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Not your everyday hero

| Thursday, March 30, 2017

A favorite author of mine once wrote, “As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.” Growing up, I remember often being asked, simply, who my hero was. I traditionally defaulted to one of many people I admired in my life for the roles they played and the lessons they taught me.
Fast forward some years later, and I began to realize the truth of that quote. Well, sort of. It wasn’t so much that the people I once considered heroes had changed or that their importance dwindled. It wasn’t that it became more difficult to have heroes. Rather, it was an epiphany of their necessity in my life.

According to her, I met my best friend during freshmen orientation weekend three and a half years ago. I say this because only one of us actually remembers meeting each other. I digress. It took a bit over two years later for us to really become acquainted, having exchanged the occasional hello on campus. Otherwise, our paths did not cross very often. We studied in different colleges. We associated with different friend groups. But it happened that on the week before fall break during junior year, we each took a moment in passing to see how the other was doing. I would be preparing for internship interviews. She would be undergoing the most painful medical procedure of her life.

Her fall break plans did not entirely surprise me. I was aware that she suffered from a series of autoimmune conditions that plagued her for years. But after that conversation, I became aware of her joyful disposition, gentle nature, and seemingly healthy body. The six-year battle with her health was invisible to me, for I had neither a basis of understanding from personal experience nor any outward sign of her illnesses from the way she looked or spoke. We continued that pleasant conversation for only a few minutes, but thankfully I remembered it this time.

So time went on and fate would have it that our conversation in a DeBartolo hallway led to a best friendship. I took an especially strong interest in her because of the way she approached each interaction with sincerity and commitment. Learning everything I could about her included the elephant in the room. I’ll never forget her telling me that her health permeated nearly every aspect of her life – diet, exercise, sleep schedule, social commitments, the timing of homework and travel plans, to name a few. What I so desperately desired to understand about her health and the consequences it had on most moments of her day was misguided. It is a long, ongoing process, but what I’ve grown to gather is the importance of compassion over understanding, principally because the one is possible and the other isn’t.

When growing close to someone with a chronic invisible illness, you begin to realize the heroism of his or her actions. While you can’t truly understand how one feels, you learn to appreciate that a smile and laugh are the product of profound grace and humility. These conditions are invisible because their effects are not readily apparent to the naked or untrained eye. But they are also invisible because those who suffer don’t let us see. Let me explain.

When my best friend isn’t just tired, but utterly exhausted, she doesn’t let you know because she cares more about you than she does about the way she’s feeling. When her bones and joints ache and her head is pounding, it’s invisible to us because she harbors the strength to keep the conversation going instead of dismissing herself due to intractable pain. It wasn’t until I grew close to her over this past year and a half that I witnessed the truest forms of selflessness and care. She exemplified what it means to be compassionate, empathetic, and authentic in a way that I didn’t just find myself admiring, but also being tremendously thankful for her passion to live as positive a life as possible in the midst of great suffering.

She is not alone. Notre Dame, along with every college campus in the country, has students who suffer from chronic invisible illnesses yet who continue to adopt a passionate and positive approach to their education and relationships. Today is Invisible Illness Awareness Day, and they deserve our support, recognition, and compassion for the battles they fight most moments of every day. Join the conversation Thursday night at 7 p.m. in Jordan Hall of Science, room 101. Learn more about the lives of some of the most heroic students at Notre Dame.

While my best friend’s illness may be invisible, her faith, hope and steadfast dedication to serving others are there for everyone to see. She’s certainly not an everyday hero, but she’s my hero every day.

Mark Grasberger


March 29

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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