In the days after Ken's diagnosis, I was awash with grief. I'm someone who is always trying to do things. So I did. I helped Ken cut up his food when his hands struggled to hold a knife; I tied his shoes for him when his fingers couldn't grasp the laces; I made a map with him of all the things he wanted to do in life. “See?” I told him, pointing to words like be a parent and build something beautiful. “Even with MS, you can do all these things.”
But the thing about grief is that it demands to be wrestled with. If, like me, you're always running from one thing to the next, desperately trying to do rather than let the grief in, it comes anyway: in the car, or the shower, or when in the early hours of the morning. So as the weeks passed by, I had to let it in, because it crept in anyway. And as I fought with the pain as it desperately tore at my heart, only one thing made me feel better: Kristen.
Kristen is my godmother, though not from birth. I met her as a little kid, when I had first learned that I would die one day and angrily demanded answers from my parents. They weren't religious (though my mother will insist vehemently that they are spiritual), and their lack of answers didn't satisfy me, so my mom set me up with her only religious friend, hoping that maybe Kristen could give me answers that she herself didn't have. And so Kristen took me out to dinner: anywhere I liked. Being little, I chose Macaroni Grill.
That night, we didn't actually end up talking about religion at all. Not on the next dinner date either, or the next. By the time I started wanting to talk about life and death and God, I was in middle school, and Kristen had become something like a mother-aunt-mentor to me. None of those descriptors fit, somehow. She was cooler than a mom, and more like a friend than an aunt. And mentor sounded far too serious. But I wanted some sort of official name for her, to signify the place she had in my life. So, when I was thirteen, I took her out to dinner (this time to P.F. Chang's, next to where our Macaroni Grill used to be), and I asked her to be my godmother.
I had chosen matching necklaces for the occasion. Hers was red and purple, and mine was blue and orange, but they were the same symbol: a ship's wheel. Years later, as Kristen took me shopping for my college dorm supplies and we inexplicably bought an empty piñata shaped like a dinosaur, we wore those same necklaces.
That night in the car, as she drove me home with our piñata in the backseat, I talked to her about my muddled forming faith. I don't remember the questions I had, or the answers she gave. But I remember sitting in her parked car outside my house, laughing about life and the difficulty of knowing who you are and what's next.
She became my official, on-paper godmother four years later, when I was confirmed in a little white church one town over from where I lived. In some funny cosmic coincidence, I had found my place in the Methodist church, the same denomination that she herself was a part of. On Easter Sunday of that year, she stood next to me at the front of the church. She accidentally messed up the order of the service, but said her part so confidently that no one noticed.
We lit candles. She wrapped me up in a white scarf and promised to look over me as I lived the life I had chosen.
The following fall, I wrote a short book about Advent, which I dedicated to her. “For Kristen, who has walked with me in good times and in bad,” I wrote. “I look forward to many more journeys together.”
She was starting to get sick; just a few weeks before, she had planned to pick me up from Wellesley, but in the end couldn't muster the 5-hour drive. Instead, she took me out to dinner a few days after I got back, and in the parking lot outside the restaurant, I handed her the book and a small journaling Bible.
A few months later, after Ken was diagnosed with MS, Kristen sent me an email. Subject line: Word from your Godmother!
“I know what chronic illness is like,” she told me. “I wish there were some magic words I could say or some tidbits of wisdom I could impart, but what you need to know now is that I love you.” At the end of the email, she included a poem she wrote, on dealing with grief.
Those words got me through the days and weeks immediately after the diagnosis. When I saw Kristen a few weeks later — once again for a dinner, books, and driving date — it was the first time since the diagnosis that I actually, for a moment, felt free of the hurt. We laughed for one of the first times since Ken and I found out he had MS. Though I didn't know this at the time, it was also one of the last times I saw Kristen as herself.
Kristen, for as long as I knew her, wrestled with illness. I think she never wanted me to see her as sick, so she deferred telling me what it was and how it affected her life for a long time. But I saw it begin to take from her. She missed my college graduation, something she had been looking forward to for years. She wasn't able to come see me for my birthday. Our plans became more and more flexible, until I got so used to the disappointment of a last-minute cancellation and that we started to factor back-up plans into our phone calls.
This January, in the weeks before I moved abroad to start the next chapter of my life, Kristen and I saw each other at her house. I gave her a nativity set that I had spent months painting. She gave me a bag of little things she had chosen for me in my new life: a scarf to keep me warm, a flashlight keychain to keep me safe; tea and a book to keep me happy. It was a collection of wishes for my future.
“I'm hoping I can come to the Netherlands to visit you when I feel better,” she told me.
“I'd love that. I'll also be back this summer and maybe we can go out,” I said. She perked up visibly at this, sitting a little taller in her chair. But when I did come to visit this summer, it was a bittersweet moment. My mom had called me and told me to come early. Kristen wasn't well.
I rebooked my flight for as soon as possible, and ended up spending four weeks in the US. I saw Kristen four times in that period: three times at her house, and once in the hospital. Each time, she looked worn; as thin as I'd ever seen her, dwarfed by her old clothes and struggling to focus or talk with me as she once did. On one of the last times I saw her in person, she told me, “you're so good at loving me.”
That will be my last real memory of Kristen, I've decided. Not the hospital visit, where she was too sick to be seen, so I sat with her husband and best friend in the waiting room. Not the unanswered phone calls on my last day in the States, when I hoped she might be up for just one last five-minute visit. Not today, when her husband held the phone to her ear and I told her I loved her, that she had changed me. That for years, I'd been planning to name my first daughter after her, and hadn't told her because I had hoped she'd see for herself.
Kristen is in her final moments before she goes home. In the years I've known her, she has been a wickedly funny, fiercely loving, infinitely lovable friend and godmother to me. She helped bring me from the little girl I was to the woman I am now, always looking out for and over me in the way she promised that Easter a several years ago. And in some way, she has even taken care of me for this goodbye. In the weeks in which I last saw her, and as recently as this afternoon, I have read over her “Word from your Godmother!” on dealing with grief:
Lean on those who love you.
Ask for help when needed.
Cry when you have to.
Find a way to laugh and use humor.
Talk to me or to John (who has to look out for me & take care of me on some days).
Eat good food.
Enjoy and relish each other's company.
Say “I love you” more than you used to.
Look for blessings and seek peace.
Pray. Believe. Pray.
Make new positive memories.
Look for silver linings.
Be FEARLESS in the face of challenges.
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
I'm here for you.
And she is, even now.