Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Return of Karen Robinson

Penguin and Karen shopping for hats

I entered the room and set my bags in the back corner of the bedroom, hidden from view from the doorway. Mother kept a very clean home and every time I came to visit, I was always ever so conscious of the impact I was making on her cleanliness. One of my virtues is not wanting to put anyone out on account of me. One of the few ways I could do so was to make things look as neat as possible.

After hanging a few shirts and pants, I took a seat in the big, soft chair that sat in the corner of the bedroom. I had always loved this chair, it had been in the family for about as long as I could remember. I was tired. The altitude was ever present during my visits, but at least here, in their home in Florissant, Colorado, it wasn’t as bad as their last home in Blue River, which was closer to 10,000 feet than it was to nine.

As I rested, a sense of uneasiness had come over me. Here, in this pristine room with the queen bed, royal-looking dresser, glass-topped dressing table, and rustic mountain-scene artwork on the walls, I felt uneasy. This was the first time I had been back in this room since the illness, eight months previous. It had been such a horrid experience that just being back in this space and being reminded of the trauma simply made me feel ill at ease.

The  view from the guest room.
I stood up in what seemed like slow motion, gazing out the window at the mountains and trees and dimming daylight as the sun neared the horizon. The last time I gazed out this window, eight months ago, there was still snow on the ground. The wind seemed about the same- ever blowing from the northwest. On the shelves near the doorway were the same books, nick-knacks and stuffed animals. Mom liked to change things up from time to time, but these shelves had remained untouched for several years, save for the cleaning rags to remove the dust she’s always complaining about. There was the one thing, that for now, made me comfortable about this guest room in my parent’s log cabin house 9,000 feet above sea level. A smiling stuffed clown doll.

Taking it into my hands, I smiled as it smiled back, winking at me. He had a red nose and little hearts at each corner of his smiling mouth. A ring of pink yarn for hair circled his head, leaving a big bald spot. His outfit covered all of his arms and legs with small blue and pink flowers. Around his neck, a pink ruffle. He was all of ten inches in height and perhaps the femininity of him was the reason it was now in Mom’s possession and no longer in mine.

I turned the clown around to look for the name. I always looked for the name and I always seem to forget that next to the name was the copyright symbol- 1985- drawn by hand. Karen Robinson.

In high school, I was very active in various leadership roles. I served on the school’s senate and each year ran for successfully higher offices in the FHA-HERO youth program. The FHA stood for Future Homemakers of America. This was never my favorite part of being involved in FHA-HERO, as I never considered myself in the running for such a life and it sounded a bit girly. The HERO part was my interest: Home Economics Related Occupations.
Penguin's graduation

Back then, there were three things that I found of interest. Running a hotel, running a restaurant, or becoming a famed architect. My involvement and movement up the ladder to run for a national office in HERO seemed to indicate that I might be leaning more towards a career in hotel and restaurant management. To be safe, however, I chose to attend the University of Houston for the fact that they had among the best schools in the nation for both architecture and for hotel and restaurant management.

Meeting a delegate at one of my national youth conferences.
Being a leader in FHA-HERO meant planning and implementing local, regional, state and even national meetings, events, lectures and activities. From hosting a cable TV show with puppets touting the values of proper nourishment, to being a youth editor for a national teen magazine, there were a lot of fun responsibilities. With these, came the guidance of our advisers. My adviser was a woman who captured my attention from the first moment I saw her. This isn’t to say I had a schoolboy crush on her. Well, at least that I was aware of right away. She was an attractive woman, sure, and still quite young. She stood in the middle of the hallway intersection on the first day of class helping direct students to the proper room. Skyline High School, in the 80s, at over 3,000 students, was the third largest high school in the US, and getting around on your first day on the huge campus could be daunting.

As I approached, I could hear her shrill voice offering help and then sending students on their way. I was lucky enough to know where I was headed- I was always good with maps and had looked ahead of time at the maze of hallways that I needed to traverse in order to reach my home economics class. I have no idea how I ended up taking such a class in my very first semester of high school, but as a freshman I did as I was told. I passed the attractive hallway cop, declining her assistance and took my seat in the corner class room that overlooked the very front of the school.

