Joco Opinion

Friendship can break the language barrier

I walked into the hospital where my dad has been for an extended stay to find my dad sitting next to his new friend. They chatted away, back and forth. His friend is friendly, animated, with bright eyes and a big smile. My dad responds in kind.

It was great to see my dad socializing.

“That guy has lots of very interesting stories to tell,” my dad mused to my brother.

“Unfortunately, I don’t understand a word of what he says,” he added.

You see, what makes their friendship unusual is that they do not speak the same language. His friend speaks only Spanish, and appears to lack even a basic English vocabulary. My dad’s Spanish is limited to a Mexican restaurant’s menu.

Yet, they have created a bond, dependent on something other than language. They convey some sort of understanding to each other, and have become buddies. Enough so that my dad has expressed how much he’ll miss this mysterious man when he leaves, back to his own country.

The hospital staff has expressed to us how much this friendship has meant to this fellow, who for stretches of time has nobody to talk to.

It’s hard to say what made my dad and this man become friends. Thrown together into a hospital setting is surely a clue. Yet there are other patients there, who are likewise friendly. Other tales to share.

I would point, first, to my dad’s ever-present compassion. Compassion was the defining value in my family growing up. It was not so much taught, as felt deeply by all of us. We all cringe together to see someone in need. We ask each other what we can do to help. We support each other in reaching out.

So it’s not difficult to imagine Dad noticing that someone needed a friend, and sitting down to say “hola.” But something has made that conversation continue.

One would think that friends must have something in common. Do they? Do they not? It appears to not matter with those two.

Their conversations are a true volley of thoughts and emotions. They read each other’s expressions, tones and hand gestures. It almost seems they read each other’s minds. And their responses seem to be based on what they think the other is saying.

Unencumbered by the burden of actually having to understand each other, they simply assume the best of each other.

They’ve made a gentlemen’s agreement to be on each other’s side. To be supportive. To offer each other company.

The definition of “friendship” is constantly challenged. As I talked to my daughter recently about one of her friends whose interests are changing, I pointed to Grandpa.

I explained that friends let friends be themselves. That means we let them change. We take them for what they are. We accept that there are things we don’t know about each other, but that’s OK. That’s what makes things interesting.

And never, ever, discount someone as a potential friend, because you might just find a treasure in the most unlikely of places.

Reach Overland Park mom Emily Parnell at On Twitter:@emilyJparnell.