Heart

Best Friends Forever, Really

This post can also be read on Karen’s awesome blog: https://theworstbestthing.weebly.com/blog

My friendship with Karen was beautiful and magical; the kind of thing you only come across a few times in a lifetime and that gives you faith in God and in the world. We became friends on the first day of first grade because she liked my name. Our birthdays were 5 days apart which feels significant when you are little, and we both had middle names like princesses: Belle and Rose. We proceeded to spend the entirety of our first-grade year pretending to be penguins. We both were both great students, and the only reason we ever got in trouble was for talking to each other during class. I also had my very first sleepover at her house. We played a game trying to find my glow in the dark socks under the covers and tried to surprise her parents by making breakfast in the morning. At age six the best we could do was offer them cold cereal on a paper plate. Yum!

Decorating gingerbread houses in first grade.

We stayed best friends throughout elementary school and had most of our classes together. We invented games outside, climbed trees, wrote stories, and built forts. When Karen was diagnosed with Leukemia in 5th grade, I didn’t understand it one bit. I had never heard of Cancer, could barely grasp the concept of death, and was confused why she got so many presents. However, one thing I could understand was that it was pretty awful to miss school for an entire year. I decided I would call her on the phone every single day to keep her updated on everything and everyone, and I did. We spent hours talking, laughing, and making up stories. Her doctors would have to get on the phone with me and ask me to call back later so they could treat her!

When she came home from the hospital, I learned all about hand sanitizer, helped her pick bandanas to wear over her lack of hair, and tried to grasp that she didn’t have as much energy as I did. But we still played and had fun just like before. The beauty of friends is that they can make any situation lighter. I went on trip to Pennsylvania with her and her family and Karen was so sick from her treatment we had to stop the car for her to throw up in someone’s driveway. That quickly became a funny memory between the two of us. How funny that was to our 11-year-old selves that there was now regurgitated oatmeal in a stranger’s driveway! With our childhood joy it became something so far from the scary, upsetting event that it really was. On the same trip I remember her saying how happy she was to be laying in her grandma’s bed with her best friend. Years later she told me she believes kids who get cancer grow up a little differently, with more of a quiet appreciation life. I think realizations like this were the beginning of that.

Karen put this together to celebrate my 19th birthday. So many great memories through the years!

When Karen went into remission, life went on and we grew up. We did school projects together, had sleepovers, made up inside jokes, and shared secrets. We went to different high schools but stayed just as good of friends. Our pattern of talking on the phone so much in fifth grade made it second nature to call one another and talk for several hours. We comforted each other through break ups and talked about colleges. At this point, we were basically part of each other’s families and I was even in one of her family’s reunion photos one Thanksgiving. One of the best things about Karen was that she was so genuine and good yet always accepted and supported people no matter how different they were. She always listened, never judged. Whatever differences the two of us developed never mattered. She was inclusive of everyone, and we both thoroughly enjoyed introducing each other to our other friends. Everyone who met her could see what an authentic and kind person she was, and she was welcome everywhere.

The summer after our freshman year of college, Karen called to tell me the doctors said her “cells looked funny” and a relapse was confirmed. This time I had a much clearer understanding of what was happening, and it was devastating. After that there were years of treatments, remissions, and relapses. Each treatment was worse and riskier than the last. There were periods where Karen was totally fine, and then there would be the crushing news of the cancer coming back.

But as Ms. Chris has written about, Karen was no longer a scared 10-year-old. She was an advocate for herself and for others. She wrote her blog with skill, wit, and encouragement. She was the definition of optimism, strength, and authenticity. She published resources for other people going through treatment and supported the Cool Kids Campaign, a nonprofit for kids with Cancer and their families where Karen went to camp every year. She also remained an incredible friend. She shared her emotions honestly and bravely, but still wanted to hear about her friends’ lives no matter how minor their struggles were. She had a tendency for telling friends she was not feeling well for a few days and then proceeded to write in her blog what actually happened. Karen “not feeling well” was often actually horrible, frightening, and painful symptoms that she pushed through for days on end. Her other friends and I would read her blog wondering how on Earth that could be happening to her while we were living through the silly tribulations of college.

Though I know the ups and downs of those years were so hard on Karen and her family, I am glad we had so much time together. Since I was older now, I had a better understanding of the importance of our time together and did everything I could to see her. When she was sick, I visited her at various hospitals. One year our group of friends even brought our annual Christmas party, complete with gingerbread house making, to her room in the hospital. When she was well, we went camping, white water rafting, kayaking, and to the beach. For her 21st birthday, a group of us went camping in a treehouse that Karen reserved. We bought her mini bottles of alcohol and took shots just like any other group of college students. I forgot my sleeping bag and had to share with her. We talked about tacos (her favorite food) and she decided we were like a taco in her sleeping bag and wrapped me in a hug. Just like when we were 6 at my first sleepover, or when we were 11 in her grandma’s bed, but we were now 21, and so much more aware of how special moments like this were.

