To describe my dear friend Karen as strong seems an understatement of epic proportions.
Karen, who has made a career of helping others to attain and maintain physical strength and vibrant health through the gym and therapeutic massage business that she owns, is indeed an impressive athlete who holds world titles for her accomplishments.
Strength and grace
But for many of us, what we admire most in this remarkable woman is her strength of character, her ability to face tragedy and adversity with a loving heart. She has been burdened beyond what any human should be asked to endure, and she continues to stand with grace under an incredible enormity of life’s trials while the rest of us ask why.
Karen was only 2 when her father was killed in a manufacturing accident. Her only two brothers, very dear to her, were killed in separate accidents while still quite young. Her mother and step-father died in a house fire in recent years, a tragedy that tried the faith of many who love this amazing family.
Family is everything
Karen has told me many times, “I have lost so much, but as long as I have my boys, I will be fine.” Just this summer, after Karen’s shoulder surgery, Cort and I took dinner in to her home and enjoyed spending the evening with her. Several times, while showing us photos and keepsakes, she repeated that same thought.
Her four boys, quite obviously, mean the world to her. She spent much of her free time away from the gym with her husband and four sons and their families, all of whom lived close enough to be involved in one another’s lives.
“Every single day, I pray that God will keep my boys safe. I never miss a day,” she told us.
These past days have been a blur of pain and heartache as we walk with Karen through yet another tragedy.
Karen’s son was removing logs from a ravine on his parents’ property one recent sunny day. As he backed the tractor out of the ravine, a back tire went up over a tree root protruding high out of the ground. Before he could react to the spinning tire, the tractor flipped over, trapping him beneath it.
His wife called for help, then called his brothers. The three brothers arrived, witnessing the trauma of emergency rescue workers trying to free their brother from a horrific situation. Karen arrived home to find flashing lights all over the farm and an emergency helicopter preparing to land.
As this nearly two-hour emergency rescue unfolded, it seemed more than anyone could bear. Karen’s oldest son spoke with affection to his two brothers, began to walk away, then collapsed.
With paramedics on the scene, a crew was called to his side immediately. Though the rescue workers did all they could, this oldest brother was taken by ambulance to the local hospital and was pronounced dead upon his arrival there. Karen’s first-born child was gone at age 40.
His younger brother, finally freed from beneath the tractor, was life-flighted to a hospital about an hour’s drive from the family’s home and admitted to the critical care unit. His extensive injuries are beyond comprehension.
Cort and I made the trip to see Karen and her family at the hospital, knowing full well there was nothing we could do except let them know how deeply we cared.
With one son hospitalized, each hour critical, Karen found herself assisting her daughter-in-law in planning memorial services for her oldest son, something it seems no mother should ever have to do.
In the meantime, each family member continued to put on a brave face while visiting the badly injured son, shielding him from this unspeakable loss.
A community’s loss
The calling hours, scheduled at the family’s church, were to run from 6 to 8 p.m. Thousands of visitors formed a long line throughout the enormous church, spilling far out in to the parking lot, and continued to wait quietly to pay their respects to this grieving family until past midnight.
As Cort and I made our way toward the cemetery with the funeral procession the next day, I commented that I had never seen anything like it.
Thinking of others
Through her blinding grief, Karen still managed to amaze me on that day. As the enormous crowd left the beautiful country cemetery, Karen made her way over to Cort and me, standing a respectful distance from the family, beside a monument for Karen’s cousin, a young woman killed at age 37 when she was thrown from a horse just a few years ago.
Karen expressed concern for Cort, who she has helped through his battles with Lyme disease.
“Are you eating enough? Are you having pain?” she asked with genuine loving concern.
Still recuperating from shoulder surgery herself, Karen told Cort she hopes to be able to once again provide him with therapeutic massage in the coming months.
Karen said to me, “I was thinking of you just this morning, thinking of your ability to put words together in a way that reaches people, and I want you to write about my boys, to write about the many tragedies we’ve endured as a family.
“I hope you can find words to reach out to others and show this all reflects on a life well-lived, to help people see that there is good in everything, that there is a strength through faith that helps us bear all.”
As I agreed to help in any way, Karen thanked us for being there. She had made the decision to go from the cemetery to the hospital to be with her injured son instead of with the parishioners at the church meal.
“I know where I’m needed, and I don’t want my son wondering why I’m not there,” she said with a strength I had worried I would never see in my friend again.
As she faces the unbearable loss of a child, her life will never be the same, but Karen continues to amaze me and bless those of us who are fortunate enough to be part of her life.
One life’s example
When people complain about the petty worries of an everyday life, I think of Karen. She chooses not to watch the world news or read most news magazines, saying that she knows where her priorities are, and her heart lies in helping those who share the world in a much more intimate way.
“I do what I can to help others. That’s why I think we are put on this Earth, and I hope that I am doing the Lord’s work every day by living a good life, by being a good person.”
It would be very difficult to find one better, more true, more genuine. I am blessed to walk part of life’s journey with this amazing woman, tested by tragedy, time and time again.