We always attempted to stay in touch as best we could which, because of my past lifestyle, was difficult to say the least. I’m happy to write today that over these past few years, we successfully rekindled our unpredictable life-connection primarily as a result of two unrelated occurances of sickness: my own ability to finally address and combat a 15-year drug-addiction and the cancer which Kellie battled with admirable perseverance. Life can be weird that way, I guess.
Lisa went to visit Kellie early Friday morning and called me afterwards to say that she believed Kellie was failing fast. She reported that Kellie was severely distended and semi-conscious, though at one point, she did manage to recognize her when she tightly gripped my sister's wrist and said “Lisa”. Kellie’s friend and caretaker, Paul, sent me an email essentially saying the same thing.
I knew this was coming; we all knew this was coming. I'd made a point of taking a week off over the Thanksgiving stretch to fly down to Oakland to spend some time with her. Before heading back home, Kel and I spent an intense, emotional 45-minutes just saying good-bye to one another: we both knew that this was probably it. And over the following weeks, I absolutely knew it was coming, faster and faster, when she was unable to talk to me whenever I called.
Most of Christmas Eve afternoon, I internally fretted about all-things-death. I was subtly preoccupied in hope of Kellie being relaxed and free from pain at her life's end. Kay went on one of her tender-care-watches, worrying about me as well as Kellie. Kay and Kellie grew quite close with each other when Kel came to stay with us for a week in July. Aside from having the common experience of having to put up with me, they were also born on the same day, August 6th, nine-years apart. In some ways, they are eerily similar.
As the day wore on, I became slowly distracted by the Christmas Eve service I was going to play at a Lutheran church here in Portland. Briefly: as a musician, it is one of the tougher "gigs" to play, basically because of the (seemingly) never-ending list of Christmas songs and hymns that everyone knows intimately. It’s a bit intimidating to perform, because even one or two clinks & clunks can seem horribly noticeable, especially to me while in such a perfectionist state-of-mind. And really, no one in church cares about my sporadic slip-ups anyway, (and I already knew this fact going in; they are a forgiving bunch) but such was my mindset this evening - unsettled and emotionally scattered. It was a beautiful night at church regardless.
When I returned home, Kay, Bridget and I commenced to opening gifts we had expertly culled for each other from the myriad of American-consumer-oriented possibilities. We were all happy, grateful and loved, and listened to some fantastic new CD's reaped from this particular harvest. Thinking about Kellie, who was simultaneously fading from life within these exact moments of time in which I was gratefully experiencing life, was way-too harsh for me to hold onto in thought. I ran from such thoughts and drifted off in an "Animal-Collective" musical-trance on the couch and eventually stumbled into the bedroom and literally collapsed into bed.
With no blood-family here in Portland, Christmas can be one of those rare days of rest and hibernation that Kay & I can share - something we don’t get to do very often and thus, look forward to taking advantage of. I woke up very late that morning, 9:30, (I'm usually up by 6:30) feeling tired and spent, primarily from playing the aforementioned Christmas Eve service.
So, when Paul called and gave me the news that Kellie had finally passed at 8:01-Christmas morning, I wasn’t all that surprised. But I still felt this sudden pang of emotional-shock. I had expected upon hearing news of Kellie’s death that I would somehow feel some kind of relief, but in fact, I came face-to-face with the reality that I had only been fooling myself. And I got a little irritated at myself for this. That’s the trouble with expectations: they can sometimes morph into premeditated resentments. I felt numb and sad. I thought about Kellie’s kids, Bethaney, Claudia and Doo-dah having to survive Christmas every year with their Mom's death in the recesses of their minds.
It came to be this year that everyone in my family was gathered together for the day at Jacque's place in Forestville. This was in large part due to a surprise visit from Mom. It was kind of a relief that I only had to make one phone call to tell everyone Merry Christmas, that I loved them, and that Kellie had passed.
Kay spent some time hard-crying - emotionally busting down the Prozac-brickwall she so vehemently resents, which according to her, usually isn't possible. Kay and I worried aloud about Kellie's youngest ones (Claudia and Doo-dah) being raised by Kellie’s ex, who is not very popular in most of Kellie’s friends’ houses. As the day waned, I wanted to turn off the TV-show of hurt & suffering that was endlessly broadcasting in my head. It seemed that it got dark outside much too early and it also started raining very hard.
It was a laid-back and somewhat somber dinner. We continued to worry about Kellie’s kids and Christmas being such a horrible day for her to die. We cursed cancer. We tried to make some sort of sense out of these recent life-lessons of love, death, relationship, the past, time, fear, and all the rest. Merry Christmas.
As Kay and I drove home, it started raining even harder. The windshield-wipers were on max-speed and it was still difficult to see. I can’t remember a darker night.
A quarter of the way home, in Scappoose, we heard the thud-thud-thud of our flat tire. Fortunately, it happened right in front of the only open gas-station in town. We were very lucky that it didn't happen a couple of miles further down the road, which would have been in the middle of nowhere, in torrential rain and pitch-black darkness.
