Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A tribute to a faraway friend...

For Micke, and Alfred

When emotions are strong, what can a writer do but write? Today I am paying tribute to my dear, faraway friend, Karin.

Karin and I met in 1987 on a bus in Tucson, Arizona. It was our year to travel and perform with Up With People, and we caught the same bus to go home to our host families after staging days. I had never met anyone from Sweden before I started a conversation with the tall, quiet, blonde girl across from me. We somehow got to chatting about tongue twisters that day, and she decided that I should learn one in Swedish. I think she picked the hardest one! Sju sjösjuka sjömän sköttes av sjutton sköna sjuksköterskor. Something about seasick seamen being cared for by beautiful nurses. I could barely pronounce it, let alone say it five times fast! By contrast, she didn't have any trouble with Peter Piper and his peck of pickled peppers.

The tall Swedish girl and I ended up travelling together for a year in Cast C, and we became fast friends over that silly tongue twister -- even though she was always correcting my pronunciation. I couldn't help but like her -- she was a feisty character who stood up for what she believed and let people know in no uncertain terms what she thought. Her abruptness could rub people the wrong way at times, and I often found myself jumping into conversations to try to soften things she said because I had learned that behind her sometimes prickly-seeming exterior was a beautiful person with a heart of gold. Not only that -- she usually had darn good reason for being prickly! For a while, she was our Lady of the Lost and Found for Cast C, and gathered and kept all the personal items people left behind at different events or show nights. She really got impatient with certain people who couldn't keep track of their own articles of clothing, and honestly, who could blame her? Everyone in the group was over 18, and she just wasn't ready to play nagging mother to 130 people, give or take a few.

One of my favourite memories of Karin is of her holding the tiller on our Trois Rivieres host dad's sailboat as we flew down the fleuve St. Laurent on a perfect autumn day. The wind whipped her hair back, and she smiled the entire time we sailed. She had a great smile, and was the queen of the engaging "show face" -- after performing the same show, more or less, for an entire year, unlike some of us, she never looked bored --  she knew how to turn it on to please a crowd. We were together on microphone groups (backup vocalists, in other words) quite often, singing N'Kosi Sikelel'iAfrika harmonies and making "show faces" at each other. I'll never forget her smile as she stood on a parade float in her international costume on a chilly Sudbury day, waving to the people who lined the street.

At Christmas that year, Karin couldn't afford to fly all the way back to Sweden, so she came home with me, and was very disappointed by the fact that Edmonton was having a brown Christmas. We took her to Banff National Park, and there wasn't a lot of snow there either, so we headed up to the top of Sulfur Mountain on the gondola. "Finally, SNOW!" she said, beaming. She met a lot of strange Canadians during her break (we counted how many on the plane trip back to New York -- seems to me that with my Saskatchewan relatives, it was over 250 people), but she didn't complain about any of it -- rather, she enjoyed introducing herself with, "Hello, I'm Karin, Maria's Swedish sister," and seeing the surprised looks on the faces of my friends and family. She'd smile mischievously and say, "Didn't you know?" Her sense of humour caught a lot of people by surprise! My parents took to calling her their Swedish daughter, too.

Karin and I had a few adventures together in Europe that spring. We walked a beach in a peaceful part of Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) and sang Easter songs, she in Swedish to my English, different lyrics but the same melodies. She helped me as a member of Bjorn and the Bagels, also known as the Food Crew, and one evening in Trieste, we and several other volunteers held our own pizza parade, laughing and carrying stacks of pizzas through the streets past puzzled Italians, to the theatre where we would perform that evening. Together on a free day, Karin and I walked all over Lugano, Switzerland, until our feet were sore. And sometimes when we had spare time, she would ask, "Do you remember the tongue twister?" and I would laugh, and she would have to teach me all over again.

When our year in Up With People ended, we went our separate ways, and wrote letters now and then to keep in touch. Karin's mother died, and her relationship with her father and brothers had always been strained, but she held her own. She worked as a lab tech for many years, travelled, had many adventures, and learned German and Esperanto. I was guaranteed a tiny Christmas card every year, and we settled into a routine as faraway friends. I invited her to my wedding, but 7700 km was just a little too far for her to come... until the Spring of 1994, when she decided she wanted to attend a Swedish Reunion in Minnesota, and called to see if she could come to Edmonton for a visit, too!

I was quite excited to have a cast mate come -- being so far north, Edmonton isn't exactly a hub city that's part of peoples' lay-overs, so she's the only cast mate who has actually managed a visit. Lee and I were in the process of renovating our bedroom that June, and wanted to have it done before Karin arrived, but she showed up earlier than we expected, much to our chagrin. Fortunately, the chaos in our home didn't bother Karin. Once we settled her into our guest room, she immediately borrowed my oldest clothing and ball cap, and she and Lee painted while I looked after our six-month-old. Karin stayed for two weeks, and we took her along to Jasper National Park on our own mini-vacation, and to Elk Island National Park to see the bison there. In those two weeks, Karin and I did a lot of hiking, walking around my neighbourhood, and chatting about life.

