Life is so often more than we see on the surface.
A dear friend of mine died this week. On the surface, she was a disabled woman in her 60’s, living alone, managing the routines of life only with a great deal of assistance from her sister and friends.
The entire sixteen years I knew her, Karen was in pain, the victim of chronic conditions that left her in absolute agony much of the time – enough so that she was on morphine to cope with it, and there were still nights when she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t find anything approaching a comfortable position.
But if that’s all you saw, you’d be missing the gift that Karen was to those of us who loved her. Her health problems plagued her from a very young age, and yet she fought to live life on her own terms with a grace and humor that belied the pain. Although she described herself as shy, she loved meeting new people, and approached them with such warmth that I seldom saw her rebuffed. She loved to travel, loved photography, music, poetry and art, and had an adventuresome streak a mile wide.
She traveled for a while with Billy Joel, as a photographer for his band (not the man himself – she’d always make that quite clear) and at another point in her life, was involved with hot air ballooning, part of the support team that followed the balloon on the ground.
I met her online in 1997, and then in person in Los Angeles in March, 1998, where we were attending a seminar on the television show MacGyver that was part of that year’s Paley Festival.
You know how sometimes you just click with someone? That was me and Karen. I have vivid memories of laughing to the point where we couldn’t breathe that weekend, and once we were back in our respective states, we kept in touch, eventually deciding we wanted to take a trip together.
One trip led to the other, and we added friends along the way. Over the next ten years, we had all kinds of adventures, from a visit to the Stargate SG-1 set, to cruises, to trips to Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago, and the UK. We flew in a helicopter, went to the top of a mountain in Whistler, visited Barrow, Alaska (on the arctic circle), saw Stonehenge, Avebury, and Hadrian’s Wall, celebrated New Year’s Eve on the Thames, and were in LA the night The Return of the King swept the Oscars.
Not all of our adventures were that glamorous: we visited the Prince Rupert, B.C., city dump in the hopes of seeing a bear (we didn’t, but we did get some amazing photos of bald eagles) and we were prone to getting lost and going in circles when driving in unfamiliar cities. (Hey, this was before smart phones and GPS, okay?)
Karen was the single most generous person I’ve ever known. She loved to surprise people with things they’d admired, and today, I’m looking around my house, which seems full of things she gave me, from the inexpensive and silly to the art work she loved and thought I’d love, too. (She was nearly always right.)
One of her favorite people in the universe was her nephew. She called him the brightest light in her life, and finding just the right gifts for him was a priority on every trip we ever took.
She wasn’t only generous in terms of physical gifts, though, but also of time. When you talked to Karen, you knew she was listening; when she told stories, she stopped periodically to make sure you were interested. And you were, or should have been, because she’d led a fascinating life.
When I first met her, she was still working, but gradually, that was lost to her, lost to her increasing disability. Where once we’d had the misadventure of being lost in a small Canadian town in the middle of the night (dragging our luggage behind us), it became increasingly difficult for her to walk more than a few steps at a time.
Travel became impossible, even with me there to help her, so the last few times I saw her, I went to visit her, flying down for ten days in 2010, taking a road trip to see her with two other friends in 2012, and then spending this past New Year’s with her. I will forever be grateful for that week, not just that I was able to go, but that she was feeling better than she had the last few times I’d seen her. We hung out, watched TV (she got me hooked on Bones, by the way), talked for hours, and went to see The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug together.
One of the things we talked about that week was how purposeless her life felt. She could no longer drive, and felt increasingly disconnected from friends, so I set up things to make it easier to stay in touch with us (Twitter, a GroupMe account.) It worked, too, as the weeks after I came home she was more active in our lives.
Here is where I’m conflicted: I’m heartbroken that she’s gone, particularly when she seemed to be doing better; I’m sad that I won’t be able to share Bones with her anymore, or the third Hobbit film, and that we’ll never do the SG-1 marathon we discussed. I’m desperately sorry for her sister and nephew, and for all of us who were privileged to know and love her.
But I can’t bring myself to regret that she’s no longer in pain. I know that, however grateful I am for the week we had last month, and the temporary reprieve she had, that she was still in pain, and it wasn’t going to get better. Not on this side of death, at least.
What I do regret is that I could never get her to see that she wasn’t a burden on any of us, that all of our lives – and I know for certain this is just as true of her family – were enriched by Karen’s love and laughter. That however much I love the adventures we went on – and many of the highlights of my life to date involve her – that I equally loved just sitting in her living room, drinking tea or coffee and chatting with her.
On her Livejournal, Karen had said this:
“No matter where the road takes us – (far away, or around the corner) – when adventures are shared with friends, the experiences are pleasantly implanted in my heart to be re-called and re-lived at will……I am a Christian, I believe that life is a gift, and I cherish each day. My family and friends are the true treasures of my life. They hold the keys to my heart.”
She died relatively young, and yet had packed so much living into the life she had, I find myself wanting to respond to her death by being more like her, by being more like the woman who wasn’t completely sure what meaning her life had.
It had great meaning, dearest of friends. Go with God, until we meet again.