Thank you all for coming today. Before I begin, I want to thank Elissa Fink for doing all the heavy lifting to make this happen. Wave to everyone, Elissa. And Stan, her husband, he’s my best friend, and you’ll learn why in a moment. You wave too, Stan.
As some of you know, I was planning to do this on January 31st, but as January 31st got nearer, I realized there was no way I’d be able to talk about Karen. And I really wanted to do this. It had suddenly become the most important thing on my agenda, but I had to wait to hear those words in my head, You can do this. You can do this. And the words came, eventually. Like they always do.
I have no illusions why you’re here. You’re not here for Karen. Karen wouldn’t have approved of that sort of mysticism, anyway. Her attitude would have been, don’t do this for me. It’s not going to do me any good. But if you want it for some bizarre reason? Fine. Knock yourselves out. So, yeah, you’re here for the living, not for the dead. Thank you.
A lot of you are co-workers, and because of Karen’s health these last five or six years, most of you never got the chance to meet her. Even her family and friends, those of you who think you knew her — don’t be so sure. She was an intensely private person, and there were things she revealed to me only in the last seven or eight months of her life. I can tell you she was a fiercely independent woman whose circumstances forced her to be dependent. And she was a perfectionist who was deeply imperfect. She was stubborn and relenting, logical and irrational. She could never say no to an environmental or animal charity . . . but the strays she adopted were of the human variety. She adopted me. She was always my muscle, long after she’d lost the strength to stand on her own. She was my dark side, my little Darth Vader. She was always right, except when she was terribly wrong. She drove me crazy.
She was a hard woman. Very hard. It was one of the main reasons I fell in love with her so quickly, yet at the same time, her hardness could make her difficult to love. She had reasons for that hardness which perhaps only her family would understand. It would take me twenty minutes to explain and it’d leave you all feeling a little queasy. But her history had produced a woman who was hard and sharp, occasionally brittle, often confrontational.
Me, I’m extremely non-confrontational. My family knows the reasons for this, but once again it would take twenty minutes to explain and it’d leave you all feeling even queasier. Just accept it. I hate to argue. I hate being angry. My main reaction to anger is to get angry that someone has made me angry. Karen got to be the confrontational one. She was the one who got to yell on the phone when creditors screwed up on our bills. She was the bad cop to my good cop. In private practice, on the one occasion that we had to fire an employee, I made Karen do it. She got to do the deed while I drove south of town to look at the ocean and try not to imagine what was happening back at the office. I avoid anger and confrontation as if I were phobic. Maybe this meant we were a good fit, but really, it just made it very easy for her to win arguments with me.
We were together for thirty-two years. You would think I would feel her inside me right now, but I can’t hear her voice. She’s not in my head. She’s boycotting my dreams. People say it’ll come in time, but it hasn’t yet. With one notable exception, and I’ll come back to that later.
We had been going out for a month or two when Karen bought me a present. It was a Mikasa fluted champagne glass with a frosted sparrow on the stem. She wanted to get me something beautiful, I suppose, and so within two weeks I did what I always seemed to do to beautiful things — I broke it.
I was devastated. My knowledge of women came from one previous relationship, and all I could do was predict Karen’s reaction based on how I thought my old girlfriend would have reacted. And by that logic, I knew, I just knew, that this would be the end of everything. The glass was symbolic. Breaking it was symbolic. I couldn’t even keep some nice crystal in one piece — how could I keep a relationship in one piece? And so, the next time we got together, I launched into this terrified apology in which I ever so gradually told her that something really awful had happened, and I didn’t know if she would ever forgive me, but I hoped she would —
Meanwhile, Karen was getting apprehensive as all hell. She told me later that she was convinced I was about to launch into a breakup speech. When I finally did the big reveal, she laughed. I remember being a little upset by that laugh — couldn’t she have the decency to be at least a little mad at me? But when she stopped laughing, she said, “It’s a thing, Doug. It’s a thing.”
