I knew I’d be writing this post at some point but I thought I had another few weeks. Last night a friend named Karen died. For the ten years I was music director at the church, Karen had been popping her gum in the pew and feeding dog biscuits to Marvin, her Miniature Pinscher. As far as anyone in the church knew, she was alone in the world except for her succession of dogs, Marvin being the last one. For a long time I thought it was Marvin I loved and I put up with Karen because she came with him.
Karen was unto herself. During sharing times in the church service, we heard all about her early childhood abuse, about how positive dog training had helped her not just with her dog but with herself, about garlic as a remedy for fleas, and about the dangers of beef and chicken by-products. I used to keep a tally of how many times I heard about animal by-products in food. More ominously, in the last year of her life, we heard about the electrical grid eating out brains, and about viruses in buildings.
Karen sang tenor in the church choir. The first one at rehearsal, she and Marvin walked to the church and came quietly in the kitchen door. When I arrived at about the same time, coming in the front door, Marvin sometimes leaped ecstatically at me in the dark and scared the life out of me. The ecstasy had to do with my pockets being full of dog biscuits that contained no animal by-products.
One day Karen announced to me that she was joining The OK Chorale. At the first rehearsal of the quarter she watched people handing me checks and told me that she couldn’t pay that much money. My plan all along had been to let her come, see if it took, and then think about some kind of reduced fee. That would have been the better course to take; but Karen wanted to do yard work as an exchange.
I learned immediately that it did not matter what I needed done or wanted done, Karen was going to do what she wanted in the way that she wanted. Her first job—at her suggestion—was to weed in the front garden. Eight hours later she was still on the same two square feet of garden, tweezing out little roots one by one while Marvin rolled in the grass to the deep disapproval of my three cats.
“Karen, you don’t need to take out every little root like that,” I said.
“Yes, I do.”
“I’d rather you get more of the bigger weeds all over—“
“I have to get all these roots out or it won’t work right!”
Then there was the lilac tree that broke off its trunk and fell spectacularly in the yard one June. My neighbor Gwen (Gwen Almighty) who knows something about just about everything chain-sawed the big pieces leaving the slender branches and twigs for the re-cycle bin. After Karen had spent 16 hours on two square feet of the front garden and complained that it was too hot to do any more, I moved her over under the remaining lilacs to deal with the remains of the downed tree.
It took her three days.
“Karen, you don’t need to break them into such tiny pieces.”
“Yes I do!”
“They just need to be small enough to be crammed into the recycle.” I snapped one about a foot long. “Like this.”
“NO! They have to be smaller than that to fit them all in.”
“I don’t have to recycle them all in the same week.”
“NO! They have to be smaller than that.” She looked with contempt at my foot long branch. “They need to be like this.” She showed me a toothpick-sized twig.
“Karen, they don’t!”
“Yes, they do!”
In due course, the lilac tree was disposed of. Karen spent the months of July through October repairing a screen door. I just left her to it. I didn’t even want to know why she needed a planer, a drill, two different kinds of clamps, and three electrical saws.
In the beginning Karen and Marvin showed up at my house four and five times a week, at varying times and unannounced. It was close to impossible to nail down a day and time with her. She had no phone, but collected messages left with a neighbor and used his phone to return calls. Gradually I enforced the schedule of Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:00, and that held for a while until it morphed into Tuesdays between 10 and 5 and anytime Thursday maybe, except when she couldn’t come til Friday. She’d come in the back door while I was teaching, and stomp into my living room like Marley’s ghost, clanking the enormous chain that always attached to her belt.
Last Christmas I noticed that Karen’s affect was more depressed. I asked her if her meds had been changed. She said something non-committal. By January other people were noticing the change in her and the speculation mill turned as she remained non-committal. Last spring she went into a physical decline that made her appear zombie-like. She lost 100 pounds, she had difficulty moving her limbs. She fell down a lot.
She gave Marvin away. I thought she was preparing to suicide, but that was not Karen’s way. Karen gave Marvin away because she could no longer take him out for his walks and care for him the way she used to. It was an act of love and it almost broke my heart.
Karen’s self-diagnosis was that the electricity or alternately the virus in her building was killing her. It was, in fact, ALS. A slice of The OK Chorale sang for her in hospice last Saturday: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Pilgrim,” “Amazing Grace,” and a song that begins “when I’m on my journey don’t you weep after me.” I like to think we sang her out.
Karen haunted me. She was like an animal in the wild, vulnerable and yet fiercely determined to be herself. She reminded me of me. Her raw vulnerability scared me. She also reminded me of my mother: her gum popping, her cackling laughter, her unreasonable demands, her outbursts of talk that nailed you so you were stuck listening to her ramblings. She was relentlessly herself. My mother died six years ago tomorrow. I’ll keep her and Karen together in my thoughts.