Today would have been the 38th birthday of my dear friend, Karis, had she not succumbed to cancer several years ago. She was diagnosed with aggressive leukemia eighteen months into our unexpected and surprisingly deep friendship, and passed away a mere twelve months later. I initially raged at the universe for Karis’s death. It seemed like such a cruel taunt to have been able to experience such a wonderful friendship, only to have it torn away from me. My raw grief has mostly faded now, and I realized while writing this that I have known Karis longer as a memory than I knew her when she was still alive. With that time and reflection, my emotions have mellowed and although I wish that we could have had a longer friendship, I am grateful for having known her at all, even with the pain that her death brought me. It is hard to know how to balance reliving memories with being present in the current day, but today, on her birthday, it seems appropriate to celebrate Karis and our friendship.
Six years ago, I met Karis at a lunch scheduled to allow her to further explore our research laboratory before she joined as a fellow graduate student. Along with another colleague, we discussed lab projects, policies and politics, as well as more personal topics such as Karis’s unusual antique wedding ring. She wore cropped pants, a ruffled and patterned blouse, and heeled shoes – all items that I would come to recognize as part of her trademark style. Two hours later, as I copied scientific articles for her to peruse, she looked me in the eye and told me that she just knew that we were going to be good friends.
We ended up becoming the best of friends. When Karis joined the lab, we had work spaces across from each other so that we could talk as we worked, or for serious discussions, swivel our chairs and talk face to face. And we talked a lot! We had very different backgrounds, so I taught her about lab protocols, graduate student life, country music and Southern customs. She taught me about the importance of dressing well, motherhood, wine appreciation, and Hallmark ornaments. Despite our differences, there were incredible parallels between us as well. We had similar names and appearances, and we even both had twelve toenails. One memorable day, we wore the exact same sweater without even knowing that the other one owned it. Our most defining shared trait was our enthusiasm for nearly anything – holidays, charity fundraising, lab decorating, professional conferences, food, cutting-edge genomic techniques, fashion, etc. One year for Christmas, we planned caroling of the neighboring research laboratories, bought small research-related ornaments for everyone in our lab, attended the downtown Christmas parade, and planned (with the help of numerous spreadsheets) a cookie baking “extravaganza” projected to produce 38 dozen cookies. Most importantly though, Karis and I shared a remarkable acceptance of each other’s weaknesses, and an appreciation of each other’s strengths. We pushed each other past our comfort zones, and our mutual confidence blossomed as a result.
Four and a half years ago, we were working side-by-side, and our souls were celebrating our recent successful hosting of a fabulous bridal shower and Karis having just passed her qualifying exam. Amidst this joy, Karis’s doctor called her and asked her to return to their office that afternoon. She had gone in that morning because she was convinced that the extreme stress of the qualifying exam process had induced a stomach ulcer. I had a terrible feeling about the urgency of the doctor’s concern and offered to give her a ride, as her car was in the shop. She blew it off and scheduled an appointment for early the next morning, and planned to be slightly late to the eagerly anticipated Zoo lab outing the next day.
The next morning, I received a simple text with the words “no zoo,” followed by a devastating, although not altogether unexpected, phone call where she told me that she had cancer and an appointment with an oncologist that afternoon. Within a week, she was hospitalized and receiving chemotherapy. The details are not necessary here, as her struggle is likely familiar to so many others who fight this disease, and to those who are companions and observers of this combat. I will simply say that Karis spent approximately nine months in the hospital, endured two bone marrow transplants, and battled cancer with every fiber of her being.
Throughout Karis’s struggle with leukemia, I constantly brainstormed ways to support Karis and her family. I worked hard to ensure her research project continued, and that Karis felt like she was contributing to it. I visited her nearly every day, sometimes for just a few minutes, or for overnight. I vividly remember her hosting a Scrabble party in her hospital room where Karis cheerfully served snacks while wearing sterile gloves and a facemask. I sent her notes and letters, and dropped off distracting movies and books. One thrilling day, I arranged for the majority of our department to scramble around with large letters on the parking garage roof that was visible from her hospital room window, spelling out phrases of encouragement. I cleaned up vomit and gave her sponge baths. In short, I tried to pour myself into the void of her suffering, as if I could physically keep her safe through my own sacrifices.
And I watched her spirits fade and her prognosis deteriorate. Finally, we were all told that the end was near. I struggled to find truthful words of comfort to offer her and ended up telling her that I was there “to make the unbearable bearable.” And to be truthful here, by this point in her suffering, death would be a release from the unrelenting pain, hopelessness and shattered dreams of the future.
Three and a half years ago, Karis passed away. I was not able to be with her during her final hours, but a mutual friend was there, and she told an unresponsive Karis that I was on my way. According to this friend, Karis’s breathing slowed and she calmed. I choose to believe this story, as it underscores the unparalleled exchange of trust that was a foundation of our friendship. I am confident that Karis knew that I would never abandon her, as the depth of my love had been illustrated, not through the good times, but more powerfully, through the worst of times.
Today, on her birthday, I remember Karis before late-stage cancer – smiling, laughing and spreading joy. And I think about how grateful I am to have known her and our friendship. Her illness was an intense, emotional and truly transformative experience. I am more empathetic and tolerant, more appreciative of relationships, and more determined to make the most of every day, as we know not what comes tomorrow. Overall, I am grateful for all that Karis’s life and death taught me about love and loss, which are perhaps, the most important and relevant emotions of our human existence.