Dear Zoe and Tate,
I write this for you to read possibly when you're older. Your mom and I were close friends when we were in college, in Indiana. We probably became friends at first because there weren't a whole lot of northeasterners going to school there. Or maybe it's just that Karen had, as everyone posting here will tell you, a tremendous gift for making friends.
Karen was in the music school, but she spent a lot of time in the theater department; and I was majoring in theater but I spent a lot of time in the music school taking voice lessons. And we met when we were in an acting class together with a teacher we were both completely intimidated by but desperately wanted to please. Karen asked me out for coffee -- it seemed to be a strategy meeting of some kind, but I couldn't tell what we were strategizing about. All I know is that it seemed to have a feeling of complicity, "We're in this together so let's figure out how to make the most of it because this is hard." Totally from Karen; I was along for the ride. Even though I wanted to be an actress, badly, I didn't have her sense of the stakes being so high in this, our acting class, pleasing our teacher, making a mark, that it mattered, that HER work mattered and therefore mine did too because we were teammates. She was talented, smart, ambitious, brave in spite of her anxiety, able to make sense of complicated text -- I was delighted to be her scene partner, she made it easy to trust her. And to be ambitious. We picked a ridiculously hard/inappropriate scene for 18 and 19 year olds, Richard III Act 4 scene iv. I played Elizabeth, she played Margaret, and we teamed up with two other actors in the class -- Sunil, who played Richard and another girl, very pretty, whose name I now forget, all I know is she couldn't pronounce "Plantagenet," who played the Duchess of York. This was for our final. We rehearsed it to death. We were not going to make fools of ourselves -- though I'm sure we did....but our intentions were sincere and the work was real, we genuinely tried our hardest. We rehearsed ourselves into the ground. This also meant we sometimes met to "rehearse" over beers in my apartment (there's a picture somewhere, I will send it as soon as I can find it - we are blurry but in a very good mood for two enraged shakespearean dowagers).
And then our paths diverged. She was focusing on singing back then and I was moving away from musical theater. There was less overlap in our groups of friends, and we drifted apart. I graduated a year before she did, and I didn't hear from her until 2004, when she moved to New York. I was getting ready to come back to the city; both of us were recent MFAs from different programs, she had married your dad....somehow she had found my parents' phone number in an old address book (gift for friendship, remember?) and was not shy about reaching out over the years and the distance to find out if we were still somehow on the same path, in the same place, and we were. And we started in the same place -- going to open calls, bitching about it afterwards, struggling to move forward in an impossible field.
In the 13 years that followed, all I can tell you is that even though we arrived in New York with a similar set of tools, Karen created a career many an actress (including me) would envy. Without taking away from her singular talents for acting, which were considerable and also enviable in themselves, Karen's gift not only for making friends but keeping them, served her well as she navigated one of the most competitive jobs in the world. Anyone will tell you that this business is all about relationships, not just who you know, but who loves you, who you love, who thinks of you as being on their team, who relies on you. She was someone people trusted, not only for her humor, her talent, her bravery, but all these things combined -- she could bring it in an audition, she was fun to be around, so people wanted to be her friend, and people wanted to work with her. It was about the work, but also about everything else that she was. She knew it was important. She seemed to have no doubt that she had something important to give, and it was high stakes that she get to give it. She didn't shy away from it, she leaned into that desire -- forward motion.
In forging relationships, she was bold, she had faith in herself, she could approach anyone, thought of it as her job, yes, but also her joy: she genuinely, loved getting to know other people, finding out about them, investing in their joys and sorrows, supporting them in their difficulties, listening to them, making them laugh. At my wedding shower, Karen met my oldest friend in the world, and after the party, my friend said, "Who WAS that magic person? I *loved* her." There was no room for letting shyness rule the day, there was no point. But if you were shy yourself, she could draw you out and would. She was an extrovert's dream, but also an introvert's. I learned from watching her, though I am not naturally made this way. She inspired me to be braver than I am.
And from her diagnosis onward, she continued moving forward, making new friends every step of the way, engaging them, supporting them, asking for support when she needed it -- and those friends she'd made eagerly returned it because of who she'd been for them throughout her life. Her bravery in refusing to act like she'd gotten a shitty diagnosis was astonishing. She never let me see her grieve, she never showed me that it was going to slow her down or sap her spirit, even if it was hard or scary. Forward, forward, always. It was a good lesson, a brilliant one. If I'd been thinking ahead, I would have seen that spirit when we were 19, but no one looks that far down the road. I merely pass it on to you to add to the knowledge you have about your mom. And now I'm going to go find that picture.
with much love to both of you always,