The only time in my life I was certain I was dying was when I was eight years old.
I had been running up Maxwell Street when I tripped. Most of my weight landed on my knee, which landed on a corner of a stair – Larry’s stair, actually. And it was Larry’s towels that were wrapped around my knee as I was placed into the back seat of Pete’s car, but not before I had seen the damage. The cut went to the bone. I had never seen so much blood before; there was no question in my eight-year-old mind that this was the end of my life.
Pete drove; Karen insisted on coming along. In fact, she insisted on sitting with me in the back seat. She squeezed beside me and peeled back the towels to see my injury and said, “Well, shit,” and I knew it was serious because she didn’t apologize to me for swearing.
She had run out of the house without grabbing a thing, and as Pete drove around town trying to contact my parents, Karen searched her pockets for something to give me, and offered me the only thing she had on her: a peppermint.
When Pete managed to get my mom on the car phone, I heard her voice and started sobbing: this, I thought to myself, would the last time I heard my mother’s voice. As I sobbed, Karen patted my arm and told me how brave I am. As I shook, she told me how strong I am. My breathing slowed; we made it the hospital; I grew into a well-adjusted adult who realizes her life was never in danger.
I tell this story as a testament to Karen’s character. Crises, fortunately, don’t happen all that often, but when they do, they have a way of revealing our identity, of illuminating the best and the worst in each of us.
I tell this story because in the midst of my young crisis, Karen joined me, came beside me. There was no question, for her, that she would be in that car, and that she would be immediately beside the person in need. And this was always true of Karen: no matter what I was going through, I could be certain that she would be in it with me. I could trust that she would recognize and name a situation for the shittiness it is.
I tell this story because it illustrates Karen’s generosity. A woman who wasn’t happy until everyone in her home had a full, cold drink in hand – of course she offered me a found mint. Even at the time, I’m pretty certain I laughed through my tears at the absurdity and helplessness of her offering a mint to an injured child. But that’s who she was: offering comfort and hospitality in the most tangible ways.
I tell this story because Karen always had a gift of narrating my best self — back to me. That day, while I was still sobbing uncontrollably, she told me I was strong. While I was terrified and trembling, she told me I was brave. Karen had a gift of sight, a gift that enabled her to see beyond behavior and into the heart of the person. She saw each of us as our best self, and told us who we are, with such certainty that we believed her – and moved toward becoming our best selves in response.
It’s true she offered this narration to me on that day I fell, but was equally true each and every time I saw Karen. Every time she saw me, she told me I was more beautiful than when she had last seen me – even when I was a gangly child and an awkward adolescent. When I was yet uncomfortable in my own skin, she saw me as beautiful.
As a child I was shy, quiet; I easily went unnoticed. But Karen noticed me, and exclaimed that I was smart and bright and brilliant; when I was easily overlooked, she saw me as shiny.
I wonder how she saw each of you, gathered here, the people she loved. I wonder about the too-easily unnoticed people that, in her eyes, are surrounded by light. I wonder who you understand yourself to be and who she believed you to be, and I wonder if you can believe that you really are as strong, smart, brave, brilliant, and beautiful, as Karen told you are.
And I hope you continue to become that person, that you continue to become yourself. I hope we all continue to become as lovely as Karen told us we are.
Because that, I think, is perhaps the greatest gift of Karen’s love: When we were yet unlovable, she loved us, and in doing so made us lovely.
I am indebted to her, to some degree, for calling me to become who I am, but it is not a debt that can be repaid. Rather, it is a gift that can only be passed on. May we go into the world and see others through the borrowed vision of Karen’s eyes. Through Karen’s eyes, may we notice the scared and see their strength. Through Karen’s eyes, may we look behind brokenness and see beauty. Through Karen’s eyes, may we look past the unlovable and encounter someone truly lovely.