A Thank You Said and a Thank You Heard…

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[REPOST FROM LAST YEAR WHEN I FIRST LAUNCHED InSearchofWaterfalls!]
“When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?” someone asked me a year ago.
“Junior year in high school. Miss Trosko’s class.” 
Miss Trosko was my English teacher, and she inspired me to dream the writer’s dream. She also gave me the courage to study English Literature in college. 
Well, I wanted to thank her for giving me that A/F grade on my first paper. The “A” was for content but the “F” for grammar. Like many things in my life, I peaked early. I won the class Spelling Bee in fourth grade, but it was down hill from there. I still kan’t spel so grate.Anyway, Miss Trosko noticed my potential as a writer and cheered me on even when I misplaced my commas. Those buggers, just, popped, up, every, where when least expected. 
So when I returned from St. Louis and my first writing conference, I planned to find her, and tell her how grateful I was for her encouragement. And how I’m finally doing it. Writing, that is. I began my search at my high school’s website. I quickly discovered that a little over a two year agos, my beloved Miss Trosko, the woman who enriched my knowledge of syntax and words, had passed away. Sigh. I lost my chance to thank her.
******
Four summers ago, my best friend called up and asked, “Hey, have you heard about Kristen? Kristen Kamen from high school?”
“No. Why?”
Unfortunately, the news was not good. Kristen had developed a rare form of Multiple Myeloma in her backbone. She suffered over several months, tons of treatments, and even moved to the Myeloma Institute of Research and Therapy in Little Rock, Arkansas, miles away from her Michigan home in hopes to win the battle with cancer. Her hubby courageously juggled their two young daughters and the woman he loved, while her parents and siblings worked tirelessly to close the gap. 
At the point when I found out Kristen was sick, her CaringBridge’s page announced that the doctors were done. They no longer knew what to do. The fight was over. The team stabilized Kristen for her return home to enjoy the remainder of her days with her family. Her days were limited. She should spend them with her family and friends. 
The news shocked all of us. Kristen was only in her thirties. Not a smoker and no family history; no reasonable explanation existed for the onset of the cancer. Yet it reared its ugly head. And now it was about to take her life. I had to talk to her before it did.

You see, even though I lost touch with Kristen some time between college and adult days, I never forgot about her. When my family moved from Windsor, Ontario to Livonia, Michigan, Kristen and her best friend J. took me into their circle of friends and loved me like they’d known me their entire lives. They included me on all their crazy adventures. The ones where I learned the American obsession with tee-peeing houses. We often drove down a main street until the pavement ended and it turned into a dirt road. She owned a car that smoked out the car behind us with just the right pedal to the metal take off. We listened to music and sang along at the top of our lungs. We locked our doors and picked up speed whenever we passed the county prison. One time we collected a bunch of ripped panty hose and wrapped them around a friend’s car while he slept, looping the entire car from door to door several times. Then sped off before we got busted. Good times.
Days before Christmas of our senior year, one night after our usual adventures, Kristen tossed a book in my direction through her car window after I began making my way to my front door. I picked it up and before I could read the title, she said, “What can I say? My mom made me do it,” and drove off.

The book was called More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell. I read it. Most of it. When I neared the end of the book, it started to make sense, so I freaked out and shelved it. But I picked it up a year later when my understanding of the baby in the manger had completely changed. I needed to talk to Kristen, and tell her, “Thank You.” For much more than the book.
I found her mom’s phone number on the website for friends who wanted to make a meal or plan a play-date. I dialed the number, wondering if anyone would pick up? If Mrs. Kamen remembered me? If it was too late?
“Hello?”
“Hello.” The voice sounded familiar. “Hi. My name is Raj Paulus. Raj Sangha before I got married. I used to got o high school with Kristen. I’m not sure if you remember—”
“Of course I remember you Raj. Kristen talked about you all the time. And you used to come around the house. I very much remember you.”
“Mrs. Kamen. I am so sorry for [And then I lost it. I couldn’t stop crying. I could barely speak.] I. Am. So. Sorry. For all that you and Kristen and the whole family is going through.”

“Thank you Raj. It has been a very rough year. Somehow, with the Lord’s help, we’re getting through. Day by day.”
“I really wanted to just tell Kristen thanks. She meant so much to me. How she took me in. The new kid. How she loved me. How much I love her.”
Pause.

“Raj”

“Yes.”

“I’m at the hospital in Little Rock now. Kristen is right here. Do you want to talk to her? And tell her yourself?”

“Really? Seriously? YES! I’d love to. Is she up to talking?”

