Written by Rose
It was the Fall of 1994.
I was 25. Nearing a December completion of my MBA, I had spent the last 4 years of nights and weekends in a dizzying ping pong game between my full time job in publishing, a full class load at a campus an hour away- two evenings a week plus Saturdays-, team projects that were never quite executed by the “team”, scuba diving lessons one night a week and the occasional date with the wrong kind of guys- perhaps an escape from my overly-scheduled life to the wild side. I remember finding myself sitting in the driver’s seat of my Nissan Maxima listening to TLC singing “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls (please stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to) or Desiree crooning “You Gotta Be (bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser, you gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger..) wondering which destination I was headed to- work, class, scuba, study group, date with Mr Wrong; it sometimes seemed my car just knew where to go before I did. It was such an utterly, unthinkably busy time…and I loved it. A frenzy of learning and of perpetual motion. Twenty five.
It was the Spring of 1985.
She was 35. She had a successful banking career with Mellon Bank, then at the top of the banking world. She had been married but that came to an end shortly after her banking career did. One day, after locking the bank vault and closing up for the day, she went out to the bank parking lot and could absolutely not remember where she had parked but it wasn’t your usual “now where’d I park?” moment; this time she couldn’t remember what her car looked like nor even where she lived if she could find her car. A kind co-worker, seeing her confusion drove her home. Even the house drew a blank. Words became a jumble of nonsense. After a week’s time and several specialists, the cause of confusion was known; Kristen had an inoperable brain tumor. In the midst of aggressive treatments, her husband left her. He just couldn’t take seeing her like that, he said. Her cocker spaniel stood faithfully by her; a much better companion anyway, truth be told. Ten years passed, remission was a blessing. Volunteering became her joy. Laughter was her trademark; it erupted from her whenever and wherever possible. Smiling everywhere she went to everyone she met, she genuinely began a new life full of appreciation for the little things: family nights, snowball fights, summer tubing trips down the Delaware River and trips to a cabin in upstate Pennsylvania with close friends, movie nights (never complete without popcorn- and ice cream!), gardening in her back yard, cuddling Bryon her faithful cocker spaniel. Joy was hers.
Now, in the Fall of 1994, the tumor decided to grow.
Most 20-somethings don’t know what the hallways of National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD look like; I do. Certainly 20-somethings don’t know what an experimental procedure involving an inter-cranial catheter device looks like, I do; it’s a metal crown screwed into the skull in four places with a catheter, penetrating through the skull and delivering a continuous drip of experimental cancer-killing drugs into the brain– and the amazing thing is someone can be upright and walking around with this space-age torture device sticking out of her head, pulling along the IV-pole everywhere she went. My best friend, Kristen and I walked miles of NIH hallways together. For Kristen, I brought (and applied) fake tattoos to each butt cheek to give anyone looking at the rear of her hospital gown a bit of a laugh! Her sense of humor always with her, she made everyone from patients to nurses to doctors laugh. She was my best friend’s sister and like an older sister I never had; I became a fixture and was there every spare minute I had. It added the last piece to my teetering-Jenga-tower-of-a-schedule but I didn’t care.
It was the winter of Kristen’s 35th year when we set up the hospital bed in the living room of my best friend’s house for her sister, Kristen. My new MBA didn’t teach me a thing about caring for a dying “sister”. I came to learn that somewhere inside me was a reserve of strength and courage; it helps our eyes see past sadness and find love, helps us ignore our tired bodies and focus on someone in need, it helps us overlook the messiness and take care of cleaning up, it helps us see hope. My best friend and I were 25 when we fed Kristen, talked for her, helped her to the bathroom, played her favorite Elton John music over and over and over again and spent hours talking to her, often about the mundane events of school, the news, people in town but sometimes of things we never told anyone else. She was an expert listener; it was all she could do. I was 25, when, during a miraculous week of “recovery” Kristen let me teach her how to speak the alphabet again- watching my mouth and then using the hand mirror I gave her to try to make the shapes of the letter sounds with her own mouth. After that, a few words came with great effort. I was ecstatic. I felt like I had climbed Everest. Those letters and words were monumental. I went home and collapsed on my bed, smiling.
The next morning when I went to see Kristen, everything was gone. Overnight, the tumor had swallowed all our progress and her ability to speak had been cruelly taken away. I had apparently been following a naive path, persistence and accomplishment was not my journey. “Loving what is” was to be my lesson. January’s new year brought Kristen the taste of snow falling as we wheeled her outside, February brought Valentines by the dozens covering the living room with cards and paper hearts from everyone who loved her, March brought warm breezes and, after carrying Kristen outside, a car ride in my Nissan Maxima to see the crystal blue sky through the sunroof, the horsefarms of Bucks County with frisky new colts trying out their legs, the new green leaves on the trees popping out of their buds and above all, fresh air streaming in through the open windows as we sped along counry roads. It would be her last venture outside. April brought flowers in bloom, my brother’s marriage being planned, a cousin born. I was sitting talking with Kristen in early April and, unsure if she could hear me, I talked with her about the colors of the flowers, the family birth and how much I loved her, how much her family loved her and how I hoped she knew that. Without moving, she said “Always and always” and shocked us all. She hadn’t spoken in several weeks. She kept repeating those words that entire night. Always and always. Always and always. On Good Friday, the sun broke through the clouds with rays streaming down toward the ground and Kristen was gone.
It’s been 17 years since Good Friday 1995.
I’m reminded of Kristen each time I see the rays break through the clouds and I repeat her words to myself; always and always. It’s now become sort of a promise between us. I will laugh. I will smile. I will help wherever help is needed. I will play the cards I’m given to the best of my ability. I will find levity in serious moments (like tattoos on a butt peeking through a hospital gown!). I will remember that life is precious and not meant to be spent worrying. I will surround myself with those who lift me up and will stand by me in tough times. I will be loyal to who matters most- those who love me. I will stand up when life knocks me down- even when I don’t feel like it.
At 25, I learned how to see myself, really see myself and decide what was important. See what you CAN do not what you CAN’T. Do what’s needed not what’s easy. Strength is within each of us. Love fuels each of us. We are each a melting pot of the changes that we’ve experienced. Don’t dwell on them but draw upon them and see how much you’ve learned. Then take a deep breath and see that rays do shine through the clouds. Always and always.