From our camping trip for Karen’s 21st birthday.

When I graduated college, I moved to Chicago and then Kansas City. Karen was finishing up a master’s degree (like how?!) and was in remission. Her and one of her other best friends, Jenn, had a road trip planned that involved meeting me in Kansas City where I would introduce her to Matt, who I had met in Kansas City and at that time had been dating for a few months.  In June, right before they were about to leave, she got the devastating news that she had relapsed again. Everyone knew the treatment options were getting less and less reliable. I booked a last-minute plane ticket to fly home to Maryland for less than 48 hours to surprise her for her birthday. Looking back this is one of the best decisions I ever made. I coordinated with Jenn and her mom and showed up at the Baltimore aquarium. The look on her face was priceless and she hugged me right away in absolute delight. We had a glorious day with her family of visiting the aquarium, eating brunch in Baltimore, going to a park, and then meeting up with my parents in Annapolis. When I hugged her goodbye there was an underlying finality that I know we both felt.

We took this picture during our day in Annapolis and Baltimore. It was the last time I saw Karen. I have this picture framed at home and I love how the sun looks like a halo coming down over Karen.

One month later I received the new from her mom that she had passed away. I was home with my family at that time, and my parents, my friends, and all of Karen’s friends were so supportive. For a while it didn’t feel real and sometimes still doesn’t. Living so far from home, I didn’t see most of my friends for long periods of time and sometimes it would feel like that was just the case with Karen. Plus, life was moving so fast then: in these past 2.5 years I have moved, changed jobs, gotten engaged, planned a wedding, and gotten married. I still feel like I haven’t properly grieved, but then again how can you ever “finish” grieving something like this. I did have nightmares about Karen almost every night for about a year. In these dreams she was fainting or disappearing, and I couldn’t help her. I have a friend who told me this is part of the grieving process.

I booked another last-minute plane ticket to come home for the funeral over Labor Day weekend. It was beautiful, just what she would have wanted, and had an amazing turnout. Funerals are overwhelming though. It is hard to truly connect to what has happened when you are seeing 200 people that you grew up with and haven’t seen in five years. For me the best part was going to her house afterwards with just her closest friends. We had a bonfire with her family, and I snuggled with her mom. Her friends and I went into her room and found the small liquor bottles from her 21st birthday, sat on her bed, and took shots in her honor. Her parents found us and just laughed. To some, that might sound weird, or inappropriate. But to all of us we knew that was what we were there for; to bring light and youth and some 23-year-old normalcy to a situation that was everything but that.

In May of 2018 I moved to Virginia Beach and in September 2018 Matt and I got engaged. As I started planning our wedding, the absence of Karen became truly glaring. Her and Matt hadn’t gotten to meet, but I know they would have loved each other. I did tell her about him when we were in Annapolis for her birthday. As it was right at the beginning of the relationship, I was full of fears and anxieties on how it would turn out. Karen reassured me not to worry and look how right she was! Karen would have been one of my bridesmaids and would have loved all the events and preparations for the wedding. At my bachelorette party in Cape May, NJ I wore her bracelet to signify her presence. At the wedding I had a vase with a single pink rose (for her middle name and favorite color) at my table. I even ordered a mug for her like I did for all my bridesmaids. The mug has an illustration of the two of us and her hair was exactly like the wig she wore when she was in her cousins’ wedding. The robe is light pink, the dress color she would have had as my bridesmaid. I was so happy her parents and sister could come, and it was so special to be out on the dance floor with her baby (now in high school) sister just like I used to be with Karen.

Though the loss one feels for this kind of friend is so great, so is the gratitude. I feel so lucky to have been so close with such a wonderful person for so long; and to know that this kind of friendship is possible. I am lucky that we grew up together and that I can’t even pick out which parts of me were because of me and which were because of her. I do know that in the 2.5 years since she left, I have become increasingly like Karen. That Fall right after she passed away I went to a Faith Hill concert (our signature song was Sunshine and Summertime by Faith Hill), went to Hawaii (one of her favorite places), and adopted three kittens (Karen LOVED kittens and she would find it absolutely hilarious and awesome that I ended up with three). Matt and I do what we can to get outdoors and go hiking. I have started a blog, inspired by hers. And just like Karen, I prioritize and cherish every moment I spend with my loved ones.

There are so many times when I wish I could tell Karen something that only she would understand; so, I tell her in my head, and I know she is there. I look to her when I need to be brave, am trying to be true to myself, or have a nerdy joke in mind. I still have dreams about Karen, but they are much more pleasant dreams where we are happy and grateful to be together again. Spending most of your life with a friend like Karen makes it easy to believe in Heaven. I picture her up there in a beautiful cottage with her Uncle David and my childhood dog, Keiko. She is watching out for all her loved ones on Earth and being her caring, joyful, smart, and helpful self from up above. She is patiently and excitedly waiting for when it is our turn to join her, and to be our reassuring and loving guide into the next world.

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