"I want to bake some bread," she announced one morning. "Do you have any jast?"

It took me a while to determine that jast was yeast, and no, I didn't have any on hand. So we walked to the grocery store, and I took Karin into the baking aisle and showed her the jars of dry, fast-rising yeast.

"No, no, no! That's not it," she said, her face stormy, like a five-year-old wanting her way. "Don't you have any real yeast? Living yeast?"

I didn't know what to do, so I suggested that we talk to the fellow behind the counter in the bakery department.

"I would like some live yeast, please," she said to him.

He looked very confused. "Yeast is in aisle 5," he told her.

"No, no, no! Not dead yeast, live yeast. Don't you use live yeast to bake your bread?" she asked, frowning.

"I've never been asked for live yeast before," he said, flustered.

"Well, I just asked," she said, determined.

The fellow went into the back room and came out with a chunk of baker's yeast, wrapped it in some wax paper and slipped it into a paper bag.

"And how much will it cost?" she inquired.

"I don't know," he said, frowning, but he took out a pen and marked "25 cents" on the bag.

Karin beamed. "Thank you," she said. Her smile was contagious, and suddenly he was smiling too, in spite of his unusual customer. When we got home, Karin got to work on the tastiest, heaviest bread I have ever eaten. Lee and I still talk about it to this day.

My Swedish friend stayed in touch with me over the years, though it was often only by Christmas card and the rare email. Then, one August morning in 2009, I was sitting at my computer and a little Skype window popped up, "Maria, is that you?" Within minutes we were chatting over the internet, and she was teaching me my Swedish tongue twister all over again.

Through Skype, I learned that her boyfriend, Micke, had left flowers outside her door on her birthday, that she was taking Latin Dance classes, and learning Danish over the internet... and eventually, that she and Micke were finally expecting a baby after a very long wait. After Alfred was born last March, we visited each other's homes by Skype, and had conversations about the best lullabyes, sending each other YouTube videos of different songs like Byssan Lull and Oh Mother How Pretty, while her little one sat on her lap, perhaps wondering what on earth his mother was doing talking to a computer picture and why it was talking back.

And it was on Skype that I received a cryptic message nearly four months ago, "Maria? Are you there? There has happened a thing." Unfortunately, my Skype was on, but I was elsewhere in the house, and by the time I returned to the computer, Karin wasn't online any more. It was another two days before I learned that she had been suffering severe stomach pains and was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors weren't sure where it was at first, but she was having difficulty eating, and her lungs were filling up with fluid. Not good... She was going back to the hospital for more tests.

I posted her birthday on Facebook on November 9th, and asked her Up With People friends to think of and pray for her because she was going through a rough spot. They sent many good wishes that I turned into a poster and mailed to her. It was almost a whole worried month before I heard from her again, a few typed words of thanks to everyone for the poster. Then Micke skyped with me next day, and told me she was very weak, but hoping to start chemo soon. He skyped again two days later to say that he and Karin had married on the weekend in the hospital, and that Alfred had also been baptized, and he sent some pictures of a very thin but very happy Karin.

The last time I actually spoke with Karin was January 12th. Her chemo had been delayed for a time, but was going ahead in three days. I don't remember what else we spoke about, but we chatted for a half hour, she in her hospital bed, and me in my kitchen. I do recall that Micke, the man who had made her so happy for the last few years, was there with her, silent in the background, putting up with the two of us and our reminiscences. I wish I had asked her to recite that silly Swedish tongue twister one more time...

The last few weeks, it has been Micke who has been in touch, telling me that Karin was weaker, that the chemo had to be discontinued, and that she didn't have long to live. Our skype messages made it clear that he really loved her. When I commented, "she could be so serious, and then get a twinkle in her eye, and laugh, and the world would be fine," he knew exactly what I meant... and more, I'm sure. Last week, I asked him if I could let Karin's Cast C friends know about her situation on Facebook -- and the outpouring of love and prayers from all over North America and Europe has touched Micke deeply. We spoke for 45 minutes on Skype yesterday, and I think he is probably the best part of Karin's life... he, and Alfred.

My dear, faraway friend, Karin, died on February 16, 2013, holding Micke's hand and surrounded by his love. She was 48. Her adorable little boy, Alfred, is not yet a year old. Life just isn't fair sometimes. But I truly believe that love does not end at death, and I suspect Karin believed that, too, and is still holding her little family in love.

Who knew that a Swedish tongue twister was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship that has lasted only 25 years on this earth? I fully expect Karin will be there to meet me when I reach heaven... and we will both pronounce that impossible (for me) tongue twister without an ounce of difficulty, throw our arms around each other, and laugh. And maybe we'll sing N'Kosi Sikelel'iAfrika and a few Easter songs, in harmony, just for good measure.

Rest in peace, Karin, my Swedish sister. I'll miss you.

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