It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m waiting for the tears to come.
I met Kristen Schraven exactly half a lifetime ago in Kevin Faherty’s dorm room. I remember the night clearly, she was a second semester transfer student who fell in quick with my closest friends at Babson, and we laughed easily in each others’ company. We had a very quick connection, like we had met in a prior life, but the kind of thing that you don’t fully understand when you’re 18. You just roll with it and quickly discover you’ve got a new friend for life. It probably took all of ten minutes to figure that part out. She just said simply with a big smile, “Oh Karni, I can tell you and I are going to be good friends.”
The Kristen I knew was always a survivor. Having lost both of her parents months apart at a young age, she had faced the cold slap of the real world at a cruelly young age, and as a result, had a solemn maturity about her that most of our classmates hadn’t yet attained. An old soul in a teenager’s body. But she knew how to make light of the darkness in her life, which manifested itself in a huge smile, a propensity to laugh, and a spirit that beamed–that was the Kristen most people became enamored with. Needless to say, she made friends quickly, and had plenty of them.
I looked through over 200 photos of Kristen today, and she has a huge smile in every single photo. Every. Single. One. But when a camera wasn’t around, or when she wasn’t surrounded by a large number of people, she wasn’t afraid to let her guard down and reveal her soul. She could talk about her pain, and the things that people face when life isn’t so pretty, but she wasn’t one to belabor the here and now, with the past. She learned, before any of our friends, how to cope when things aren’t quite going your way, and how to move forward by putting one foot boldly in front of the other.
We get older, we grow emotionally, we harden with time, and we cope. But we never quite shake the things that haunt us. “That’s impossible,” she’d tell me. “But that’s okay,” she’d say right after that, “because that’s what makes us who we are.” Kristen was always philosophical about stuff like that, and completely lacked the ability to bullshit anyone. She was just real, and I always had a thing for real. I guess that’s why I agreed with her so quickly that we were, indeed, going be good friends.
Of all the great friends I made in college, Kristen was probably the easiest to just be around. We did that a lot, me and Schrave-dog, as I liked to call her. Schrave-dog had a friend chair in her room, and when I was in her room, it was my chair. It was super comfy, you could just sit there for hours, kicking it. We’d listen to tunes, she’d fire up the lava lamp or candles or incense, and we’d talk, and talk, and talk. It was always preferable to studying.
One night, as it sometimes happens in the college years, I got really fucked up, and found myself knocking on her door. Aside from the time we met, this is my strongest memory of Kristen. My head was spinning, and needed a friend desperately. “Come in and take a seat,” she said, pointing to the friend chair. She put on some good music, lit a couple candles, and sat across from me. She told me how good it all was, that this was temporary, that I’d be okay. I didn’t believe her at first, but it was never wise to doubt Kristen. A few hours later, she proved this once more when everything turned out okay.
Kristen was always a big believer in the power of touch. She’d talk about the electricity that’s conducted from human fingers to another being. For Kristen, the back rub was an art form. First came the kneading, standard backrup practice. Then came the open palms, which she’d rub fiercely up and down the back to bring in the warmth, she’d say. Then, her favorite part, the tickle. The tickle was guaranteed to shivers up and down your spine, tingle your brain, and relax all of the nerves in your face. It always worked like magic. And I think Kristen’s explaining it in a soothing voice was a big part of why it was so effective. Every time I give a backrub, I remember Kristen as I repeat these steps and explain the process. I’ve received a lot of compliments over the years for this technique, and I’ll often recount Kristen teaching me in college. You’ll have to thank her sometime, I’d say.
We graduated in the spring of 1999 and I returned to New Jersey for a few years, before making my way to California eight years ago. We’ve all drifted, met new friends, gotten married and started families. “That’s the natural progression of things,” she’d say. But when we got together every once in awhile, we’d always pick up right from where we left off. I saw Kristen a handful of times since 2005. The first time was at Kevin Faherty’s wedding. She had recently met the love of her life, and similarly, I had met mine. We spent a lot of time catching up at the bar, and once primed, quite a bit more time dancing like fools. She was so happy, and I was happy for her. I think it was the best she ever looked, she was glowing.
