What a crappy day, I thought as I woke yesterday. Plastic mixing bowls have been commissioned for use by nauseous children on both levels of my home. Additionally, the caretaker, yours truly, has broken into an unnatural and proliferous sweat, which likely indicates fever. You moms know the fever I am speaking of, right? This would be the perspiration laced fever, accompanied by clamminess and fatigue that we pretend doesn’t exist while our children are ill?
After a sleepless night in and out of the bathroom and multiple late night sheet changing incidents, I was spent. “Thank God it’s not my carpool day,” I thought as I caught a glimpse of my greasy face and damp matted hair in the mirror, “Zach is finally asleep and I am going back to bed.”
THUD. SLAM! “Mom! Mom, where are you? Mom!! My ride didn’t show up. First period starts in 15 minutes, and I have a quiz in there. Plus, Sam is shadowing me today. Mom!!”
With that, I slipped on a sweatshirt over my pajamas, threw on Tom’s baseball cap, and went to wake my nauseous and feverish little guy. “Sweet heart. I’m sorry, honey. Wake up, Z. I need you to put on a sweatshirt and some shoes. We have to take Nick to school.”
The day and the news just went downhill from there, my mood and energy further devolved, and I found myself with an insane migraine, tearing up in the Target parking lot last night at 9pm. What a horrible, useless excuse for a day, I whined, as I celebrated my first class pity party.
I managed to say the desperation prayer. This is the one I choose when I am at low ebb. “Jesus, I don’t know what I need, but you do. Please help me.”
Help came quickly. CARPE DIEM. This is the thought that stuck in my brain. CARPE DIEM. Seize the day.
What you need to know about me is that a thought which sticks in my brain to me is many times one inspired by the Holy Spirit. I am the original supernatural thinker. This phrase, Carpe Diem, isn’t just an instruction………..but it’s the reminder of a dear friend. Her name is Karen. The two go together like peanut butter and jelly in my mind. Allow me to explain. I’ll stop here and start again. We’ll call this part of today’s blog:
Every ounce of her Irish Catholic, 110lb, and freckle covered frame is pure defiance. The mother of three of the most beautiful and respectful children I have ever encountered, Karen nonetheless flaunts authority completely. There isn’t a single soul who is going to stand in her way.
If you’ve been wondering who is responsible for the move to newer, tougher policies on absenteeism at school, this is the mom. If she feels like it’s too ridiculously gorgeous out for kids to be in school, or if she’d rather spend the day hanging out making Christmas candy with her daughter, Sam, then that’s what she does. If her younger son, Mitch, stayed up too late doing homework and wants to sleep in….then so be it. He’ll be there later. You get the idea.
The seven children in the St. Louis de Montfort carpool from Garden Gate Way had a well worn path back to the office to wait for her big white Chevy Suburban . They didn’t even bother to call home. Mrs. Volpe theorizes that children should wait for adults, not vice versa. Time is valuable. The office staff never messed with Mrs. Volpe.
If I’ve painted a rather unfair or lopsided view of my friend to this point, let me self correct for just a moment. Karen is bigger than life and not a little bit unlike the “Road Runner.” She can dig out a homemade pirate costume for any child on the block the day before Halloween WHILE she cooks homemade chicken pot pie and measures her living room for new curtains. Those carpool kids love waiting for her because chances are with the time she saved, she’ll be buying the whole van load of kids DQ on the way home.
A few years back, after we had been to dinner and a little outdoor community play with a few other couples, Karen quietly snuck away as the rest of us drank margaritas. She didn’t feel at all well, and ended up in the hospital. Her symptoms led the doctors to perform an emergency hysterectomy. Here’s the problem with that. She didn’t actually need a hysterectomy, because what she really had was Acute Myelogenous Lukemia, or AML.
