Today the children of my friend Kris Williams have to bury their mother.
Kris was my first friend in Canada. Desperate to find my tribe, I started a critique group on Meetup and prayed someone would see it. Kris was the first to respond, and for several months, she and I were the critique group.
She was one of the most gifted emerging authors I’ve ever worked with, and much more experienced with publishing than I am. She saw holes in my fiction when I believed it flawless, and my writing is much stronger as a result of Kris’ influence.
Her own writing — pretty much always dark or erotic — was not for everyone, but it was extremely powerful and evocative. Whenever the subject of our crit group came up in front of other people, however, what she talked about was my crits. Always gracious, she praised my ability and waved aside praise of her own.
When I first met her, she was in remission after her second bout with melanoma. It seemed to me that rather than defining Kris, the cancer shaped her though perhaps she was always the vibrant, spunky woman I came quickly to love and admire. I complain sometimes that Canadians don’t always speak their minds, especially if their thoughts might lead to conflict, but Kris was a gorgeous exception to the rule. You never had to wonder what she thought.
Last summer, doctors found a spot in her lungs, and while they were still deciding on a course of treatment, they found a tumor in her brain. Most of us would have laid down and given up right then. But this indomitable woman kept going: fighting the cancer, arguing for aggressive treatment, and making plans for the rest of her life — a life that would be long and full if she had any choice in the matter.
Or short and full if that was her only option.
We had a guest speaker at one of our meetings last fall, an editor from On Spec magazine, “the Canadian magazine of the fantastic.” It’s a literary journal devoted to speculative fiction (yes, you can have that sort of thing in Canada).
Kris has a great body of fabulous speculative short fiction — fantastic in the most fantastical sense of the word — so the fit for her was perfect.
We hung around late after one meeting last October, shivering in the snowy parking lot at the library as we talked about which of her short stories she should submit first.
She was excited about the future. She’d fallen in love with a wonderful man; she’d found the perfect vehicle for her quirky, short fiction, and she was busy planning edits on her trilogy about teen domestic assault and slavery, a trilogy that sparked from her years of experience as a social worker.
She was a little concerned about her health. Exploratory brain surgery was planned for later that week (the next day if I remember correctly), and she was worried about what the doctors would find. But the last thing she said before she drove away was a very cheery, “I’ve bucked this cancer thing twice already. I can do it again” (or something like that).
I never heard from her again.
After several weeks, I contacted her daughter through her Facebook page and learned Kris was at the Cross Cancer Institute, and not expected to come home.
I went to see her a couple of times. I don’t know if the surgery damaged something or the disease progressed quickly, but she struggled to speak and couldn’t say more than a few words. But her eyes were bright and vivid, and it was clear her spirit hadn’t changed. I caught her up on the crit group gossip, talked about my work, talked about the manuscript of hers that I was reading. Though she couldn’t respond much, the few times she forced out a statement, it was clear her mind was as active and engaged as ever.
I asked what she was going to do with her writing. She just shrugged, but her eyes looked pained.
I chickened out about asking the real question: what are you going to do with your children?
I wanted to say, “If they need a home, I have one they are welcome to,” but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Her children have never met me. I know she has a strong church family, and her oldest daughter is old enough to finish raising her siblings (though young enough that she shouldn’t have to).
Still, I wish I’d offered.
The last time I saw Kris, I brought a prayer shawl I started knitting at St. Johns. When knitting a prayer shawl, the knitter prays for the person who will eventually wear it. We give them to people who might need a more tangible evidence of prayers because they are going through a tough time (maybe illness or loss, though it can be anything). I think of the shawls as a hug when I can’t be there, and I knit them extra large, so the recipient can curl up in them or even use them as a throw.
Usually when I knit them, I pray the recipient find healing or comfort. I pray for love and peace and acceptance — whatever comes to me really, though I’ve found the prayers change depending on the shawl. We don’t know who will eventually get the shawl, and usually we never find out who it went to, so we pray with some faith that the shawl will go to the person who needed the specific prayers we found ourself praying.
This shawl was a rich, royal purple and black — a dark color, but strong and gorgeous. As I knitted this one, I found myself praying for strength and power for the woman who would receive it. I prayed love into the stitches, sure, as I always do, but the prayers were more focused on the owner feeling confident both in her own personal power and in the fact that she (whoever she was to be) was deeply loved. It was a different kind of prayer, and I’ve always thought this one might end up going to someone through something like divorce or loss of a spouse or child.
It didn’t immediately occur to me to give Kris a prayer shawl. I’ve only once before been the one to give a shawl, nor have I ever considered keeping one to give away myself. I just knit them.
But I have a couple at home because I don’t have a shawl ministry here (I keep meaning to send them down to St. Johns since that’s where I started them), and another I’m halfway through (it’s taking me longer because I’m having carpal tunnel problems). So when it occurred to me to take Kris a shawl, I went to the back closet and looked at my choices.
The purple one was so obviously hers. I’d had a picture in my mind of the woman I was making it for — strong and vibrant, but needing a bit more strength perhaps than she had on her own — and I realized immediately the woman I’d envisioned, long before I met Kris, was Kris. Not just in personality, but even looks: somewhat short but solid and muscular, with short blond hair and wide open eyes that sparkled with interest and curiosity.
I tried to talk myself out of that one. The other shawl seemed so much more appropriate for a cancer victim. It’s primarily wheat colored, with muted green and blue stripes — much softer and warmer in tone. Reassuring rather than empowering. Comforting rather than invigorating. Much more appropriate for a cancer victim, I told myself.
But not more appropriate for Kris. Kris wasn’t subdued and muted. Not ever that I knew. She was vivid and bright. Someone you notice. Kris was a rich, regal purple — a royal shade — not muted yellows and greens.
I intended to go see her again. I planned to read East of Jesus to her because she never got to see that one, though of my novels, it’s the one she would have loved most. We always said she could read it when it got to print. So I thought I’d offer to go regularly and read it to her if she wanted.
But I didn’t go back. I was too busy. It’s a 45-minute drive into the city, and I rarely go alone. I couldn’t bring the children — they would be too exhausting for Kris. And the rare times I went in alone, it was usually evening. So I planned to go Saturday afternoons, but every week, it seemed we were busy Saturday. Plus, I’m under so much stress right. Every week, I just wanted to put out the latest fire, and then I’d go see Kris, go as often as I could while she was still around to see.
I think the truth is, I just couldn’t deal with it. Couldn’t deal with the reality of Kris attached to machines and diminishing with every day. Couldn’t deal with the idea of losing her — one more in a string of losses.
But now I live with a much bigger loss instead. I’ve lost hours of time with her. I’ve lost the chance to get her response to East of Jesus. And I’ve lost the opportunity to show her how very much she meant to me.
Just Tuesday, I discovered Bernard Callebaut (Oh! Be still, my overstimulated heart!) and thought about Kris’ heated love affair with chocolate. I’d bring her a box when I went to see her, I promised myself.
I didn’t know she was already gone.
Tags: Kris Williams