“Just for a few minutes. All the meds make her groggy, but you called at the perfect time. The nurses are changing her bedding. We’re going home in a couple of days. She’s awake right now. Here. I’ll pass the phone to her.

And then I heard her voice.
“Hel-lo.” Kristen’s voice sounded so weak. But I also heard a smile through the phone. She was so glad I called.
We didn’t speak much. We spent most of the minutes crying. Well, I cried. She consoled me and told me that it was going to be okay. She had had enough time to tell her parents thank you for raising her with love and faith. To tell her hubby and girls how much she loved them. To say her good byes. I didn’t know how to respond. How could someone so young be so prepared to die? 
“Remember that summer night we had ice cream at my house and I didn’t want you or J. to leave?” I asked, knowing the answer before she spoke it.
“Yes.” 
“Thank you. For everything.”
I didn’t need to rehash the details of the summer after freshman year. The summer full of starting over and letting go. The summer we all grew up. The summer I learned the true definition of friendship.

“Don’t cry. I’ll see you again someday, okay.” She spoke as if she knew for sure.

“Of course. [Gulp] I know. It’s still hard.”

“Yes. It’s hard. Especially with my little girls. They’re so young. They don’t know what all this means yet. But they’ll be okay. They’re in God’s hands, and he’ll make sure they’re taken care of. I know that for sure.”

I didn’t know much as my hands shook while I held onto my damp cellphone. But I knew one thing for sure. A window opened for me that afternoon. I had a chance to talk to an old friend. And tell her two words that are not said enough. I had a chance to say… 

“Thank you.”
Kristen passed away a couple of weeks later. On the night of Hallowe’en, shortly after kissing her girls as they trotted off to trick or treat with her hubby and siblings. She exhaled her last breath while holding her parents hands as they prayed for her. Peacefully.
Say thank you while today is still today. Now—if you have the number. 
A thank you heard is far more precious than a thank you said. 
I know that full well.  
———
**This Thanksgiving, who are you thankful for? Is there a book you read as a teenager that shaped who you are today? Is there a phone call you need to make?

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11 thoughts on “A Thank You Said and a Thank You Heard…

  1. Hi Raj,

    Such a lovely piece about two lovely women! I was living overseas with a newborn baby when Kristen died. I had also lost touch with her, but felt such deep sorrow when she passed. I wish I had contacted her like you did. And I too learned about Ms Trosko after the fact, but used the opportunity to thank some other teachers that had inspired me.

    I hope you are well!
    Susan (Innes) Macaulay
    SHS ’90

  2. Raj

    Thank you for commenting on my blog piece “Remembering Miss Trosko.” Yes, most definitely, we were thinking exactly the same thoughts. I was also touched by your words on your dear friend Kristen.

    Raj, you are a most talented and gifted writer. Congratulations on your successful writing career.

    All the best to you,
    Mark

  3. Dear Raj,

    I was deeply moved when I read your blog about Miss Trosko and Kristen. I have shared it with several family members, and they were deeply moved, as well. Kristen would be very surprised to know that she and Miss Trosko ended up together in one of your essays. What a strange turn of events. Miss Trosko also inspired Kristen to write well, and Kristen struggled through her class just the way you did. In fact, even I learned proper grammar and writing from helping Kristen and her brother get through Miss Trosko’s class!

    You can’t possibly know how much it means to me that you remembered Kristen in your blog. When it became clear God was not going to take away the cancer, among the things Kristen wanted most was for people to remember her—especially her daughters. Kristen wanted them to grow up knowing about their mother’s character, faith, and deep love for them. Charlotte, who was five years old, and Vivienne, who was twenty months old, depend on the memories of others to know their mother. They will remember something more about her because of your gracious words.

    Reading about your teenaged adventures brought back fond memories of our smog-belching car and all the poor motorists who suffered behind Kristen’s pedal-to-the-metal take-offs. We are glad for the good times you and she shared. I remember one time in particular you and Kristen stayed up all night at the school’s dance marathon. When Joanne came to visit at the hospital in Little Rock, we all laughed with Kristen about these kinds of high-school shenanigans. As Kristen said, those were the best days of her life. Back in those days, Kristen sometimes told me of your conversations about God and life, but I never knew Kristen had blamed me for the book she tossed to you through the car window that December day. (I had told her to give it to you as a proper Christmas present!) Kristen loved your spirit, and she had great times with you, your sister, and other friends.

