Mary Cail

Founder of The All-Weather Friend

The All-Weather Friend website is a place to come when a friend is going through a hard time, and you want to know more about it.

I use the term "informed compassion" to describe what I hope to provide when the website is complete—or more complete, anyway. It's a work in progress. Compassion is a feeling of empathy for another person's suffering. Informed compassion is a combination of empathy, understanding and knowledge.

Please send your thoughts, stories and contributions—you can contact me ( 


 I was in a Lisbon airport eight months after my husband’s death, exhausted from a night of traveling and a long layover at Charles de Gaulle Airport, the earthly testing ground for purgatory. The guide I had hired from my desk in Virginia, cradling a phone receiver on my shoulder and fumbling for my credit card, was not there. The trip to Portugal for a riding trek on the Algarve was an eleventh-hour escape from my first wedding anniversary as a widow. I had somehow felt, until the last possible minute, I could face the prospect of spending this night alone in my (our) bedroom. But as the day drew near, my resolve to be a pulled-together person crumbled. 

I had less than a week to cobble together my frequent flyer miles and make these desperate plans. The morning of departure, I locked my house wondering what essentials I'd failed to cram into a suitcase overstuffed with riding gear. I was not in good shape. While packing I tried to make coffee, which in comparison is a simple task, and the result was a hot brown river running over the counter and into the towel drawer.

I was no more than a short flip back in the calendar from needing to do battle with myself to venture out for pet food and milk. Leaving home filled me with an unfamiliar, indescribable dread that would suddenly, unpredictably paralyze me. I'd sit marooned in my car, gasping for breath with my heart pounding.

Yet here I was, alone in the Lisbon airport—before the days of cell phones, back when pay phones that required actual coins, and lots of them, were still in use. Given my lack of organizational skills under the best circumstances, I silently admitted that I could possibly be in the wrong city and definitely at the wrong airport. I was pretty sure I was in the right country.  

In a wave of panic, I dragged my suitcase back to the information booth to confront the clerk, who had nonchalantly waved me away earlier that morning with a quick spurt of Portuguese. Apparently, being in charge of “Informacao de Aeroporto” meant, to this person, exchanging gossip with the pastry vendor. Seeing me approach again, she leaned back slightly and folded her arms over a built-in countertop of bosom. Hair the color of a half-ripe banana sprouted in stiff tufts from her head, and she drummed long red nails. As she drew in a breath, I preemptively locked eyes with her and held her gaze for a few seconds without blinking. “I know you speak English,” I said, pausing to drive the point home. “I’m not leaving this time until you speak it.”

It’s not always so easy to overcome a breakdown in communication, and the estrangement that happens in a foreign country can occur with the people we love, from no further away than across a table. The proverb To understand is to forgive says in five words one of the most important of human truths: Compassion arises naturally from understanding.

I began the All-Weather Friend with the goal of deepening empathy and tolerance between people when life heads in a grim direction. Both, I believe, flow more freely from true understanding than from good intentions alone. A person who has never lost a loved one may imagine what the death of a spouse or child would be. She may feel genuinely moved by another’s grief. Imagination is transformed to informed compassion when she suffers such a loss herself and can identify—or when she can relate deeply to the stories and advice of those who have.

With All-Weather Friend materials, I hope to ease some of the difficult situations we face in life by helping people help friends in serious trouble. 

And back to Portugal. Realizing the only way to get rid of me was to supply a modicum of useful information, such as the location of a public telephone and dialing instructions, the woman relented with an exasperated sigh and a glance at her fingernails.

A while later, after I had haggled my way through a number of foreign operators who knew collectively less than ten words I could decipher (“Hallo,” “No, I cannot do,” and “Goodbye”), I finally managed to make contact with my booking agent. By then my own English had deteriorated. “Where is the GUIDE!?” I shrieked into the phone.

There followed an apology and an explanation: My plane, it seems, came in many many hours ahead of anyone else’s the guide was meeting. So I would, of course, telepathically intuit the need to situate myself on an airport bench and wait patiently and without alarm for the better part of the day. I then learned the only three words of Portuguese I remember now, besides obrigado (“thank-you”)—cafe com leite, which means coffee with milk.


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Helping friends be friends when it matters most