I was too tired and emotionally-drained to be upset. After jacking up the car to change tires, I discovered that the tire-iron required for loosening the lug-nuts was missing. Kay went inside the station’s mini-mart to see if the two cops drinking coffee and doing nothing (because after all, it was 10:30 on a dark, rainy Christmas night) would loan us a tire-iron from the police-car.
The cops couldn’t loan us their tire-iron because, “we might possibly turn around and use it to hit them over their heads.” And still, neither Kay nor I became upset: it had already been a long day of riding an emotional roller-coaster. And as stupid and lame as their excuse was, it had that tinge of the current American cultural, fear-based logic to it: I might be a terrorist. All right...I get it. So instead, one of the officers gave us the phone number to Grumpy’s Towing who inturn, after some discussion over the phone, agreed to dispatch a tow-truck to come rescue us.
So there I was: the late Christmas-night of Kellie’s death, inexplicably standing beneath a two-foot wide awning, watching this onslaught of rain pouring from a menacing, black sky while waiting for some unknown tow-truck driver to make it possible for us to make it back to Portland.
Because of the relatively safe, opportunistic (and dry) sanctuary of our flat-tire locale, Kay was making correlations to Kellie and angels watching over us. Frankly, it was hard for me and my battered mind to get there, but indeed, there he was pulling up: a tow-truck driving angel who came from out of a warm house on a nasty Christmas night just to help Kay and I get home.
When he hopped out of his truck, I instantly judged him to be some sort of giant, rural-hayseed who was probably out to get some city-folks money. (Maybe I really was upset and cynical after all.) My opinion faded quickly though: tow-truck savoir-man had a real authenticity in his voice and actions. He absolutely would “fix our tire for us in a couple of minutes.”
Our angel was 6-foot-something and built, and he had a very kind face, with a gentle smile that I’d never quite seen on someone clad in black-smeared, oily-overalls. He removed the flat-tire and had it swapped with the smaller, emergency spare within five minutes. The whole time he was wrenching and turning and wiping, we were making small talk around our holidays. His was "pretty nice and kinda low-key", spent with his wife and kids and a tasty honey-glazed ham. I started feeling guilty for dragging him out of his house. In return, I told him about Kellie passing and how her kids now had Christmas as a constant-reminder of their Mom’s death.
"You know,” he said to me while lying on wet, dirty pavement and fumbling with something I couldn’t even fathom that was lurking within the wheel-well, “that's one-a-them glass half-full or half-empty deals." I stood by silently listening. "Sure, it’ll be hard on her kids these first few Christmases…(he stopped and winced for a second as he finished tightening one of the lug-nuts) …but I think it's kind of neat that every Christmas they'll have an opportunity to remember their Mom until the day they die themselves."
I was stunned. I was speechless. I thought I was going to start crying right there, in front of this giant, oily tow-truck angel whose glass was clearly, half-full. He finished up while tightening the remaining nuts: "Now, a religious person might say that God took your friend on a very special day because she was a very special person." (I'm pretty sure our tow-truck angel must have been a religious person.)
I was just flabbergasted. “You’re right,” I replied somewhat sheepishly. He smiled his tow-truck angel-smile back at me. I thought about my Dad, and thought I was going to start crying again.
And he wasn’t quite done: our little emergency-spare was low on air as well, so he filled that up too via his tow-truck-angel-air-compressor. “It’s a lucky thing you weren’t out there halfway to Sauvie Island,” he said, easily winning my daily ‘understatement of the day’ contest.
I attempted to regain some of my composure by discussing our financial business that was now at hand. “I don't know how to thank you, my friend,” I told him. “Although there is American currency," I joked, "so, how much do I owe you?” He rubbed the side of his chin in a gesture of contemplation and said with a slight smile and sigh, "Hey…Merry Christmas...no charge."
I probably don’t need to tell you here that my tears officially could no longer be contained. They had begun their slow-leak. I insisted on giving him twenty bucks, off the meter. Breakfast or something for his family, I dunno.
"That's mighty kind of you sir," he smiled. And off we went on our separate ways. As he left, I noticed that our angel's tow-truck was adorned with Elmo, Grover, Big-Bird and other well-known Seasame-Street characters. I imagined his children laughing and playing in his truck, (as it sat idle at home during the day) crawling around the big drivers-seat and pretending to drive and rescue their own stranded travelers. Kay and I cried most of the way back to Portland. I couldn’t hold back my well-constructed dam of tears any longer.
I’d be lying to you if I said I knew exactly what this particular December 25th, 2004 meant. I don’t know today. I'm guessing that I won’t know tomorrow. I don't know what to make of the kind of events that can transpire in places like Scappoose, Oregon at the end of a long, grieving Christmas day.
I don't know if it was some kind of final good-bye from Kellie, or a sign of God’s benevolence, or tow-truck driving angels, or just empathetic human deeds, courtesy of the last few stragglers leaving Christ’s annual birthday party. I’m not sure how a stranger's random act of kindness on a rainy Christmas night can transform one's tears of sorrow and uncertainty, into tears of love and hope.
Maybe the poet Rainer Maria Rilke knew this when he wrote:
"For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation."