I just lost my much-loved cousin Karen to that insidious demon, cancer. She was only four months younger than I, which leaves me feeling rather bemused. I’m here, she’s gone. All ages are not equal, even when the numbers are the same.
I thought the worst part of it was that she and I hadn’t seen each other in several years. I live in Wisconsin now, but spent many years in Minnesota. She lived in Michigan. Travel always takes longer when there are Great Lakes in the way. Travel can be expensive, and so we put it off.
We stayed in touch, though. For many years we sent cassette tapes back and forth, orally chronicling our day to day lives, telling secrets, sharing worries, laughing at jokes, asking for prayers. When her tape recorder broke and she couldn’t find one that worked well, I sent notes, and she called from time to time. Only sometimes she’d email. Karen wasn’t much for computers.
She and I had grown up together. We were the first of the grandchildren. I lived next door to our grandmother, who took care of Karen while her parents worked. We played dolls together when we were just babies ourselves; we rode bikes, flew kites, joined the same Scout troop, listened to the wonderful stories Grandma spun while sitting on her front porch, stories geared just for Karen and me. Other stories were created for the other grandkids.
Karen and I went to the same Catholic high school.
When she got married, before I did, I was her maid of honor. I still remember the awe I felt when she told me she was pregnant with her first daughter, Jennifer. My cousin, a mother. It sounded strangely beautiful to my ears.
When her third and last daughter Michelle was born, I was godmother. And when Michelle got married, distance or not, I traveled to Michigan to be there. I marveled again when she became a grandmother, several times, beginning with middle daughter Holly, something I have yet to be.
Karen listened and supported me when my life fell apart and came back together again. She cried with me when my son died five years ago, I cried with her when her husband Mike died a year later. We talked about our personal and family problems, and we always kept each other in prayer. It was an extra bond, stronger even than blood, that tied us together.
So, when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, I was devastated. Prayer kicked in again, and she became the recipient of the very first prayer shawl I ever made. She wore it when she was hospitalized for stem cell replacement. She was determined to remain positive, and she fought fiercely, neither of us admitting to the other that that particular form of cancer is a beast with fangs that usually wins.
Last summer, she had a reprieve. For a while, the treatments she had received pushed the cancer back. She traveled with her daughters. She went back to work for a while. She started seeing a wonderful new man. We prayed. We were hopeful.
This month, however, the reprieve ended. The beast was back, Karen was hospitalized, in a lot of pain. I refrained from calling. With children and grandchildren coming and going, other phone calls, other commotion, I chose not to tire her. Instead, I sent her cards and letters, lavishly illustrated with photos I’d taken, filled with day to day trivia. I relied on updates on Karen that were passed along from her daughters to my aunt, to my mother, and then to me.
Yesterday, Karen died. Today, the first letter I had sent was returned from Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, saying–wrongly–that she was a staff member who no longer worked there. If the rest of the letters are also returned, I’ll know that Karen never knew how I tried to be there for her.
For me, this is the worst part of her death, something that can’t be undone. That kind of horrible “mistake” by the hospital is inexcusable, and I’ll deal with them about it.
Meanwhile, I thank God for my Catholic faith that Karen and I shared. Because of that, I know that now, in heaven, Karen knows what I did for her, even if she didn’t know during those last days here on earth. That’s some comfort.
The belief in the Communion of Saints also assures me that I can ask her for prayers, just as I did when she was alive; it assures me that she continues to be aware of me, her family and her friends. That, too, is a comfort, as are all the memories I’ll always have with me.
I’ll miss you, Cuz, but we’ll meet again. Or, as St. Thomas More said before his execution by Henry VIII, “Pray for me, as I will for thee, that we may merrily meet in heaven.”
P.S. A few days later, another card was returned to me, but I learned that she received the others, which were read to her by her daughters. I was able to chat with her until the very end. That helps.