The bell rang and in she walked. She looked over her class and right at me, seeming to recognize me from the of the few not in need of her direction. She introduced herself as Mrs. DeLong and immediately began changing my life. She saw a young man with ambition and took me under her wing. Four years later she sent me off to college with several academic scholarships, and my whole life ahead of me. We had become close friends and allies. Living with a bachelor father, in many ways, she stood in for the role of my mother.

Along the way I encountered many other advisers to other students in FHA-HERO. Most were from other schools in the area, but a few were there within the halls of Skyline. Karen Robinson was one such person, heading up the fashion cluster. She had patented the clown dolls and made them by hand. I don’t remember when or where mine came to be in my possession from her, but I must have passed it along to Mother for safe keeping. A pink-haired clown was obviously not something a college man wanted to display in his dorm room!

Mom came up behind me, snapping me back to the present in the guest room, and asked if I had settled in. She looked at the clown in my hands and back up at me with a smile.

“You know, you can’t get rid of this,” I told her. “It’s very dear to me.”

“I remember,” she said, “It’ll always be safe here. Dinner is almost ready. Why don’t you come on upstairs and fix your drink.” She was such a sight for sore eyes...and a great cook. I started feeling happy I’d come back home for a long weekend visit, while still recovering from that virus.

I put Karen’s clown doll back where he lived- on the shelves in the guest room- and followed Mom upstairs, thinking about how much I loved Karen Robinson. She was not my adviser, but we had spent a lot of time and laughs together.
Karen's signature and copyright.

At the end of my freshman year in high school, I was in Washington, DC with Leta, Karen and a slew of other students from Dallas. I was attending the national youth convention for FHA-HERO and we had an afternoon free. The group of us from Skyline gathered in Leta’s room as she ironed an outfit and tried to decide just what to do with our time. There was so much to choose from, being in our nation’s capitol. We had already visited the White House and Capitol building, meeting with our state representatives. Karen had a map out on the bed and rattled off options to the peanut gallery, who would yea or nay them. Every now and then, Karen would take a pause and ask, “What’s this termable root?” “There’s another one...termable root.” “I wonder what this termable root is that I keep seeing.” The suspense was killing me, and again, being good with maps, I asked if I could take a look.

“Karen,” I asked, “I don’t see this termable root. Where is it?”

She pointed to one, then another, and a third. “See- termable root.”

The Tourmobile
“Um, Karen? That’s a ‘tourmobile route’. Apparently, there is a tourmobile that we can ride around in the city.” There wasn’t a person in the room who five minutes later didn’t have a sore stomach from laughing so hard at her pronunciation.

Karen and Leta always got along and would follow me around the country giving talks and lectures at various national and regional meetings. I lost touch with Karen when I graduated, and after a few more years, I would eventually lose touch with Leta. The amount of time between phone calls would get longer. The letters came less frequent. Soon, it was only cards at Christmas. Then, before I knew it, so much time had passed that I no longer even knew Leta’s address. I’d moved to Maryland, and Leta had remarried. We just grew apart.

I’d long forgotten the clown. Completely forgotten about it. Until years later, in the late 90s, visiting my parents in Breckenridge, Colorado and seeing him sitting on the shelf. I took hold of it out of curiosity. I seemed to remember it, but not too clearly. I looked at his neck and found the name. Karen Robinson? I’d nearly forgotten her! I realized it had been so long since I heard from Leta. But before we lost touch, I remember Leta telling me about the passing of a teacher, an adviser, someone I had held dear. It was starting to come back to me. Karen Robinson had died. Isn’t that what she said? That must be why I felt such an unusual attraction to this strange clown. It made me smile, though, thinking about that trip to DC and her ‘termable roots’. Mom was in the next room and I showed her the clown doll. “Mom, you cannot get rid of this clown. Karen made it for me and she died just after I graduated. It’s very special.” So the clown has lived on those shelves ever since, even after the move from Breckenridge to Florissant.

