It was fall and my life was filled with chaos and fatigue. I was involved in building a medical center with constant demands from the corporate office, colleagues, employees and physicians.  I had a busy social life, busy community service life and was desperate to find some peace. I felt like a 24/7 gas station filling everyone else’s empty tank with my energy while my own tank was empty.

It was time for a getaway to center myself and nurture my spirit, so I registered for a weekend retreat – three days and two nights – and couldn’t wait.

Upon arrival, I discovered I was to have a roommate (Darn, I didn’t ask enough questions before registering!). A roommate was not what I needed, but I thought, “OK, I’ll be pleasant to this person and there will still be a lot of time for peace, quiet and solitude.”  

I walked in silence to my room, took a deep breath, put my key in the lock and opened the door. My roommate had not yet arrived. However, within five minutes, someone burst into the room with, “Hi, I’m Cheryl. We’re going to have a great time this weekend!” For three days and two nights, Cheryl kept talking and talking, barely taking a breath between sentences. No wonder she complained of a headache. She shadowed me wherever I wandered on the beautiful rose-covered grounds.  

I came to learn she was getting a divorce and had two kids, one with Down syndrome. She sobbed and cried desperately, and my heart went out to her, but I needed some relief too!  Didn’t God understand that?  

The retreat ended on Sunday evening, and I returned home – un-rested, un-nurtured, un-centered and even more stressed than before I left.

 Three days later, Cheryl called my office at the medical center. “I have a malignant brain tumor,” she blurted out when I picked up the phone. She went on to say, “I feel so close to you” and thanked me over and over for my kindness at the retreat.

At that moment, I was saddened and ashamed. My behavior may have been kind, but my thoughts certainly had not. Suddenly it all made sense – her headache, her lack of control, her fear, her tears, her clinginess. Why was I supposed to be at that retreat on that weekend? It was for Cheryl. And it was for me. Although my life continued to be chaotic, my own “stuff” didn’t seem nearly as awful or overwhelming.

I called Cheryl twice a week after that – just a 5-minute call – for about a year. Then she told me that her treatments were over, and she was much better. I stopped calling and stopped thinking about her.

About two years later, I was having dinner with a friend at a restaurant. A lovely woman came to our table and asked if I was Susan. When I said “yes,” she hugged me tightly and said, “I’m Cheryl. I’m cured, I’m alive and I’m happy…and you are the angel who helped me. Thank you.” 

I’m convinced it was no coincidence that Cheryl was assigned to my room that weekend. I was recruited as an unwilling volunteer “angel” to help Cheryl through a terrifying, painful and lonely ordeal. But the more I think about Cheryl, the more I realize how much I benefitted from befriending her. It opened my heart, helped me put my own problems in perspective and reminded me that everyone with whom I come in contact needs love and compassion. Oftentimes, when we’re chosen to be the “angel,” we receive more than the person we’re helping.  

Dr. Susan Murphy is a best-selling author, business consultant and speaker specializing in relationships, conflict, leadership, and goal-achievement. She is co-author of LifeQ: How To Make Your Life Your Most Important Business and In the Company of Women. She can be reached at [email protected].

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