Karen and I met in grad school. We would go on to work for the State at Disability Services together. We We lived a lot of life together and the part of life in my new marriage where things were hard. We worked through the problems of raising kids (and husbands) together. We found out all the reasons why working for a bureaucracy like the State pretty much sucks. We solved the world's problems together. At least we tried.
I'll never forget the day that she called and told me she had breast cancer. We both talked about it but honestly, we were both a little relieved. We both had handled lots of disability claims so we knew breast cancer was one of those things that ends well almost all the time. We talked about that. We talked about chemo and treatment and mastectomies and all that. Quickly she started treatments and they were pretty much hell. By that time she was working as a Director for the United Way and she just kept right on working. That was who she was.
I'll also never forget after the treatment her calling me. I met her to watch Kelsey, her daughter, run a cross country meet. After the meet we headed to Shenanigans for a drink when she let me know that the doctors told her the treatments weren't working and that they wouldn't work. Clearly, I thought, they are wrong. You can't die from breast cancer. You can't die because you are too young. You can't die because you have a teenage daughter and a son who is just getting started in the adult world and you have Hugh, who drives you crazy but who you love like crazy and you have your step kids and you have me. You can't leave me. (Yeah, I am selfish that way and was selfish then too.)
Things would go quickly from there. I watched her try to tie up loose ends at work and I watched her trying to take care of everyone around her--it blew me away. I watched her buy a prom dress for Kelsey that she would not get to see her wear and a car that she would not get to really see her drive. I watched her buy a boat for Eric her son and tell him to not get married before she would pass because she didn't want to make the day about her and make it a sad day. Over and over I watched her make selfless move after selfless move.
We had lots of talks about those kinds of things you only talk about when someone is dying. She shook my faith to the core. I talked to her about God, Heaven, all that stuff. These were conversations Karen and I had always had but this time they meant something different. Karen didn't believe in God or an afterlife of any sort and I remember asking her why. She said, "Don't you think I would believe if I could? Don't you think that if there was ever a time to believe that this would be it? But I don't. I can say I do, but I don't." I can still picture where we were sitting when we had that conversation. I have played it around in my head many times since then because it had such a deep spiritual effect on me. Still does, but I can't even begin to explain all those thoughts in writing.
It was so hard watching her say goodbye to people she loved. Saying goodbye to her changed us all. She left a legacy--her family, friends, the many, many people she helped...her selflessness was a legacy and it still inspires me. Her daughter has a new baby and I smile so big looking at the pictures of him--Karen would have been such a fun grandparent and she would have been crazy about him. She adored her kids.
You never know when you will meet your next friend--the one that changes you. I know that walking into SIUE to that grad school class I had no idea that the pretty girl next to me would make me a different person. When Karen died she did not want a funeral. She wanted a celebration--she loved a party. The following are the words I was able to share at her life celebration.
Memories of Karen…
Many of us will not forget Karen’s infamous deviance project that she did for her deviance class. The assignment? Groups were to decide something deviant they could do as a project, carry it out and analyze it. Karen headed up her group in organizing a “mock” student organization called WOOF—WOOF stood for the World Organization for the Obliteration of Food Shortage. They sought campus organizational status, developed a brochure and made arrangements to have a booth at a student campus fair. The day of the fair arrived and WOOF’s organizational booth got a lot of attention. Maybe it was because the goal of Woof was to try to get students to donate their pets to feed children in third world countries. They put up pictures of children and starving children from third world countries. They had a sign up sheet for those willing to donate their pets and those wanting to join the organization. This, in itself, was upsetting for many of the students around—they began to protest. But it probably was the menu books that were distributed with menus for “poodle struedel” and chow chowmein—not to mention the wok they had set up cooking stir fry they told people was chow chowmein—that (and the large group of student protestors that had gathered) was probably why the dean came down to make sure the wok was taken away.
There is no doubt that Karen enjoyed a good story, a good joke, a chance in her very professional (subversive, but effective) way to raise a little hell and buck the establishment. She was one of those individuals that manage to get things done her way; all the while making people think she is doing them a favor and that they are totally getting their own way.
