Tuesday, September 11, 2012

So Long Karen Kinder-Than-Most-Heart

  She was born Karen Goodheart. Thirty-five years ago I would tease her by coming up with variations on her maiden name. Karen was nineteen years old in 1977, married and training to be a mail clerk at the post office in Skokie, Illinois.  I was twenty-four, recently out of the Marines and working there on the loading dock, slamming mail into trucks, unloading other trucks, and racing every evening to collect letters from the mail boxes around town.

  There were four separate routes in this northern Chicago 'burb. As a clerk trainee, Karen was assigned to one, stuffing letters into dirty sacks then speeding back to the post office to transfer the mail onto an outgoing truck.

  In the summer, we'd finish our routes early and meet at a Burger King, sipping cokes and smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. She had a throaty chuckle, a delightful giggle and a wonderful open laugh. We'd discuss the supervisors and the obtuse government rules we were expected to follow. (Like turning off our vehicles and locking them every time we exited. You couldn't do that AND pick up the mail in time.) Karen had a wonderful eye for absurdity and it served her well working for Uncle Sam. We'd split the parking lot just in time to catch the last truck.

  But winters were different. Mail boxes would be buried under snow drifts and the AMC trucks we drove came equipped with ceremonial heaters that only warmed a small arc of air directly in front of the vent. With her hair in a bun and a long olive scarf, Karen would slog back into the post office, nose red, sniffling from the cold, while I scraped ice off my moustache. We'd exchange exhausted looks like survivors of Stalingrad. Then she'd laugh and I'd laugh. Her spirit brightened a room like a flare. 

  After our swing shift, it was refreshment time. Despite being a small, compact woman Karen was not afraid to belt down shots and beers—boilermakers, a Windy City staple. Over time, she became a full-fledged clerk and was transferred to the midnight shift. We didn't see each other as much but stayed in touch even after I moved off to California.

  As decades slid past, we wrote and called and occasionally met. Karen held strong opinions and could be passionate about things she cared for. Sometimes we'd argue, but we never ended a phone call on a sour note. I always felt the better for having spoken to her as we veered back to our busy lives.

  Karen ended up in Florida, got a business degree from Florida State and went to work as a "bank buster" for FSLIC. According to Wikipedia:

"The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), a federal government agency that insured S&L accounts in the same way the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures commercial bank accounts, then had to repay all the depositors whose money was lost. From 1986 to 1989, FSLIC closed or otherwise resolved 296 institutions with total assets of $125 billion."

   During her FSLIC work, Karen began to develop a sensitivity to odors. Certain common smells like perfume would cause her to break out in a rash and have trouble breathing.

  This was only the beginning.

  For the next twenty-odd years her health deteriorated under a barrage of infections and maladies with exotic names and difficult treatments. I couldn't even tell you what they were called. But Karen could and would. And if she could include photos, then you got 'em. She became a ninja at negotiating medical bureaucracies.

   In good spirits, under pressures that would've buckled many, she chronicled her health battles at ksquest.

  In the meantime, after a divorce and string of dud boyfriends, she married a good man, Walter Dome, in 1994. I flew out for the wedding, not realizing it would be the last time I'd ever see her.

  She called me on 9/11 and it was from Karen I learned the towers were gone.

  Karen and Walter bought a little house in Wilton Manors, Florida. She loved laying brick, and orchids, and hunting for shark tooth fossils. She cared for plump cats. And Karen and I would exchange phone calls after natural disasters. Me and my earthquakes; she and her hurricanes.

  She never made it out to my wedding in 1997. Subsequent attempts to meet always fell short because of her dicey health. Her life was a hash of bizarre health troubles, money woes, relationship struggles, but Karen would not let it break her. And from her, I drew strength in my far lessor challenges.

  Then, diabolical icing on the cake, her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer.

  He died on April 19 of this year. In her last blog entry, Karen wrote:

  "Long months ago he [Walter] asked me what my life would be like if he passed away.  I told him.  So he said,  All right.  Then I'll fight it.  I'll fight to live.

No one will ever love me like that again.

I do not want to learn how to be a widow."

  She wouldn't have to.

 Karen Dome died of infection on August 29. Her nephew Brian dropped me an email. It only confirmed what I suspected was coming.

  For all her outsized troubles she was given an uncommon store of wit and grace, perseverance and grit.

  Brian will be writing up a farewell at her blog. Karen made many friends online who will be saddened by her passing.

  I do not know what manner of services, if any, were held for her. I do not know if she was buried or cremated.

 But I do know she deserves a eulogy. 

  All my old photos are in boxes, stacked and unmarked. Otherwise I'd dig out a picture of Karen in better days with her halogen smile and eyes twinkling.

  I am sparing in my tears. Few alive have seen them.

  Today they flow in a steady drip, the plumbing of grief.

  I count myself blessed to have known Karen.

  Her heart was most truly good.  

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