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WEIGHT LOSS LEAVES MORE TO LOVE

She gave me all of three days' notice before her bariatric surgery.

"This is something I have to do," she said in a call from her home in Jacksonville. "And I don't want you talking me out of it."

Fleka and I have been friends for 25 years. Her name, chosen by her father, means "girl" in Swedish. It's pronounced with a long "e," which hapless people learn whenever they meet Fleka and immediately joke, "Hey, just like the horse, heh, heh." She responds with a stare that could freeze Satan.

We met in 1983, and she spent the first year ridiculing me behind my back as "Miss Love the World." Apparently, I was a tad too cheerful. But we both liked John Cougar Mellencamp, straight talk and the lilac tree that bloomed outside the window behind my desk. That was enough common ground to jump-start a lifelong friendship.

I want you to know other things about Fleka, things that mattered long before she decided to have the surgery that changed her life - and how others see her.

She held my daughter when my daughter was a week old, and she swore that mine was the only kid she would ever love. Fourteen years later, she gave birth to her own daughter and recalibrated, but only a bit. "Now I love two kids in the world," she said.

Fleka is a woman of many talents, and I've called on every one of them. During my years as a single mother, she came over to my rented house and repaired electrical outlets, assembled furniture without instructions, and helped me paint nearly every room in the joint.

She sat with me on the front porch in the rain when I needed to talk, uncorked champagne when I wanted to celebrate, and was the only person my mother wanted at the foot of her deathbed.

"I just want to see your face," she told Fleka, who stood for hours at a time, sitting only when my mother closed her eyes.

I want you to know all this about my friend because too many people - total strangers and people who were supposed to love her - saw her, first and foremost, as a woman who needed to lose weight. They often felt free to tell her so, too.

Sometimes a good memory is a burden. I recall too many times when Fleka would recount in a matter-of-fact voice a devastating comment about her weight from a friend or relative. What broke my heart was her refusal to defend herself. I would fume, but she just would shake her head and say, "Con, look at me."

Last year, she decided she was tired of diets that didn't work and fearing the diabetes her doctor warned was coming. Most of all, she hated that she could not keep up with her 6-year-old daughter.

"I want to sit on the floor with her and not worry about how I'm going to get up," she said on the day she announced her plans for bariatric surgery. "I need you to be my friend and understand."

I have observed two such surgeries. I harbored no illusions about her first few weeks of recovery. She was in for dramatic change.

Fleka came to visit last week. She has lost 70 pounds so far and, as she puts it, "a whole lot of baggage."

To say there is a new lightness in her step sounds as corny as it is true, but that doesn't begin to describe what has happened to my normally shy friend. She makes small talk with waitresses. She smiles for no reason. And when a colleague recently felt free to tell her how "hideous" she used to look, Fleka told her she had crossed a line.

"You have no right to talk to me like that," she said, probably for the first time in her life.

Strangers respond differently. No more stares or verdicts. Several times, I saw them return her smile.

People who know her respond differently, too. Her boss recently pulled her aside and said, "You're one of the bravest people I know."

She laughed, but he told her to knock it off. "I'm serious," he said. "I really admire you."

There is a part of me that still fumes. Fleka always has been Fleka.

As she sheds pounds, others shed their biases. Their loss, I guess, is her gain.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

©Creators Syndicate Inc.

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