My Person Of Interest

Do you have a friend you can turn to when your world is spinning so fast you don’t know which way is up?

Your tailspin could be produced by good stuff, like planning a wedding, or bad stuff, like the loss of a loved one. Either way, your friend is there with an idea, an ear, a tissue, a latte, a glass (or bottle) of wine, a hug — whatever it is, she knows exactly what you need.

My “person” (to use the term made popular by the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy”) is a woman I’ve known for almost 22 years — exactly half my life. It feels like I’ve known her forever.

Phyllis Sigal is just the right amount of years older than I am so that I benefit from her wisdom, hindsight and hand-me-downs.

She’s been there, done that and bought the T-shirt, which she eventually gives to me, figuratively and literally.

That makes her not just my friend but also my mentor.

It all started when I was a cub reporter at The Times Leader and she was the Lifestyles editor. I was 22. She was friendly, creative, quirky, cool, and perhaps most significant at the time, she made me feel valuable as an employee and as a person. After knowing her just a few weeks, I knew I wanted to be her when I grew up.

Most of the close friendships I’ve made as an adult have been intentional: I have thrown myself at someone I find interesting, and sometimes I stick. But our friendship was natural, comfortable; it grew effortlessly, like sunflowers in fertile soil.

We have so many things in common — chief among them a deep and abiding love for chocolate, wine, musicals and a well-turned phrase.

We also have many differences. Take “Grey’s Anatomy,” for instance: She’s watched every single episode, and, to her horror, I’ve never watched one! Seriously, though, we grew up in different eras, have different faiths and different politics.

Despite this — or is it because of this? — I would not be who I am today without her. A line from “Wicked” (one of our favorite musicals) comes to mind: “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

On the career front, Phyllis taught me the basics of newspaper design. I was a sponge, soaking in her creativity and pouring it out on the page as best I could. We’ve proofread dozens, possibly hundreds, of each other’s articles, never feeling comfortable publishing a word until the other had taken a red pen to it.

Then there’s the fact that Phyllis was a trail-blazing, working mom, and she helped me navigate that jungle. When I questioned whether I could do it, I gained strength from her example. When I wondered how I could do it, she gave me tools to clear the way. When I needed to know why I should do it, she told me to trust myself.

She’s been my cheerleader, my sounding board and my best friend at work for my entire career.

When I left The Times Leader for a Pittsburgh job, she left soon after and became design editor at the Wheeling papers. When my husband Dave and I moved back to the valley the next year, it was a no-brainer that I would work beside her.

On a personal level, we’ve simply “done” life together. I was there for her children’s bar/bat mitzvahs, graduation parties, dance and theater performances, as well as her daughter’s wedding and her parents’ funerals. She hosted my bridal shower, and she and her children were in our wedding party. We’ve each supported the dreams of the other’s husband: I’m a BluesFest fan, and Phyllis is a regular customer at Mmm…Popcorn.

Most of all, we have shared with each other what we could never share with our spouses and would never share with our mothers.

When she left the newspaper two weeks ago to blaze another trail, her note to me said “I didn’t think we’d ever work apart again.” It’s hard being in the office without her. Who’s going to proofread my stuff?

Even though my person unintentionally applied the force that recently sent my world all topsy-turvy, I know I can count on her to be beside me for the ride. In my note to her I said, “Let’s do that ‘thing’ where we talk to each other more when we don’t see each other every day than when we did.” She agreed.

When your world is spinning out of control, I hope you have a person like Phyllis. Having her as a friend and mentor has been one of the biggest blessings of my life.

Betsy Bethel is the Life editor and editor of OV Parent magazine. She can be reached at bbethel@theintelli