My friend Karen died while I was on vacation a couple days
ago. She had been in what they call a persistent vegetative state for the last
12 years, stemming from a rapid succession of catastrophic health crises that
were not diagnosed until after they had laid her low.
Karen and I worked side by side for some years at the
same newspaper, and her ex-husband and I had played together in a band of questionable artistic merit. I had already moved away to another town when I received the news, 12 years ago, that she had been discovered, unresponsive, in her apartment after not showing up to work one day.
Going back, I liked Karen right off. She struck me as kind of sad, and broken inside, but had the kindest eyes I’ve maybe ever seen. They were quiet but burned with a keen intelligence. She had
clearly been dragged down a rough, rural road throughout her life, but she
still had a lot of heart and was a survivor.
She was my kind of people.
Karen had epically low self-esteem, as a result of a
childhood worthy of an E.A. Poe or Stephen King story. Being a hard-luck case myself, I
found her immediately compelling, with the weird vibe of self-loathing/love for
mankind she exuded. She should have hated the world—not herself—by the time I met her. She
had every right to, but she didn’t.
She was a better person than I can ever even imagine
myself becoming. It seemed to me she needed and deserved a better friend than she had at the time, so I
determined I would be that friend.
I remember times the bosses would light into her for this
oversight or that miscommunication—as often as not originating from them, not
her—and I would march up to their office and champion her cause. Not because
she asked me to, or even because she thought herself worth defending, but
because in the absence of anyone else taking her side, I felt it incumbent upon
someone to do so.
I remember the night her husband left her. Now, Karen never
asked for help, it wasn’t in her nature. But that night, she picked up the
phone and called me, in tears. I grabbed my dog, jumped in the car and drove
over and picked her up. She spent that first awful night at my house because we
both knew, I think, that she shouldn’t be alone.
After that, she was my beard and I was hers. We went to
innumerable movies together, only one of which she couldn’t find anything good
to say about (“The Postman”). We went to dozens of concerts—the good kind, that
we had to drive to LA for.
When I made mix tapes for whatever girl I was dating at the
time, I always secretly routed her a copy, and she always talked to me about it
afterward in much greater detail and with more enthusiasm than the person for
whom I had collected the songs.
She also had my back. One night, in the depths of my
depravity, I was loaded on tranquilizers and a box of Franzia ‘chardonnay,’
and was talking to her on the phone when I passed out. She contacted a
colleague—neither of them drove—but they drove over to my place anyhow to find me
unconscious on my couch and non-reactive, the phone on the floor under my hand
where it fell. The other employee wanted to call 911, but Karen talked her out
of it, and made sure I was revived enough to survive the night on my own before
She was also a voracious reader and consumer of popular
entertainment. When I was writing my magnum opus, she was the person to whom I
gave the chapters as I cranked them out, and I still thrill at the memory of
her running down the office hallway one early morning before business hours and hugging me after reading the second
chapter. She loved it, and she told me why in a way I understood and had
frankly been looking for it to be loved.
She became, in a word, indispensable to my life, especially
after her divorce. Other than my official Best Friend, she was my best friend,
although I didn’t appreciate that fact at the time. In my own way, without even
realizing it, I also took her for granted. I suppose at some point, I accepted
the fact that I wanted to ‘save’ Karen a lot more than she wanted to be saved,
and to some extent just went with that.
The worst part for me is, as much as I meddled in her life and kept
her close to me socially, when she slipped into a coma a few months after I
moved out of town—I mean, like three months—I was plenty narcissistic enough to
believe that if I hadn’t bailed on her too, she might still be alive today and
one of my best friends.
And the final arc of her life, spending the last twelve
years in a persistent vegetative state, is enough to make one question the
whole concept of a loving, forgiving God. Nobody would give me a straight
answer about whether she was conscious inside her locked-down body, but I can
tell you that when I went to visit her, I would sing softly to her, some of our
favorite songs, and tears would begin to roll down her cheeks.
That old line of hooey about, “Oh, they’re in a better place
now” usually rings awfully hollow, but in Karen’s case, I cannot imagine a
truer statement. I miss her still, acutely as I write this, but am so grateful
and relieved that her period of torment has finally come to an end.
What follows was one of her favorite songs, and I’ll close with it.
She and Hank Williams and I all vibrated at the same frequency, and like Hank
Williams, she did not live long enough to rise above it. We always sang this
song at the end of our shows and dedicated it to some worthy who had recently
passed—the first time I dedicated it from stage, it was for Julio Gallo. Today,
this number goes out to my friend, my confidante, my amiga inseparable, Karen
Thomason. Requiescat in pace, good and faithful friend. You have earned it, and
you deserve it. Really, you do.
I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost
For a life of sin I have paid the cost
When I pass by all the people say
Just another guy on the lost highway
I was just a lad, nearly 22
Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you
And now I’m lost, too late to pray
Lord I paid the cost, on the lost highway
Now boys don’t start to ramblin’ round
On this road of sin are you sorrow bound
Take my advice or you’ll curse the day
You started rollin’ down that lost highway