried to lead one before, and we found her very brave for that, as she had never acted the sick person! She told me “you cannot imagine what it is to be able to sleep without being connected to a machine, after all these years!” She soon began travelling and doing the things she loved but had not been able to do during the last few years. Most of all, she could now believe in a future that before had seemed so uncertain.

Some years have passed. She now leads a totally normal life, with regular checkups, of course, but they are routine. She feels young and healthy and her boyfriend has moved in with her and her children and she feels quite happy. Technically she has a lifelong disability but still she works, as she wants to have an occupation. She keeps herself very active and has a lot of good friends. She likes to organize outings and often calls us inviting us for a night out at the theatre, a fashionable new restaurant or a disco.

Last year we paid a promise we had made when she was critically ill, before the transplant. We went together to Padua, in Italy, to Saint Anthony’s church. At the Saint’s tomb we lived a moment of great emotion – tradition has it that, as you pass by the tomb you should touch it. As we approached it, we held hands and, in a moment of intense emotion, while touching the cold marble, we prayed and thanked Saint Anthony for the miracle of her recovery. It was a very special moment we shared, and certainly no words can describe it. And there is no need, because we both know what we felt.

Her boyfriend was with us and respectfully gave us our space. We all came out feeling light, happy, with a very special light in our eyes. And then we lost ourselves in the streets of Padua.

…..

This is the story of my friend Gabi. A story of a woman who was happy, then very unhappy, then regained her happiness only to face an enormous challenge. That she vanquished with her strength and the support of those who love her. But above all with her will to survive, to be there for her children and see them grow, with her love for life and her sheer will…she is an indomitable woman and an example to us all. I love her as my friend, my sister, but I admire her as a being of courage and light.

To her, I leave my homage through these words. May her example inspire others who fight the same disease and give them the strength never to give up, and to believe, as she did, in recovery. In a new kidney. In a second chance in life. That she has had – both in love and in health.

 

Poor rich girl

My melancholic friend

Celebrating life