The only way to have a friend is to be one ~ Ralph Waldo EmersonEarly in our first year in the Peace Corps in Fatsa, Turkey, one evening a man from Ordu, a town a little farther east on the Black Sea, knocked on our door. He introduced himself as Can Gűrel, the owner of a tutoring business. He apologized profusely for intruding, but he hoped we wouldn't mind. He was trying to teach himself English, and was hoping we could read some sentences from his text book, English 900, into his tape recorder so he could hear how the words were supposed to sound. We were very happy to read those sentences. That was the start of our great friendship. (Note: the "C" in Turkish is pronounced like "J" in English, so Can's name is pronounced just like "John.")
Can soon invited us to his home in Ordu, where we met his wife, Nurcan, and one year old daughter Diler. We toured Ordu, had dinner, and talked and laughed a lot. With our Turkish and Can's English, we communicated just fine, even if sometimes we both had to resort to our Turkish-English pocket dictionaries. Patty and I socialized with Can and Nurcan a lot while we were in Fatsa, and the four of us became good friends. After we moved to Konya for our second year, we continued our friendship through regularly exchanging letters. Can became a Peace Corps Turkish language instructor for the group that followed ours. That group was the last group that went to Turkey, and only stayed less than a year.When we returned from the Peace Corps, we landed jobs teaching English as a Second Language in Camden, New Jersey. That very first year we were back, John, Nurcan and Diler visited us in New Jersey. We did all the sights, and had a wonderful time, although somebody had told Nurcan that the two "must see" American cities were Pittsburgh and Baltimore! We chose to tour Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and I think Nurcan was quite put out. We did point out Baltimore as we drove by though!
Can was a very ambitious man, always seeking to learn more and better himself. Again he asked a favor that we were glad to help fulfill. He had been accepted to the MBA program at the University of Michigan, and needed a US sponsor for his visa. My parents met the qualifications and were glad to sponsor him. Can got his degree, bought a car, loaded it with US goods, and had it shipped back to Turkey.Can became a very successful businessman in Istanbul. He was the founder of Akad, a company that imported medical instruments from Germany and distributed them in Turkey. Can and Nurcan had a house in Istanbul and a summer home on the Marmara Sea.
All throughout the years we kept in touch with letters. News of the kids, careers, family pictures. Can came to visit us in Fall City in 1991. He was alone on a business trip, and he said he could not come to the US without seeing us. Austin was five months old.In 1993, Can and Diler visited us in our home in Fall City. Diler was now 25, and accompanying Can on another business trip. They were also going to California to see Disneyland. Can said "Please come with us!" I said that I couldn't just drop everything and take off from my job. He said "Please, how many chances do we have to spend time together?" I said he was absolutely right. I told my partners I would be gone for a few days. We bought airline tickets for LA and left on an impulse to spend time with our friends from Turkey.
We had a fabulous time! We had dinner on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Can's travel agent in Turkey had booked him into a fleabag hotel in Hollywood - Can walked in, took one look around, and said "We have to find some place else!" Who knew Hollywood was a ghetto?!!? We found a nice hotel somewhere else! Then down to Orange County for a day at Disneyland and Universal Studios. Then we said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways - Can back to Turkey, and us to Fall City.About a month later, I was in the file room in my law office in Issaquah. The fax machine started receiving a fax, and I smiled when I saw the Akad company letterhead start to emerge from the machine. When it was done, I was still smiling, thinking about what Can might have to say after our great trip to California together.
Instead, the letter said, "We regret to have to tell you, your good friend Can Gűrel has had a heart attack and died." Diler later wrote us a letter with more detail. Can was in Ankara to give a speech, did not feel well, sat down, and then simply fell over dead. He was 55. Diler was devastated. She wrote, "He was my father, my best friend, my everything."Diler took over as the CEO of Akad. Our son Barrett visited Diler in Istanbul when he and his girlfriend (now wife) Laurie took an extended trip through the Middle East and Eastern Europe in 2003. We have written several letters, but we have really lost touch with Diler. One day we hope to go back to Turkey, and we will look her up for sure.
I choke up every time I tell this story. My eyes are welling up with tears right now as I type. I look back and thank the heavens that I took that last trip to California with Can. I can't imagine how I would have felt if I had decided not to go and then learned of his death. Can was truly my best friend in the world.