Then, for Thanksgiving 2009, I joined the majority of my family for a gathering at my parent’s ranch in Florissant. Dad was engrossed in learning how to deep fry a turkey. The women camped out in the kitchen pouring over recipes and cooking up a storm. I was feeling the affects of the high altitude more than I normally did. The family had plans for the weekly pot luck dinner and music jam at the nearby Grange, on Wednesday night. It was an activity we all loved, but I was feeling a bit puny and asked to stay behind. I had an array of symptoms I don’t normally feel when visiting home, so I looked up altitude sickness, and nearly every symptom matched; shortness of breath, headache, pain in my chest. But by the time the family returned from the Grange, I was developing spots on my arms and legs and had a terrible sore throat, that seemed to be sore all the way down my esophagus.
My spots in the hospital

When the sun came up on Thanksgiving Day, I was even worse. The red spots were larger and had spread and were sore. I could barely walk. My headache was so large, it was like a hat that extended several inches around my head. I could barely swallow. It was time for the emergency room. From there, I wound up being taken to the hospital in nearby Colorado Springs and remained there for five horrifying days.
They never figured out what I had. They knew it was a virus, but had no idea what kind, or where I got it. After ruling so many things out, it was obvious that as a flight attendant, I had picked up something from work- something from one of my flights. I asked the doctor why no one else in my family got what I had. I was told that viruses can affect one person very differently from another. I endured five days of that huge headache, five days of misery and pain, spots all over my body and at the apex of the experience, a fever of 106.5 degrees. I felt like I was going to die. I begged to be put into a coma. I welcomed death.

After I recovered, I returned to my parent’s home in the mountains. The family had all gone home. There was no more turkey. I had missed out on the deep fried bird and turkey sandwiches. But in all honesty, that was the least of my concerns. Still not feeling well, I longed to be back home with my sweet cats, Adelie and Phoebe. But I still had a lot of recovering to do and spent all day in bed. With the family now gone, I was moved into the guest room.

All day, in the living room next to the guest room, Dad watched his westerns. Guns, explosions, stampedes, moos, yee-haws and wagon trains- I wanted to die all over again. Those were the last things I wanted to hear as I recovered, and I barely had the energy to launch a complaint. I was not well enough to fly home on my own, so I called my best friend, flew him out and he helped me fly home three days later. I wanted out of that room so badly, and with that visit eight months later, I still had that uneasy feeling of being there. Things were still so fresh in my mind.

As I slowly recuperated from the virus...much too slowly for my tastes...I discovered that I had melanoma. I half cried and half laughed. After surviving the Thanksgiving virus, was I now going to be taken by cancer? But like the virus, in the end I wound up beating the disease. It would take a surgery and a month of recovery, but I was still out of work from the virus, which left me dazed, dizzy and fatigued. I was unable to work for eleven months, and returned too soon, at that.

In a period of four months, I had looked death in the face twice and come out the winner. This awoke in me a strange and profound need to get in touch with my past. I began to search for things, histories, people I’d lost touch with, places I’d gone. I found my best friend from third grade... and the strangest thing in the world was that he was now living two towns from my parents in Colorado and had even jammed at the weekly Grange pot lucks. I also got back in touch with Leta, who had since earned her doctorate and was still involved with things at Skyline, but was about to begin a professorship at a Dallas area college.

A very young Penguin with his grandfather and mother.

It had been over ten years since I last went to Dallas to visit family and friends. It was after talking to Leta, and her urging me to come visit, that had me plan on doing just that. It would be a whirl wind tour of my old home town, with so many friends and family to see. But in my brushes with death, it was important for me to do so.

Leta and I were close in high school. My father traveled often and it was not uncommon that I would stay in Leta’s guest room. I had met her entire family and even gone hunting on her family’s farm in East Texas. So when I made plans to visit after my illness, she made a big deal of it. Her husband was out of town, but she assured me that I’d get to see her mom and sister- her father had sadly passed. But then she told me of another guest who would be coming over for dinner. I was stunned. I was stupefied. Who was invited to come over and catch up? None other than Karen Robinson!

