[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?”
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.” 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.”
“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.
“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…
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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