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Saturday 22nd October 2016

Mind and memory

7th February 2008

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.�
Macbeth, IV.3.1

This 25 February marks 10 years since Karen Avenoso’s death from a cancer as rare and fierce as she was - fiercer, I suppose, since it defeated her in less than a year, and in spite of the hundreds of people who loved her and would have done anything to save her.

To say she was unique and extraordinary would be an understatement. Karen was gifted in all the conventional ways, but what I remember best and miss most was her giftedness at friendship.

Her CV comprised a litany of accomplishments: an Ivy League education, a Rhodes scholarship, and work at some of the largest, finest US newspapers. She could articulate any feeling, interpret any friend’s silence or pain, and always find the funniest films when you needed comedy most. (We saw 'Withnail and I' together during the year we spent in England, and I think 'Cold Comfort Farm,' on the same weekend. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard, for so long, before or since.) I wouldn’t be surprised if 12 different women would tell you Karen qualified as a “best friend.�

Our dear friend Jane Lonnquist tells how Karen once sent her US$300, from her hard-won freelance work, so Jane could visit her in Oxford. Nor was she above selling the New York Times an essay on the joys of traveling in Wyoming so she could visit Jane there, returning the favour.

Inexplicably, as she was very small and dark, and I am gingery and tall enough to play pro basketball, countless people inquired if we were sisters while we were in England. I suppose that after five years of close friendship, our American accents were all but indistinguishable and our mannerisms were the same. But the thought that anyone could suspect us of sisterhood made us both dissolve in giggles, when we weren't dissecting Renaissance drama or Victorian ballads or psychoanalysing every single person we had ever known.

Karen was working as a newspaper reporter and planning her wedding to a brilliant, handsome, and ironic man when she was diagnosed in 1997 with a malignancy that defied a clean pathology - it was something between a Ewing sarcoma and a PNET, and the best oncologists in the United States couldn’t figure out how to beat it. Eleven valiant months later, she was gone.

Like an amputee with a phantom limb, I sometimes see Karen in my dreams, and I hear her voice when I need it.

But life without her is colder and sharper.

I imagine her absence, my grief, as a blunt chisel, chipping away layers of innocence, bit by excruciating bit. I am wiser now, and I know better than to take anything or anyone for granted. But there’s a Karen-shaped hole in my heart, and a Karen-sized absence in my life, that will remain forever, aching more or less depending on the weather. Our friend Jane recently described a meal with several other close friends in 1998, during which they chose a round table and noticed only at the very end of the meal that they had left one seat vacant - where Karen should have sat.

February in the Northern Hemisphere is bleak, then black, and then bleaker still. Just when you think the days cannot possibly get wetter, darker, and more dismal, they invariably do, and life seems like a sucking, swirling eddy of despair. And then it’s Karen’s birthday on 23 February, and the anniversary of her death two days later.

I take some comfort this year in neuroplasticity - the new, hard science of watching brain scans and concluding, as Karen Avenoso intuitively knew decades ago, that our thoughts and experiences and relationships re-shape and re-wire our brains, constantly and for the duration of our lives.

I love neuroplasticity and its implications for many reasons, but in large measure because this new brain science affirms that the people we love leave messy, life-sized handprints all over us. That Karen Avenoso lives on not just in my heart but in my living, changing brain and soul as well.

That she is still with me. That those who matter most are always with us.


Photo courtesy The Dartmouth 


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