I felt like such a fool. It wasn’t Karen who had died after graduation. I guess I’d not completely paid attention when she had told me. Who was it, then? I was too embarrassed to ask her, so I just acted cool about it. “Karen? I’d ‘love’ to see her again!” I told Leta. I was almost more excited to see Karen, risen from the dead, than anyone else in Dallas!

We had a magical time at Leta’s house near White Rock Lake. Karen came by and we drank wine and ate King Ranch casserole. We laughed about the termable root and enjoyed the evening catching up. Karen now lived a few blocks from the condo where I spent my years in high school. And now that Facebook was alive, she and I connected there often.

Karen and Leta
I never told Leta this story, and certainly never told Karen. But then I got a call from Leta in August of 2016. “Karen has cancer. She’s undergoing chemo, and it doesn’t look too promising for her.” I was crushed. I’d lost her once. I knew what life was like thinking she was not in it, but she was back now, and this was just beyond cruel. Damn you cancer!

Just in the previous year, Mom had found a lump in her breast. It turned out to be a rare kind of cancer. She underwent chemo and had the lump removed. I had never been more scared of mortality than seeing its face in that of my own beloved mother! She lost hair and wore wigs and hats. She put up a very brave and strong front. She was more positive about life and events in it than I’ve ever known her to be. That strength and positivity is what helped her win the battle with cancer.
Leta and I at the State Fair

I had already wanted to visit Dallas in October. I’d not been to the state fair in fourteen years and it had been five since I last saw Leta and Karen. Now that Karen was ill, I just had to see her. Leta initially made things sound bleak, she wasn’t feeling well and seemed reluctant to receive visitors. I wasn’t sure that with my track record of visiting Dallas if I’d ever get to see her again. It was paramount that I do so on this trip!

Fortunately, Karen was having a good day when I was in town and agreed to be taken to lunch and then hoped to do some shopping for cosmetics and hats. Shopping with women is not something I enjoy, but spending a day with Leta and Karen, much like the old times- just replace the school with a shopping mall- was magical.

We dined at Keller’s Drive-in, a Dallas institution, sitting in Leta’s Texas-sized pickup, munching on burgers and drinking beer. Then the secrets started to come out!

While in Washington and Salt Lake City and Chicago for our summer meetings, when the students went to their rooms for the night, the advisers were hanging out drinking a bottle of vodka that Leta had brought! Knowing some of the students, I’m sure it was quite necessary! Karen claimed that when she first found out about the vodka being in Leta’s bag, she was shocked, but it certainly didn’t stop her from assisting in emptying it!

It was my turn, so I told of the time when we were all supposed to be in our rooms asleep, but the noise forced one of the advisers to come knocking on the hotel room door. It was the girls room; we shared four students per room. I would be in big trouble were I discovered to be in this room at this time of night. I hid behind the curtains and listened as the adviser swore she had heard my voice in that room. They all denied it, saying it must have been the TV, which was still playing. She eventually bought it and closed the door, telling the girls to get to bed! Giggles ensued and I eventually snuck back to my own room.
Penguin in the girl's hotel room

Leta, Karen and I laughed at the secrets we could now divulge; that, and how nice it was that we could openly consume alcohol together. Wasn’t it fun- all of us being adults now? It was hard to believe that it was thirty years ago when I graduated. So much time having fun together had been lost. But now, here we were, trying to make up time while one of us potentially had so little. Damned cancer!

In a moment of silence, between swigs of beer in the giant pickup under the old tin roof of Keller’s Drive In, I pulled from a bag I had brought with me that silly clown. Karen gasped, then squealed, asking, “Is that one of my clowns babies?” She turned it over, “Yep, there’s my copyright. You’ve kept this all these years?”