    It meant much to Kristen—and to me—that you called her to say thank you a few days before she died. Just as you once went through a summer of letting go and starting over partly because of Kristen’s influence, we went through a time of letting go and starting over because of Kristen’s passing. Kristen, too, had to let go and start over during the time of her illness, but in ways more profound than any of us can know. Thank you for your friendship to Kristen, thank you for helping us remember her influence on your life, and thank you for writing these words. A thank you heard is indeed more precious than a thank you said.

    Elaine Kamen, Kristen’s mom

  4. Wow, the windows of my soul got a good cleaning. I finished reading the comments and went outside to work on my car and realized I needed to make a phone call…to say thank you to a couple who had a huge impact on my life. Mr. Carson is a man who is a father figure to me and is an inspiration to me…when I grow up, I want to be just like him! Thanks Raju, for your words and thank you Mr. Trosko for sharing.

  5. Dear Jim!

    Thanks so much for sharing your personal stories of Miss Trosko (Dorothy!) The end of her life sounds like it was so difficult, but I am so glad to hear she heard your heartfelt words of love and thanks to her on that last day.

    I will never forget the day I actually cried in her class after school, because I feared telling my parents my decision to study English in college. Her words were precisely, “Life is full of change. Just tell them that you changed your mind. It will be okay.” She truly gave me the courage to stand up for my passion for writing and literature. I will be forever indebted to her speaking into my life at just the right time!

    Sincerely,

    Raj

  6. Dear Raj:

    My son, Phil, found your blog and sent it to me this morning at my University office. When I read it, I had to stop to wipe the tears from my eyes. You see, I’m Dorothy Trosko’s brother. Your beautiful description of how Dorothy affected your life and how badly you felt not having to thank her for helping you shape your talents and life only re-inforced what others in her classes said about her at her funeral.

    In fact, as Dorothy and I grew up together, almost as twins,I knew of her gifts as a creative person and her devotion to the life of the mind. As we separated after high school, both going our separate ways, she devoted her personal life to her education and the care of our aging parents.

    While we kept in touch, as I traveled and worked across the country and world,I never lost my memories of this lovely woman, who devoted her life to her students and our parents, while giving up her own personal life.

    Then the day arrived, when I returned from Italy for a family reunion to find her using a walking cane. When given an answer to what had happened, she answered that she fell. Both of us put the incidence out of mind to get caught up with our personal experiences. A few months later, she was using a walker to get around, yet with no known cause of her inability to use her legs. Not much later, she was bed-ridden with the diagnosis of ALS, “Lou Gehric’s disease”.

    I, being a medical scientist and her closest sib, knew she was entering the most tragic process of dying…one with the mind being alive, but the body totally unable to respond. She could not wink her eyes, speak or utter a sound or move a finger. The mental pain had to have been excruciating. Her love of literature, travel, music, and the wonderful experiences in life,and the finer things of life were alive and well in her mind. Yet, when I sat with her during her last days, only tears weld-up in her eyes, because she could not respond to me, telling private experience she and I had together in our youth.

    Yet, during these few occasions, I never said the words, “Thank you for sacrificing your life, in order to make my life and those of our parents and those of your students a more enriching one.”

    Then, the day arrived. I received a phone call at the University during my class from the hospice nurse that she was near death. Knowing I could not drive there in time, I quickly drafted my personal letter to be read to her. I was told it was read to her and she teared up, went to sleep immediately after and died three hours later.

    I was able to say, “Thank you” to her. And by her reaction, she heard and understood. “A Thank You Said and a Thank You Heard!!!”

    Before ending, I have to rely a story of Dorothy’s influence. While working and living in Hiroshima, Japan, I spent a holiday weekend in Kyoto. While walking the streets one evening, when all the girls and women showed off their summer kimonos, 5 young women walked up to me ,as I was one of the few foreigners, in order to practice their English. After an engaging hour of talking, I asked one of these young women if they learned their English in Japan or in an English -speaking country. One said she spent a couple years in Michigan in Livonia as an exchange student. She asked me where I was from and what was my name. I gave her my business card. She looked up at me and said that she had a teacher with the same last name. After determining she had my sister as her English teacher, I asked her what she thought of her as teacher, she said she was the toughest and meanest teacher she ever had …but the most caring and loving person she had ever met.IMAGINE THAT! 7,000 miles from Livonia with 2 million persons walking in the streets of Kyoto that evening, and the chance meeting of those 5 young Japanese women,I experience the powerful influence my dear sister had on others, such as the one you described.

    And so to end , I “Thank You” for acknowledging my dear sister.

    James (jim) E. Trosko,