I can’t remember when I first met Karen, but I’m sure that she took me seriously aback. Karen was a large, heavyset, mentally handicapped woman in our branch who had little sense of personal boundaries or respect for personal space. Karen favored enormous T-shirts featuring her favorite band, Cinderella, and pants for church, and she sported the type and amount of bling stereotypically associated with inner-city drug dealers. Karen loved painting her nails and dying her hair, and her nail polish was generally badly applied, and her hair badly dyed. Various Relief Society presidents tried to convince Karen of the virtues of dresses and skirts and looking a little more like the rest of us. No go. Karen was insistent on Cinderella.
Karen never knew when to stop talking. She stood too close and said embarrassing things. She would drive you into a corner of the foyer with intimate details about her “monthly,” the failures of her latest antidepressants, or the harrowing details of various family members’ surgeries. She especially loved to talk about her favorite niece, whom she always called “Babycakes.”
I’m not sure how, exactly, my husband and I got to be friends with Karen. Maybe he was her home teacher? The year I was so depressed I could barely function Karen somehow became one of the only people at church I felt comfortable being with, and I often sat beside her in sacrament meeting or Sunday school. I was largely incapable of holding up my end of a conversation at that point in my life, and Karen mostly wanted someone to listen. In my drastically reduced emotional circumstances, I found her complete candor so refreshing, so blessedly easy. Karen never said a word she didn’t mean, and she never cared when my own appearance went downhill, and I found myself wearing the same skirts week after week and neglecting to so much as brush my hair. I never felt any of the (understandable) awkwardness and uncertain pity I often felt from the “normal” members of the branch.
Karen had joined the church because Donny and Marie Osmond were members. But Cinderella was her favorite band. When they came to a nearby city on tour, my husband and another member of our branch who liked heavy metal split the cost of her ticket and went with her. She insisted on waiting around at the concert’s end to meet the band, and to her enormous delight she managed to get a picture of herself with the band’s drummer that was ultimately published in a music magazine. It was an extraordinarily proud day for Karen when she brought the magazine to church and showed us all the picture of her with her hero.
Karen’s attendance was always sporadic, and by our last couple of years in the branch, she wasn’t coming much. She lived in a nursing home more than half an hour away from our Stage 1 chapel, and she was dependent on the schedules of the few members in the area for her transportation. When the stake boundaries were realigned and she was assigned to the next branch over, she adamantly refused to go at all. But Karen called me from time to time. Every couple of months I’d talk to her on the phone for a while while folding laundry or organizing a closet. Karen always gave us Christmas presents. Even after we moved away, she faithfully sent us a package every December. I hadn’t talked to Karen in a while when I got home a few weeks ago to hear her tearful voice on my answering machine, asking me to pray for a brother who was undergoing surgery. The raw emotion in her voice made me feel tired, overwhelmed with having to deal with someone else’s neediness, I’m ashamed to say. It took me a few days to call her back, but we talked for maybe half an hour when I did. First I had to promise to pray for her brother and for her. Then she told me about happenings in her niece’s life. She was preparing to go to bed early so that she could get up in the morning to go to her niece’s high school graduation. I asked her again about the possibility of finding a ride to church with various members in the area. Finally I told her to call me again whenever she wanted to, while privately resolving to do a better job of making the effort to call her first.
Last Saturday afternoon I got home from the gym to find a letter from a mutual friend informing me that Karen had died in her sleep of a heart attack. I don’t think she was much older than 50. The friend who wrote me about Karen’s death is herself elderly and in poor health, and while she very much wanted Karen to have a Mormon funeral, Karen was the only member in her family, and I doubt she or any of the local leadership she contacted were able to make that happen. I have no idea under what circumstances Karen’s body was buried or what words were spoken about her or her life or the strange religion she had insisted on joining.
I don’t know what to make of Karen’s short and generally marginal existence–although of course it’s not my place to make anything of it. Karen was somewhat on the fringes even in our branch. She never did any of the things we tend to think of as essential to a meaningful life. She never got much education or married or had children or held a job, as far as I know. She joined the church for the strangest reason I’ve ever heard of. But Karen was, undeniably, my friend. So many of the service anecdotes we circulate in church contexts encourage us to think of people like Karen as people we normals serve, as the targets of our righteous efforts, maybe even as the staging ground for them. Or we doctrinally sanitize and sentimentalize the Karens of the world, making them into precious angel-souls, choice spirits, the celestially special. But Karen was never going to be the passive recipient of service, and she was, delightfully and exasperatingly, anything but angelic. It would be a drastic reduction of her rich, engaging, stubborn, wholly idiosyncratic self to consider her in either of these false lights.
I miss Karen. My life is poorer, emptier for her death. She holds a place in my affections no articulate, socially adept “normal” person will ever fill.
- 6 June 2007