By now, no matter where you live in the world, you’ve probably heard about my friend Wendi Winters. She’s the woman who saved the lives of six of her fellow newspapermen when she threw her office garbage can and recycling bin at the monster who attacked the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. While she saved lives, she sacrificed her own by taking a shotgun shell to the chest.
When we lose people, especially in such a heroic and horrible way, we tend to sort of beatify them; to amplify or exaggerate the best of their character and traits. In the case of Wendi, this would be hard to do. In life Wendy was outsized. She was tall, slim, with the most –unusual– red hair dye job and boundless curls. Her physical traits defined her persona. She had a penchant for wearing lots of eyeliner but no mascara, which always threw me for a loop. She was a force of nature. Truly incredible. Her heart was the size of the entire world.
When I started my chemo treatments, I was pretty sick. Physically and mentally, I wasn’t in an ideal place. I didn’t tell many people about my sickness–I didn’t want to have to explain the details, or listen politely to their inane advice, or see their clumsy attempts to hide an unpleasant reaction to my rashy, reddened spots. Around that time, Wendi called me up to try to convince me to take over a weekly column for the Capital, where she was a features writer. I wrote for the Baltimore Sun Media Group/Capital Gazette as a Food and Travel columnist and a long features writer for more than ten years, so she thought I might like a new and regular gig writing Food Reviews. I wasn’t super thrilled about her idea, but I agreed to meet anyway.
On the day of our rendezvous, I felt horrible and tried to cancel but Wendi convinced me to meet her in the building’s foyer. “Wow, you really don’t look yourself,” she said. We both lived at one time in New York City and we both loved fashion and being “put together” so she was more than a little surprised to find me in baggy sweatpants and running sneakers. I may or may not have been wearing a bra.
Here is what Wendy did not do when she saw me on that bench, trying to be as invisible as possible:
- She didn’t ask to see my spots
- She didn’t try to touch me or my spots
- She didn’t ask a single busybody question clothed in sympathy
- She didn’t make me feel pathetic, less than valuable or physically repulsive
- She didn’t shrink away when she saw how sick I clearly was
Here’s what she did do:
- She simply said, “I am here”.
Implicit in those three little words was the very definition of humanity. Implicit was everything she didn’t need to say out loud, or put into words: I care. I offer heartfelt and genuine sympathy. I offer comfort. I simply want to help. I am a true friend.
When I told her I really didn’t feel like talking, there wasn’t a point and anyway I just wanted to get back home where no one could see me, she gave me a friendly scolding. Wendi was very good at offering advice. Essentially she reminded me that when someone reaches out to you, and you don’t let them in, the person you are hurting the most isn’t you. It’s them. You aren’t depriving yourself of the hand offered. In fact, you are cutting off the hand–you are taking away an essential part of that person. Wendi reminded me of a universal fact I know to be true: people come into our day, or into our life for a purpose. When you shut someone out, you deprive them of their purpose.
I didn’t take that assignment. I was so nauseous back then, I don’t know how I would have managed. But I’ve thought often about that visit with Wendi. Now that she is gone, I’ve been reflecting on her purpose and gifts. Not the embellished ones, but the important ones she could be counted on for always pulling out of her Mary Poppins-like carpetbag right when you needed them.
At her memorial, her daughter ended the eulogy by saying, “Ask yourself, what would Wendi do?” It was meant to lighten the moment, but actually, its my challenge for you today, or this week, or this month, or whenever and however you can. What could you do to open yourself even a little to your loved ones, your neighbors, your friends, your community, your world?
- invite a friend who otherwise might avoid socializing for a walk or a run or a sunset paddle?
- send a friendly text out of the blue when you might have hesitated before?
- send a long lost friend or someone you know to be suffering an old-fashioned handwritten card or small gift?
- bring a sweet treat to a housebound new mommy or perhaps a dish to an elderly shut in?
- make a connection with someone you know to be struggling but who has sort of disappeared from social media, neighborhood events or workplace gatherings?
I’ve had all of these happen for me from my friends and from fellow My Peak Challenge Peakers. The receipt of these gifts of love has changed me for the better and forever. Anyway, the idea –the challenge– of remembering What Would Wendi Do is appealing to me, and it’s a way to keep Wendi prominent in my heart and mind. I hope you will accept the challenge of reaching out to others in a genuine way, and let me know in the comments how it went.
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