I consider myself a pretty friendly person. I’m the sort who, when meeting someone new, prefers to view them as a potential friend than a possible enemy. I welcome strangers to my table and find nothing awkward in telling people to “scootch up” and make room for another chair. Being an introvert I can’t say I enjoy crowds, but put me one-on-one with someone and I’ll at least try to hold up my end of the conversation.
Several months back, maybe as much as a year, I met this woman I’ll call “Jill” while walking with Holly on the Airline Trail. I’d seen her before; we’d make eye contact, nod, maybe say hello. Occasionally, she’d stop to admire Holly and give her a pat. Little by little, we came to know each other a bit, exchanged names, that sort of thing. Eventually, we shared phone numbers with an idea toward meeting to walk or bike, both of us eager for company. Jill was recently retired (she was a college phys ed teacher), outdoorsy like me, and loved animals as I do. We both had “issues” with our birth families and step-children which we shared and laughed over. I really felt that I was making a friend.
Then it happened.
See, Jill has some fairly significant health issues, particularly with her spine. One day, as we walked, she mentioned some difficulty she was experiencing and I suggested she look into equine therapy. I worked at a therapeutic riding facility for several years and I’ve remained enamored of the field and the good–sometimes the miracles–that occur between horses and riders. It’s pretty astonishing stuff.
To my horror, Jill hunched over like a crone and began to do a sideways crab-walk, her fingers curled into claws. “I don’t want to ride with a bunch of retards,” she said.
I blurted, “JILL!” She laughed, like it was the biggest joke in the world. And me? I was speechless. I couldn’t find the words to convey my disappointment in her…and in me for not speaking up. Something inside told me she wouldn’t care, anyway, that she’d make some excuse or brush it off as a joke (sort of like that TSA employee who recently flicked the braids of a Native woman and said, “Giddy-up!”), and I let that “something side” keep me mum.
But it’s never left my mind, and I haven’t seen Jill since. Granted, she has some weird sort of schedule and it seemed to always be me making the overtures to meet-up, but I’ve maintained radio silence. Recently, she sent me a text indicating she’d like to get together. I didn’t respond because I was headed out of town for several days. Now that I’m back, I’m not sure I’ll respond in any case.
That “friendliness gene” in me says to give her a second chance, to get together and explain that if we’re to be friends, she needs to understand how badly her words upset me. Maybe I’ll learn that it was a foolish moment, words uttered and regretted instantly (although she gave no indication of that; rather the contrary). We’ve all said things we regret, all made first impressions we wish we could erase, all dreamed of do-overs. On the other hand, if that cruel remark is a clear indication of who Jill truly is (and based on some of her other comments, I have no reason to think otherwise), she’s not the sort of person I can consider a friend.
This is not a question of ideology; of me thinking I’m better than someone else or wanting only friends who mirror my beliefs. I love intelligent discourse when both parties believe differently, and I can “agree to disagree” when need be. (Case in point, I have a cousin who refutes evolution. I don’t agree with him, but I still love him.) Maybe this thing with Jill hit me so hard because I’ve worked with those riders and gotten to know them as they struggle with their disabilities. I met some who others might classify as “vegetables” and come to understand their beautiful and subtle way of communication. And I have family members, people I respect and love, who battle similar challenges every day. Would Jill decline to ride with them?
I suspect so, and it makes me wonder what sort of teacher she was given her inability to accept and embrace those with challenges. Were her own athletes so physically perfect? Should people look down at her because of the issues with her spine? Perhaps her own unhappiness with her back is the source of her bitter remark, a realization that occurs to me only now. Perhaps a text is in order, and invitation to coffee and conversation.
We shall see.