In the months and years that followed, we learned that AML isn’t terribly common in otherwise healthy young moms. The protocol for treatment that existed was written for much older men. Doctors kind of had to wing it. Karen proceeded to get very sick. Her illness was so debilitating that she once came down to watch “Desperate Housewives” with me the night before surgery and she said her goodbyes. It wasn’t the first time we had done that, but this time it seemed serious. She had been told the chances of surviving the surgery the next day were simply not good. She told me where to find the ring I was to give her son William for his future wife, and she showed me where to find the Christmas presents she had purchased in advance so that her children would have something from her this year. In short, Karen was dying. We all knew it. She had defied the odds too many times. Remission, it seemed for Karen, was merely a temporary term. The cancer always seemed to return with a vengeance.
I could bore you with white blood cell count stories and ridiculous tales of graft vs host disease, but I’m frankly not smart enough to do it justice. Let’s just say it’s just like the Irish to defy the odds. Karen was too stubborn to die.
After brain surgery and too many trips to the hospital to remember, and not one but TWO bone marrow transplants (one auto-transplant, and one from her donor brother….thanks TOMMY!), I found myself on “Karen duty”. Her husband, Mark, had called to tell me that Karen wanted to see me and asked if I could go down to IU Med Center and keep her company this particular Sunday afternoon.
When I got to the isolation unit, it was the same. It’s cold and quiet. It’s sterile and horrible. Karen had been there more than 30 days this time. Years had passed that she scarcely remembered. Ugh. The nurse came in and gave her the blood counts. Karen said, “Say that again?” The nurse repeated the numbers. Karen said, “Shelly, pack the stuff up, we’re going home!” The nurse went on to explain how there was no doctor to release her, even if that is what the doctor told her. But, do you remember what I told you about Karen? Irish was too stubborn to die, and too stubborn to stay one more minute in that hospital. She said very matter of factly, “Well, paperwork is your problem. I’m out of here.”
As simple as that, I found myself in my van with my very sick, but very hungry friend. She weighed about 80 lbs soaking wet. We were 35 minutes from home and not a sole knew we were coming. It didn’t matter. Karen wouldn’t even let me call to warn them. She was hungry. Karen wanted french fries.
Who was I to tell this amazing woman who had defied every odd that I wasn’t stopping for fries. We pulled into McDonalds. She whispered, “Tell them I’d like a large order of fries with no salt.”
“Large fries, NO salt please!”
“M’am, that’s fine, but it’s going to take a moment. Pull forward please.” Karen smiled.
I thought to myself about how Karen probably can’t have salt with all those medications she takes. I just looked at her and felt at a loss for words. My heart just ached.
As I paid for the fries we had waited on, and they handed them out the window to me, Karen said to me, “Can you ask them for salt, please?”
I looked at her, my eyebrows in the classic v-shape that speaks utter confusion. She grinned from ear to ear.
“Shelly, I’ve been in isolation thinking about these fries for a month. I wanted them to be hot and fresh!”
We both just burst out with laughter. It was a deep from the core of your being giggle between girlfriends. Gosh that was overdue. It felt like heaven.
It’s five years later now, and believe it or not, Karen still lives two doors down, and she still makes me laugh.
From Karen I learned a lot of valuable lessons. I’ve gained insight on the cancer world and what it means to face that disease that I wish I did not know. I gained the knowledge that giving is a gift to the giver so graciousness is called for always in receiving. I learned about a wonderful and compassionate piece of technology called “Caring Bridge”, and I met the face of courage in the midst of suffering over and over again in my brave friend. I even learned that we should never take chicken casserole to the “cancer house” without first asking how many casseroles are already in the freezer, and usually the kids would rather have Subway.
Believe it or not, the most valuable lesson of all that I learned from Karen, though…..well it’s gleaned from the “crazy” rule breaking incident with those hot, delicious, McDonalds fries. I know it makes her happy to know this is what she has taught me. There’s never been someone who needed to learn it more than me. I remembered the blessing of my friend while at Target last night and I recalled the banner that hung in her first hospital room, signed by all who visited. It was a big yellow sunflower with the words “Carpe Diem, Karen.”
“Boast not of tomorrow, for you know not what any day may bring forth.” (Prov. 27:1)
NEVER take yourself or your life too seriously. Loosen up, lighten up, and CARPE DIEM.
God’s in charge here. He’s got this.
Thank you Jesus. Thank you, Karen. I love you, friend.