When Friends Become Family

About two years ago, this blog featuring stories of friendship was born amidst a time of loss and isolation.  In early 2021, vaccines were slowly being rolled out, but the many pandemic-related losses were still raw. Our children missed important milestones at school and our work lives were disrupted by the uncertainty and financial impact of the pandemic. Many of us lost friends, neighbors and loved ones, losses made harder to process amidst social isolation.

Endings are hard, and can be particularly difficult when the loss is an important part of who we are. When my professional life was upended in early 2020, I was fortunate to have a supportive friend and family network, even if our connection was largely relegated to Zoom. They helped me stay grounded and move forward. When it was challenging to picture what the next chapter of my career might look like, I knew I had many people in my corner, not to mention two sons counting on me to figure it out.

When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us.

Alexander Graham Bell

I was reminded of how important that web of supportive and interconnected individuals is to me while watching the movie A Man Called Otto on my recent winter escape to Cape Cod with Sara. Adapted from the book, A Man Called Ove, the renamed ‘Otto’ is played by Tom Hanks as the epitome of a curmudgeon. In the movie star’s honor, the bar inside Chatham’s Orpheum Theater featured what they said is Hanks’ favorite drink at the Oscars: Diet Cocagne. Half-champagne, half Diet Coke. What a combo!

In the movie, Hanks embodies the cranky and rude Otto, and he starts off as unlikeable until we begin to learn that his loss of all hope has been driving his grumpy behavior. Through flashbacks, we see Otto’s path to isolation. He was probably always a bit of a loner, having lost a parent while growing up and looking to escape by enlisting in the army.

The film opens some months after Otto’s wife has died following many decades of marriage. Given the insular life they built together, to Otto, there is no point to living life without her.  However, the universe intervenes in the form of others appearing in need of help that only Otto can provide. He begrudgingly steps up every time.   

These people experience a different side of Otto and come to form the family that Otto and his wife never really had. This extended family grows to include a quirky fitness-obsessed neighbor, a one-time friend turned foe bound to a wheelchair following a stroke, and even an adorable, if demanding, cat. They love and depend on Otto, as we witness near the end of the film through a montage of photos reflecting the power of friendship to give life new meaning.

While A Man Called Otto is tinged with sadness, it is unexpectedly optimistic as well. There is hope in watching Otto form deep, new connections with the people around him. The role that our ‘chosen family’ can play later in life might become an even bigger part of us than the family and career that fueled our 30s and 40s. Kids grow and move away and work becomes less of a defining characteristic. As 86-year-old Margaret Magnussen, author of The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly shares in a recent essay in Fortune, “Some people just become part of you.”

As I wiped away my tears watching Otto soften and warm up to his neighbors, I felt grateful for my own good fortune. I’ve formed deep friendships and community throughout my life, as well as remaining close to Sara and other high school friends who share memories of the teenage antics that helped me to become brave and find adventure in the everyday. I know that I am needed, supported and loved by those I count as friends near and far. And while a work of fiction, I was deeply gratified watching Otto display the humanity and vulnerability needed to create loving connections that once again made his life worth living. I was also reminded of another classic film with a similar message, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

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