“Something happened 39 years ago.”
When my friend Marc spoke those words yesterday at his wife’s memorial service, you could feel everyone in the church freeze. Marc, a wonderful orator, had been telling touching, funny, heartwarming stories about Kelli, the love of his life for more than 30 years. He spoke of her smile, the twinkle in her eyes, her Irish temper, her beautiful singing voice, her gift for putting people at ease. And then he said, “Something happened…”
And he told this story:
Kelli was afraid of heights everywhere except around water. She loved to swim and she loved to dive. When she was 15 years old, she watched a young fellow the group had befriended lose his balance and fall down the inner section of an old abandoned wooden pier. Kelli’s lifeguard training kicked. She didn’t stop to think. She dove in. Miraculously, she found him and began to pull him from the water. Like many who believe they are drowning, he fought with the panic of desperation and the need to survive. He flailed and scratched and clawed at her face. Still, she managed to get him to shore. He was unconscious by this time so she started mouth to mouth resuscitation. He choked, coughed blood in her face and mouth, bit her lip in two places before he died. When people standing around tried to tell her he was gone, she refused to accept it. Challenged them with the flash of her Irish eyes. “What do you know about it?” she shouted, “Are you paramedics?”
She continued her efforts to revive the man. It was another 20 minutes before paramedics arrived and confirmed the man’s death. What they didn’t know was that Kelli, in her attempt to save a life, may have put in motion the end of her own. We will never know for sure, but in all of Kelli’s life experiences, this seemed like the only possible, logical event where Kelli could have contracted hepatitis C. As it often does, the virus lay dormant in Kelli’s body for possibly 30 or more years and began its attack of her liver. It worked quietly, giving no signs but was aggressive. And then struck with unusual speed.
On February 8 of this year, Marc called us to say Kelli hadn’t been feeling well that weekend. He was taking her to the doctor. No big deal, we thought, but better to check it out. When he described the symptoms, I said it sounded like gall bladder. “Dr. Barb called it,” said Marc the next day.
The doctors had initially agreed with my armchair diagnosis. Until they didn’t.
After numerous tests and specialists, liver cancer was confirmed. By then she was too sick for any of the conventional treatments.
Marc and Kelli marked their 34 wedding anniversary in a hospital in Montreal. Their youngest daughter and son-in-law were with them. Marc arranged for dinner to be brought in and they reminisced about the great life they had together and going back home to continue fighting and exploring naturopathic treatments.
By mid-April, the doctors had sent Kelli back to a hospital close to home. They could do nothing for her other than to manage her pain. Then Marc took her home. She was so happy to be there but that too didn’t last. One evening Marc couldn’t wake her for more than a few seconds at a time. Terrified, he took her back to the hospital. Possibly a drug overdose said the doctors. Her liver’s failure to function properly might have caused the pain medication to accumulate and be suddenly released. She stabilized. But going home was no longer an option for Kelli if she was to continue to fight for every second to be with family. By this time she was lucid only part of the time.
Marc and my husband Dan spent much time talking these past few months. Dan’s first wife died of cancer in the late ’90s. He knows what this feels like and has tried to offer comfort and support, knowing there’s really none to be given. Flashbacks of of hospital rooms and IV drips, doctors and words you can’t accept have come crashing in.
A week ago Tuesday, Marc called me around me 10 pm. He told me how Kelli, in her usual fashion, had been trying to make things easier for her family by reassuring them she was fine whenever they left the hospital. That night was different. After agreeing to a DNR order earlier that day, she wept, telling Marc how lonely she was at night, and afraid. Marc slept by her side the following nights until the end last Sunday evening.
She would wake during the night to find him there smiling at her holding her hand. She would look at him and say, “My man” and breathe a sigh of relief, comfortable knowing she was not alone.
Kelli marked her 54th birthday a week ago today. We sent flowers – a pretty, cheerful bouquet. Marc told us she’d got them. And that her kidneys had begun to fail.
Last Sunday night, the phone rang again. I knew before I answered what I was about to hear. “She’s gone,” said Marc, “about an hour ago.”
He and one of their daughters were with her at the end. They bathed her, dressed her, applied a bit of lipstick and make-up, combed her hair. Placed a rose in her hands. She would have appreciated that. She was a woman of grace and dignity and they took care to give her that.
So yesterday when Marc said, “Something happened…” he stopped, dropped his head, held on to the church pulpit as if it to hold himself up, choked back a sob and continued, “and it’s the only thing that makes any of this bearable today.”
And he told the story of Kelli’s heroism. And of her grace, her beauty, her unfailing instinct to comfort those in need of comfort, to befriend those in need of a friend. There is simply no way to know but if indeed that was the moment she contracted Hep C, she gave her life trying to save another.
When he was finished, Marc played a slide show of photos of Kelli taken throughout their life together. At their wedding, as a wife and mother, from their travels over the years. But it was the image of a young girl in a school photo that had me catching my breath, a young girl who had no idea that her courageous act would end here. And who I suspect, even if she had known, would have acted no differently.
As the church filled with a hauntingly beautiful and bittersweet piece of music played on a solo violin, I thought of my own stories and memories of Kelli. I count myself lucky to have been among her many friends. But the story that explained what seemed inexplicable, explained Kelli herself, was the one of the accidental hero.
In Memory of Kelli Marilyn Laurin 1958-2012
(and with deepest thanks to Marc for his additions to this story)