Today is the anniversary of my daughter’s death, but it also an anniversary of a beautiful life. I’ve wanted to share this story since the first friend stories of Kara started surfacing, but my story didn’t fit the “instant best friend” mold, so I held back. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful and important story, and has left a lasting impression on me.
I met Kara Tippetts after her cancer diagnosis. I had caught bits and pieces of her blog posts from mutual friends, and knew she and Jason were starting a church plant based out of the church I attended through my teen years. When we were wanting to find a new church home a friend reached out and said Westside might be a good fit for us, and that she thought Kara and I would hit it off and have a lot in common. So, we went.
We awkwardly tiptoed into the back of the small room where the tiny crowd was meeting, unsure what to expect. Obviously in a crowd that small, new people stood out. We were greeted by all kinds of people, repeatedly introducing ourselves and giving the short version of how we came to be there. I wasn’t sure how Kara was even doing, or if she was well enough to be there, but my wondering was quickly answered as I saw her bounding energetically across the room to greet us with a beaming smile on her face. She had been through surgery and finished grueling rounds of chemotherapy, and had been regaining some of her strength and growing tiny sprouts of fluffy hair on her previously bald head. I had my tiny baby boy recently released from the nicu, and she scooped him right up and cooed over him and joked over him having more hair than her. Then, barely knowing our names, she insisted we come home with her for lunch. Of course we accepted, and I spent the rest of the morning being intrigued by the joy that poured out of Kara, the ease with which she talked to everyone, and the relaxed demeanor she held even with her young children sprawling on the floor, spilling cups of water, and rolling crayons under the metal chairs.
After the church service we got the Tippetts address and briefly talked about stopping at the store to grab some provisions to make sandwiches. Again I was struck by how unconcerned she was at things not going according to plan. If I had been the one having people over I would have been thinking about it for days ahead of time, not brave enough to just throw open my doors and figure it out later. I liked Kara’s calm confidence.
When we arrived at their house and clamored inside, the first thing I noticed was the kitchen trash. I know, weird, but hear me out. The trash was full. It had reached its max capacity, and as I stepped closer I could detect the discarded fruit peelings giving off a sweet rancid smell as they sat in the warmth of the kitchen. My mind raced for a second; “oh no, I need to help, she must be completely overwhelmed!” My eyes darted around looking for Kara so I could ask where she needed me to lend a hand. But she was perched comfortably on a chair, chatting and laughing with a few of the others who were gathering to eat together. I suppose that’s the first thing I noticed because it’s something I wrestle with and long to be free of. The pressure to make sure things are presentable, comfortable, not embarrassing… but on that day I saw a glimpse of what it was to put your focus on the people rather than the pretense, and it was beautiful. Kara didn’t stress about stinky kitchen garbage, or not having a menu planned out for lunch, or whether or not all the shoes were stashed in the closet, because she instead spent her time investing in people’s hearts and making them feel right at home regardless of what was going on around them.
In the months that followed, as Kara had to go through more treatment to battle back the cancer, she warmly accepted the help of the community around her. She allowed me to make the birthday cake for her boy’s 7th birthday, which was wonderful to take one thing off of her plate by doing something I enjoyed.
Knowing that cooking dinner is not my greatest strength, I didn’t sign up to help bring meals, but eagerly volunteered to make school lunches for the kids and help with house cleaning to lesson the burden of all the things that took precious time away from loving on her closest people. It was humbling and also comforting that Kara allowed us to help her, as we all felt helpless in so many ways. I’m good at cleaning, and it gave me joy to be able to do something useful. Kara was supposed to be resting, and sometimes she was, but other times she was offering a cup of tea and telling me she felt guilty that I was cleaning for her while I was toting my own tank of oxygen along behind me. I told her how meaningful it was for me to be able to help a little bit when so many people had been there to help me too.
We sat on her bed on her birthday, my daughter’s anniversary, and cried over the sadness of being separated from our loved ones, and imagined over what Heaven is going to be like. We talked about my baby leaving for the place she knew she was leaving her babies for. It was so meaningful to be able to talk about the hard things with someone who didn’t shy away from the raw and broken parts of living. (Kara wrote about that day Here)
One of the last times I got to visit with Kara she had to pause often to catch her breath while speaking. She was growing frail and the cancer had brought harsh edges and hollow eyes, but her smile still gleamed big. She was so sick, and we all knew her time her was growing shorter, but she was still asking me how *I* was doing, and if there was anything she could do for me. She always joked that we we needed to stop competing with each other for the hardest story, because it seemed like every time we got together there was another bit of hard to swallow for one of us. This woman, nearing the end of her days saw my comparatively minimal struggle and she offered me the meals in her freezer that had been brought to lessen her own load!
The night before Kara passed away I had a dream that she died. It was so vivid that I woke the next morning and checked to see that it was just a dream. Kara was still here, but something in my soul knew the time was coming. It was Sunday morning and Jason stood in front of the gathering of people at church and announced he would be taking some time off to tend to his family. When he stepped down from the podium I saw that he was going to walk right by me and I remember quickly turning my eyes away because something in me felt like he would see the remnants of that dream in my eyes and he would know. Jason already knew. Kara went home to be with her Jesus that day, in the paradise she wondered over during her long goodbye.
I shook my head in amazement the first day I met her, and I shook my head on the last day I saw her; this woman with a heart wrenching story and every right to be withdrawn and discouraged challenged me to open my arms to the messiest of life and embrace all of it; not just the planned menu and the tidy house, but the hearts that need to be seen and loved and made to know that they matter.
Kara was never my bestest friend like so many others could laid claim to, and I didn’t get to know the vibrant before-cancer Kara, but our lives crossed paths exactly when they were meant to. The friendship we shared left me with lasting memories and important lessons that I will always carry with me, and I’m so grateful that in spite of her plate full of friendship and family and tragedy and grace, she so eagerly made room to see me and welcome me in.