Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Some people just seem to ooze personality. They have come with an amazing set of qualities that destines them to change the lives of those around them for the better. One of those people was Karen. My mom's sister, my aunt. She was young and lived with my grandparents. The air seemed to swirl around her bubbling energy. Whenever the family met at one or the other house on alternating vacations, she dominated my world. She was effervescent, she was enthusiastic. She exclaimed over everything you told her as if you were a genius. She would settle in and make plans with us for all the fun things she wanted to do with us before the vacation was over. She was usually in Arizona and we were usually somewhere else: California, Colorado, Texas, finally Utah. She adored her nieces and nephews, and we adored her. I lived for every word she uttered and shadowed her everywhere.
Once everyone was settled in, the gab sessions would commence. She would tell about people with weird names and even stranger personalities, not making fun of them, but obviously fascinated by their uniqueness. She would tell about the great place she found to buy ceramics or show projects from a craft magazine she liked, or show her latest crochet project. She would tell about a new kind of alternative medicine or the handwriting analysis someone had done on her. She would tell about relatives we'd never met, like her great aunt Irene who would carry a stool around to sit on whenever she got dizzy. She would pull out scrapbooks and show places she'd visited or shows she'd seen. At night, every night, she would write in her journal, and take your suggestions on things to add to the entry. She would flip back and read old things she'd written and talk about the family, about faith, about embarrassing experiences, and listen to everything you'd been waiting for months to tell her about. You could tell her anything, all your thoughts were safe with her. We would talk till we couldn't stay awake any longer. I know my cousins in Arizona could call on her when they were in scrapes. She would help you work things out.
Visiting with Karen was like looking at a kaleidoscope of the universe and all it had to offer. There was food to be eaten and festivals to go to, or sales to rummage through or movies to go to. She was a blast. Visiting her was great, because she had a waterbed and an old fashioned telephone and loads of books. She also collected dolls and hats. All kinds of hats.
I was lucky she usually managed to be in good health when we had our visits. I'm not sure how she pulled that off. The hat collection started out of utility. Karen had lupus. She had to keep her skin out of the sun or her she would break out. She suffered through a lot of illness and flare-ups throughout her life. She got sick soon after getting on the drill team in High School. Soon after, her family relocated to Chile so her Dad could build chapels there. She endured all kinds of treatments there at the hands of some of the leading specialists at the time, but even so, it was a miracle she survived. If the illness didn't kill you, the treatments just might.
Lupus is an auto immune disorder where your immune system attacks your own body. Your joints, organs and connective tissues. It wreaks havoc wherever it chooses to attack. Treatments to suppress the immune system can make the patient vulnerable to all kinds of communicable diseases. People with this disease find themselves sick often, their lives disrupted. Often they find themselves battling for their lives. Karen spent her young adult years, the years typically spent going to college, dating and marrying in hospital beds trying to stay alive. She suffered all kinds of illnesses; icky things like shingles.
The Karen I always knew no longer had functioning knees. They were static, slightly bent, and she had to hobble along with one step longer than the next, leaning from side to side as she walked, to get around. Since I worshiped everything about her, I used to imitate her walk. I was so proud when the grown ups would smile and say I was a little Karen. Karen just said, "I'm flattered you want to be like me, but when you are a teenager, don't be like me. Don't go to the dance and stand in the corner and glare at everyone and then go home and cry and tell your mom, "But I DID smile, mother!" And I listened.
Later, she was offered an operation to replace her knee with an artificial joint. It gave that knee bending capabilities but it never healed completely, she had to bandage and clean the oozing scar for the rest of her life.
I never saw Karen unhappy and rarely saw her upset. She never complained in my presence, but I know from her journals she did ever complain. By the time I was truly aware of her challenges, she had come to a good spot and was a powerhouse of wisdom. She had learned a thing or two. She didn't resent what she was going through or how much the disease limited her life. She would say things like- It's alright, we all have to go through things... but when I die, I will ask WHY? And when we are resurrected someday, then we will go mountain climbing together. She was patient. Very patient.
She was open minded and willing to learn new things or look at things in a different way. She had the best sense of humor and didn't mind laughing at herself either. Some of her funniest stories were about herself. Of all the qualities I think of though, what most stands out is her love. She truly loved people. She was very open about what people were like, but very accepting of them with all their warts. There was no criticism or gossiping. She would take a chance on anyone, and was always willing to help anyone in need. She worked hard to help our extended family stay close together and organize fun activities for us to do. I have so many memories of doing things with Karen. I remember going to opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with her. We sat on the front row and as I sat cross-legged, she grabbed my big toe and just about cut off my circulation when the big rock ball almost ran over Indiana.
The only thing I regret is not having more memories of Karen. The disease that helped purify her spirit took her body when she was only 40 years old. Her funeral was amazing. There were people overflowing out of the overflow rooms of the chapel. She had touched so many lives. Even the UPS man came and raved to my grandparents about how wonderful and kind she had been to him. I miss Karen. I miss her not being there to share with my family now, to know my husband and children. She would have enjoyed them just as much as I do. I would love to talk with her about the things I wonder about at my age. I would love to walk with her to raise awareness and funds to fight for a cure for lupus. But none of that will happen, because she's gone. So, instead, in her honor I'll walk without her and try to help others who are fighting this disease have a longer, better quality life. Someone else's aunt will be there to walk with her and love her children and be her friend. That's my idea anyway. Now all I need are a bunch of sponsors. And some walking companions. Anybody with me?
You can make a donation with this link or add a page where you can raise funds. Blog about it, talk about it, make people aware so they can help too. Want to do a walk? If you want to join my team, it is called Karen. See the walk 4 Lupus link on the Check it out section of my sidebar.


Burgh Baby's Mom said...

Karen sounds like a wonderful person. This was really a beautiful post.

Go team Karen!

Joanna said...

You are so lucky to have had someone like that.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Karen said...

How wonderful that you had her in your life.

caramama said...

She sounds like a beautiful person. I'm so sorry you don't still have her in your life. But thanks for sharing your memories of her with us.

I will look into donating to lupus research.

carrie & troy keiser said...

Your aunt sounds like a super wonderful woman! GO team Karen.

Lei said...

What a great tribute to an obviously fascinating woman. Thank you for sharing and I applaud you for taking part in that walk, to honor her!

Jenna said...

I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis when I was 9.

What a fantastic post and a worthy cause. Autoimmune disorders definitely need more press.

The Cranes said...

Every person she ever met felt better for having associated with her. I remember going shopping with Karen and she would be so kind to the frazzled check-out person. They would be smiling and feeling like a million bucks by the time they finished checking us out. I felt so blessed and honored to be with her. I think every one of her neices and nephews felt like they were her favorite--because she made every one of us feel that we were the most important person in her life. I tell my husband and children often, "I wish you could have met her. You would've loved her--and she would've loved you." Guess that's what eternity is for. I'm walking or donating or both. I'll get back to you when I have time to check into all the details.

Don Mills Diva said...

Wow - this was a wonderful post about an obviously extraordinary woman. Thanks for sharing your memories of Karen.

Melissa said...

Ironically, I had a great aunt who sounds very firmiliar. My aunt had RA but you would never know she was in pain. She was the dearest, sweetest person you could ever know.

Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you told me about this post!