The last time I saw her, we were walking for her benefit, at the October 2012 Susan G. Komen For The Cure event in Boston. It was a reunion for many of our closest friends, and I’d flown in to surprise her. It was weird at first. I didn’t want to detract from her day, and perhaps she was a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, not to mention the side effects of fighting her rapidly progressing illness. She’d recently found out the cancer had spread to her brain and hip, she told me. But she was upbeat, and talked about plans for her wedding, how she wanted to throw a party in June for all her friends, and how the Pats didn’t look like they had it. We had a post-race party at a nearby pub, it was like another Saturday back in college, only we were half a lifetime older. You wouldn’t have known it though, if not for the Baby Bjorns and the extra grey in my beard. It was a day when time stood still for a few hours, and it wasn’t enough time. “It rarely is,” she would say.
The next day, I planned to stop by her home and borrow her car, so I could make my way around to visit as many friends as possible in the couple days I was there. “Take my car,” she said, “I can’t drive this week, it’s just sitting in the driveway.” She was always selfless like that. I was supposed to go to the Pats game with a couple of our buddies, we were just popping in for a few minutes and heading back out. As I sat down in the seat next to her however, something came over me. I was in the friend seat again, and the wheels were turning in my mind. I couldn’t leave. So I went with my gut and asked if I could stay and watch the Pats game with her.
As my luck would have it, the Giants were playing in the morning, followed by the Pats at four o’clock. So watching football with me, meant that Kristen would have to endure watching my Giants eek out another glorious win in the waning minutes of regulation, following an amazing catch. Pats fans need no reminders, but for those outside of New England, I should remind you my Giants beat the Pats in two super bowls in recent years, both times in similarly heartbreaking fashion. And while she may not have been rooting for the Giants, per se, on this day, Kristen wanted my team to win, if only for me. In the second game of our exciting double-feature, the Patriots tied the game with a field goal at the end of regulation, then beat the Jets with a field goal in OT. “Sometimes, you can’t plan these things,” she’d say.
The following night, we regrouped for dinner with a few friends, and I returned her car. It was a bit awkward, the occasional pauses in conversation reminding us that things might never be this way again. In reality, life and friendship is like that anyway–it’s always gong to be tougher and tougher to get groups of friends back together again. But it’s different when you know you’ve at least got the option. “There’s the rub,” she’d say, “but it’s comforting to know that your friends are always a phone call away.”
After dinner, we walked to her car, and I hugged her. I was returning to California the next day, and she was starting another round of treatment. Kristen was always a great hugger, and it was time for a hug. I didn’t really know what to say, I was at a loss for words, but Kristen confidently took the lead once again. “See you soon,” she said, to which I managed a simple, “Sounds good.” Then I turned, and walked away, completely numb. I fought the urge to turn and look back in that cliche movie way, because I didn’t want her to get the sense that I felt it could be our last time together. So I just put one foot in front of the other like she always had, and hoped and prayed that she’d make it to June, so we could all get together and drink more beer to celebrate with her.
Sadly, this was not to be. Kristen passed away yesterday, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, as fate would have it. And while we learned a few weeks ago that Kristen was stopping treatment and returning home to be comfortable, no amount of time really prepares you for the way you feel after you receive the call after a friend has passed. For the past twenty four hours, I’ve been waiting for the tears to come, and they have finally come with a vengeance. My eyes are puffy, my head aches, and my heart is in my stomach. But I also know in my heart that Kristen would be pretty pissed if she knew I was wasting a good Irish holiday feeling sorry for myself at home. “Besides, beer always makes you feel better,” she’d say.
“People will come and go from your life,” Kristen once told me, “it’s what makes life so interesting,” she’d say. “But your best friends never leave you.” I hadn’t seen Kristen more than a handful of times since we graduated, but neither of us had ever left. And she was right, we were always going to be friends, from the moment we first met…possibly well before that. Perhaps it could be said that it was in the stars. Either way, we are friends forever.
Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to go find a pint of Guinness to toast my friend with.