In grad school I laughed at her every semester. The university would threaten to throw out her enrollment because she did not have shots so every semester Karen would file a religious petition explaining that her religion prohibited her from having shots. If you asked Karen what her religion was she would explain that it was the “religion of no shots.”
When I think about how Karen felt about bureaucracy in graduate school it was great irony that she and I would end up working for the state—the pinnacle of bureaucracy. It drove Karen crazy that there were “rules” for “rules”—she found ways of letting people know that she would do things her own way—something like a child who lets you know I’ll do it because I want to; not because you told me to. I remember the stupid “Professional” dress code drove us so crazy that it became a sort of contest to see who could end up wearing the closest thing to pajamas without it actually being pajamas.
Karen was always making lists and plans—every day as we worked together—driving the 45 minute commute to and home from work and taking our breaks together we would plan our lives out—Karen would joke; calling it our “reevaluate our life plan” it was during those planning sessions that we shared our parenting fiascos and successes our latest plans for finishing our thesis or getting out of working at Disability and for Karen, her marriage to Hugh. Every year we would spend time deciding our New Years Resolutions Until Karen eventually called me to meet for drinks one year where she let me know that she had settled on Only one New Years Resolution for that year—to eat a package of M and Ms every day—for the next three years she called to let me know she was keeping that resolution because she had not managed to accomplish it the year before.
Karen had many of the things that I struggled with and I was always in awe of that—her total steady, straight, “unflappability” always amazed me—she never missed a beat. I used to joke that aliens could drop from the sky and Karen would know exactly what to say and do. She simply was never shaken.
She was incredibly direct and honest, yet gracious and kind—a package that disarmed many. She was the sort of friend that after a bad haircut when my other friends said nothing or gave false compliments Karen would say, “Now why did you do that to your hair?” I never saw Karen be fake or anything but straightforward in all the time I have known her.
Karen and I shared a love for bargains and many of you have been the recipients of her finds—she used to live behind K-Mart and would call to let me know when an unusually great bargain deal was available—I will not forget the year that she bought many, many little plastic ponies with little hairbrushes to comb their manes with—because after all, you never knew when you were going to need a plastic pony with a hairbrush. Over the years Karen taught me really critical things but one of the most practical was certainly her restaurant advice which let me know which restaurants had Kids Eat Free nights—She bragged she could eat out five nights of the week getting free meals for her kids—it really bummed her out when her kids aged out of the system although she always argued that Eric looked young for his age.
Karen always thought she and Hugh could open a bed and Breakfast—actually she called it a “Bread and McBreakfast” in which they would serve egg mcmuffins because she really did not want to have to cook for everyone.
One of my biggest privileges in being Karen’s friend has been that we have been able to watch our children grew up. Karen, as all of you know, not only loved her children—she liked them and admired them. She marveled at Eric’s ability to charm just about anyone and Kelsey’s sense of social justice and willingness to fight for an underdog.
Not only have I got to see her relationship with her kids, but her relationship with Hugh. I often marveled at the differences between the two of them—Hugh, passionate and excited and moving constantly and Karen, calm and steady. She could let Hugh rant and go on for an hour and in just a couple of calm sentences pull all the thoughts and decisions together. I have been privileged to watch the two of them parent and step-parent and create this amazing, blended family and a home that is the kind of place you want to grab a cup of coffee and stay a while.
It is impossible to begin to understand at this point how much I will miss my friend. It has been my honor to share life with her. She and I spoke often of faith. Our faith was not the same—in many ways it was different. Karen’s faith was that of a practitioner, an applied sociologist and a compassionate idealist—Karen’s faith was this—that kind, dedicated, thoughtful individuals can make a difference in the world—a unique faith in a world where it is much easier to be a cynic. Karen lived out this faith every day in her education and her work and she taught this faith to her children. The faith that what we do matters and that life is short and we need to work to help others who can’t help themselves and that we actually can change things.
Over and over the last couple of days I have marveled that the sun continues to rise and that the world keeps on spinning just as it did before Sep. 8, 2004. I know that for those of us in this room, the world is a different place than it was before that day. I also know that my friend Karen made it better.