I told her how it had been at Mom’s since I graduated, but I had just been there a week prior and knowing that I was coming to Dallas, I decided that it was time for the clown to live with me, and I wanted to show her that I still cherished it. She nearly cried, as she fussed with his hair and ribbons. Leta noticed that a few ribbons were missing and asked if he hadn’t at one time had a hat. It had, so stated Karen. Leta exclaimed that new ribbons could easily be reattached. They were the least of my concern. Seeing Karen’s happiness was the most precious thing.

Karen receiving her penguin at Keller's Drive In
 Then, from my bag, I pulled out a stuffed penguin. “Karen, as you know, I have thousands of penguins at home, and I’d like to start giving some out to friends, so I brought this one for you.” I handed it to her as tears formed in her eyes. She tugged on the little scarf and looked at me and we hugged as best we could between the front and back seat of that huge truck. She named him and for the rest of the afternoon held him and gently brushed his head with her thumb.

Just before Christmas, 2016, I found out that Karen’s chemo was not working. The doctors felt six weeks was about all she had left. Again, I felt completely devastated. To think someone dead for so many years and then to find out that they are still alive, and then to find out that they are dying, only then to rebuild a strong connection. It was messed up.

Because I had her back I thought that there was time. So much time. I was wrong. There is no more time. Karen died on Monday, January 23rd. As much as I had hoped to see her again, the last time I got to be with her was that cold, damp day in October, going from store to store in Dallas looking at and trying on hats to hide the chemo-hair loss. This one for the cold. This one to go with dark outfits. That one for dressy occasions. She bought way more than I thought she’d ever need- enough for many years of chemo!

She was in such a good mood that day. She smiled often and hardly complained. She was positive and upbeat. There was much life left in her, but she tired easily. I’ll never forget all the laughs and the way she held that little penguin and how anxious she was to take photos together.

Leta, Penguin and Karen October 2016

Watching Mom gather such strength and positive thoughts, and then seeing Karen doing pretty much the same thing, knowing she has many friends and family to care for her and help bring her spirits up, I had such hope that she could be around for many more years of me driving to Dallas, eating Keller’s burgers and drinking wine all while laughing about termable roots. Gather close your loved ones, we’re never promised tomorrow.
My clown baby

I’ve never told Karen this story, and I hadn’t planned to. I hoped she could have read this to know how much she means, not just to me, but to so many. I hoped she understood that everything in life is temporary. I thought I had lost her many years ago and held close a cute little clown she had made. While I will continue to do so and will always cherish being able to tell inquisitors the story behind the cute little clown doll sitting high on my shelves in my living room. I realize that life is so much more than the trinkets we collect.

Life is about the moments we share, the growth we attribute to others, the respect and admiration we have that gives rise to someone who, to the world is but a stranger, but to me and those who know her, is a gem. A giant. A source of laughter and great pride.

As a teacher and adviser, she has touched so many young lives as they find their path to a bright future. As a mother, she has nurtured life into the world itself. As a grandmother, she held dear the future she helps create. As a friend, she is a bright light in a sometimes dim place. That light will not extinguish now that she has left us. Her light only shines brighter. Her struggles are not in vain. They inspire others and carve deep into us a love and appreciation that will always endure.

Her loss leaves many of us sad. This story began with a part of my past that was painful. I was able to overcome the obstacles and reconnect with a very special lady as I helped her endure her pain. I was lucky enough to have had her in my life twice. I cherish our final embrace and saying “I love you, Karen. I’ll see you real soon,” half knowing I probably wouldn’t, but praying that wouldn’t be the case. I was hoping for a miracle and for her to beat cancer as Mom and I did. She was strong and loved, but they say the good die young.

Penguin and Karen on what Leta said was her last good day.

Karen was a very special lady. I’m richer for her being in my life, and I can look upon her clown baby with his missing hat and smile at one of the mementos she left in my life. My cherished little Karen clown. And I can surely look up at her riding that great termable root in the sky.

I love you, Karen Robinson

1 comment:

  1. Bittersweet, beautiful, lovely....a rich slice of life!