Friday, January 10, 2014

The Deep Freeze

It is warmer and raining tonight in my town.  Big chunks of ice have been falling off my roof and gutters all day, doing criminal damage to the Christmas lights and decorations.  End of the holiday season I guess.  A stark contrast to the weather we had to begin the week.  It is fitting that it is a freezing rain.  It is a strange twist of nature that the weather coincides with how I felt all day today.

Earlier, I had a nice long talk with my friend from school days, Scott, as he took a break for lunch during an almost nine-hour car trip from Michigan to the St. Louis area.  He had offered to swing by and pick me up so I could join him, but I don’t do well on long car rides, so I declined. I can’t sit for very long and with my shaking, being confined to small spaces is not optimal.  It was nevertheless was good to talk to Scott.  Although we stay in touch through social media, on this particular day it was nice to hear his voice, to catch up on work and family, and to reminisce about what it was like to grow up with the kids we did on our respective blocks.  I wish I could have taken the trip, although it would have been a tough journey for other reasons than those I have already stated.   

When my boys all went to the city for New Year’s last week, the oldest, Ben, left me with a gift…a virus of some sort that sent me into my bed for three days.  Last Sunday when I was starting to feel better a blizzard hit the Midwest that made things treacherous enough that all of the activities for that day, church mentoring, youth groups, etc. were canceled.  The next day the temperature dropped in a way I have never experienced before.  When I drove my wife to work in the morning, because my car would not start, the gauge in the SUV read -20 degrees.  The radio said we would be experiencing wind chills as low as -45 degrees.  The historic district was a ghost town and all of the schools were closed.  My physical therapy appointment had to be rescheduled.  There was nothing we could do but hunker down for the two-day duration that the deep freeze was expected to last.

During our forced captivity, we had a lot of fun.  It was as if God gave us permission to do nothing productive for awhile.  We read books, watched movies, and played board games that left us rolling on the floor.  We took this bonus break time to breathe and enjoy each other’s company.

As is the case in these situations though, the novelty of being stuck inside wore off at some point and tensions started to run high, mostly on my part.  There were petty arguments and some fights.  The furnace went out and I had to fix it at 2:00 in the morning with spare parts I had on hand so we would have heat. Then the garage door would not stay down because ice had built up on the apron and the sensor kept tripping.  We had to bundle up and chip that out quickly with coal shovels because I was afraid all of the paints in the studio would freeze like the coffee Matthew had left in a cup on my bench.  I think I was especially stressed because of my high school friend, Karen.

When I was a freshman in high school I struggled a bit to figure out what I was going to do with myself.  I started the year running cross-country but dropped out quickly because of an old knee injury. One night my father, my sister and I went to see some friends in a school play, Arsenic and Old Lace.  My father suggested that drama might be something I would be interested in doing.  My friend, Kevin, had played one of the unfortunate suitors in the play and he offered to introduce me to some of the other people who were involved in the theater club.  One of those people was Karen.  He called her “the mongoose” because she was so full of energy.  He said, “You know how some people’s pupils dilate when they’re excited?  Hers are permanently dilated, I think.”  I liked Karen immediately.  She told me they were holding try-outs for the annual children’s play and that she thought that might be a good way for me to see if drama was something I liked. I did and I was cast as a tourist anteater on Noah’s ark.  I had a great time. After that I tried out for virtually every play and was in most of them.  One time I tried out for You Can't Take It With You just as I was having some medical problems and was in hospital. Karen was the assistant director. She came to visit me, sat on the side of my bed, and slapped a script down on my lap. She said, "You're in. You are Ed. Now you have something to do while you're here." It didn’t take much for her to develop into my first hard high school crush.

I never asked Karen out because I didn’t have the courage to.  The one time I got close to mustering the nerve to do it, I found that my friend from choir, Mike, had already swooped in and was dating her.  When I found out I went to her locker and asked her, “Wow. Mike, huh? Why him?” I didn’t mean it as a knock on Mike.  I just wanted to understand where I went wrong.  She slammed her locker shut and said, “Sometimes you get tired of waiting for someone to do something and you move on.”  I winced.

Despite being put in my place, Karen and I still had a tight relationship over the years. I watched her go from being a slightly awkward teen to become a very beautiful and confident woman. We drove around in her car together, went to lunch and the movies, sat in the cafeteria talking. One time when we were working the concession stand as a fundraiser for drama she was playing music.  She slipped in an 8-track.“You have to hear this guy,” she said. "I think you’ll really like him"  To this day I can’t hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” without thinking about her.

After high school we kind of lost touch as we went out on own paths.  A couple of years ago I heard from her and we started talking again.  Sometimes it was through e-mail and FaceBook and sometimes it was on the phone.  I was excited for her when she took a trip with her daughter to England.  She told me about how she liked to play tennis.  She shared a lot of photos and it was nice to see she had the same smile she had thirty years before.  She never talked about anything that was troubling her, but always asked how I was doing and told me she cared.

It was during the deep freeze that I got word that Karen had died suddenly from a brain aneurysm.  At first I couldn’t believe it. I had just been in touch with her the week before and we had talked about how if she came home to visit, I would drive up to our hometown and visit with her. It all seemed so surreal.  I immediately reached out to Scott, her old next door neighbor, who along with some others from their block had known her since they started walking and talking. Devastation.

When Scott and I talked today one of the things that entered the conversation was the fragility of things, how something so strong, looking as a huge icicle hanging from the eaves in a deep freeze, can be gone as soon as the rain comes.  It is an often used adage that you have to do all you can to tell the people that matter to you that you love them, and I believe it is true.  Before Scott and I got off the phone I said, “Please reach out and send me a message to let me know how things went.”  He said, “I will call you next week after I get home.”  I smiled to myself and said, “Thanks.” 

After we hung up, I immediately sent a message to Kevin out in Los Angeles to break the news to him. He said, “I am stunned. I thought the world of her…”  I started thinking about that.  While I am incredibly sad about losing Karen, I think it is great that she continued to live a life where people felt that way about her; that they felt the world of her, just like I always have.

I wish I could’ve gone with Scott to honor Karen and feel bad that I couldn’t.  Later tonight, or tomorrow when Karen’s family and the kids from her block, the ones that will grieve the most, are gathered together in Missouri, I will pull out some pictures I kept from high school and play some Bruce Springsteen.  

People will probably remember the deep freeze as the coldest it has ever been around here, just like they remember other blizzards and storms, but I will remember it as a time I lost a good friend and the world lost a good person.  I think memories of this week will sit in the back of my head as a reminder to not take things for granted, to seize moments, and to make sure I always let the people around me know how much I care.   
For Karen Catlin… May you rest in peace, my darling friend.