She considered herself a Vulcan. Logic was everything, emotion was to be deeply mistrusted. In truth, she was a Spock-kind of Vulcan, half human in other words, and like Spock, the emotion tended to erupt at surprising and inopportune times. But when I met her, and in those first few months, she was a creature of pure logic and I fell in love with her for it. I had had entirely too much emotion growing up. This was refreshing. So despite being a deeply romantic sort, I mirrored her. We became two little geek scientists, two little Vulcans. At candlelit dinners, inevitably, one of us would gaze deeply into the other’s eyes and say: “Hey. Look. We’re having a romantic moment, huh?” And it would all dissolve into laughter.
We met in the Fall Quarter of 1982, in the College of Chemistry library at UC Berkeley. It was my last year, and Karen’s junior year. Even though we were both in the College of Chemistry, we’d never met since we were a year apart. I had just landed a research gig with Sung-Hou Kim, an X-ray crystallographer who had begun to dabble in this relatively new field called molecular biology. I was so tickled to get this non-paying job that I skipped my way from Melvin Calvin Labs to Hildebrand Library. I did a lot of skipping in those days. Skipping and moping — a sure target for the Moonies. But on this day, I was skipping. My friend Stan was sitting in the library with two girls I didn’t recognize. I wanted to gush to someone about my good fortune, but Stan would have none of it. He was angry at me. He’d dropped in on me at my apartment earlier that week, unexpected. Knowing Stan probably he’d probably arrived bearing food, but even still I hadn’t been too welcoming. He looked over at the two girls and said, “What do you think? Should I stay mad at him?” And they kept their silence, because, you know, you really can’t answer a question like that.
“They’re roommates,” he told me later. “You can take your pick.” I’d broken up with my high school sweetheart two years earlier and was still pretty devastated. Stan and I had met one quarter before that breakup, and I suspect he never had much patience for the post-breakup Doug. Anyway, he told me a little bit about Suzie, but mostly he talked about how smart Karen was. How she took math classes for fun. Karen always denied this, by the way. She would say that every one of those math classes had a purpose.
Later still, Stan retracted the offer — you know, that I could take my pick. He’d found out that Karen had a boyfriend. But then he found out that she’d broken up with her boyfriend, so before long he invited me over for dinner, along with Karen and her two roommates, Kira and Suzie. For, you know, a smorgasbord.
We played monopoly and poker after dinner. I glistened like a coked-up Robin Williams and Karen was a whip-crack herself, witty and intelligent. Suzie was Suzie (cute and bubbly) and Karen’s best friend Kira was funny as hell, but Kira was a head taller than me, and none of it mattered anyway because Karen had all of my interest. To me, it felt like we’d been married for twenty years and had already gotten to the mind-reading stage. In my anemic language of the time — what I told Stan, and soon after, what I told Karen — was that I thought she and I were on the same wavelength. That we were psychic twins. The amazing thing is, this didn’t scare her off.
Winter quarter, Karen and I had one class together, Physical Chemistry Lab. She sat with Kira (we were all Chemistry or Chemical Engineering majors), I sat by myself. I never paid much attention to the lectures for P-Chem Lab because my attention was riveted on Karen. Specifically, on trying to work up the nerve to ask her out. My tongue wouldn’t work. I had no trouble calling her on the phone, nor had I any qualms about dropping in at her apartment unannounced. I found ways of getting us together, but not in a manner that would be confused with a date. When it came to asking her out, I was adrift.
At the beginning of class one day, I passed her a note that said:
“I’m being a gimp doing it this way, but what the hell. Would you want to go out with me?”
I hoped she would pass the note back with a “Sure!” but no such luck. She made me wait until after class. Then she cornered me in lab, with Kira standing over her shoulder as bouncer-on-call. (Remember the movie My Bodyguard? Kinda like that.)
“Are you going to explain this note to me?” she said. “How are you being a gimp?”
I hooked a couple of fingers around her arm and dragged her away from Kira.
“Will you go out with me?” I half-whispered.
“When? What? Where?”
But I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I mean, did I have to have everything planned? So I invited her over for dinner the following Saturday night. I gave her my address. As she walked back to her lab station, she called after me: “Jeez, some people are shy.”
So — got the idea? Karen’s the confrontational one. I’m the one who’s whispering his dinner invitations.
I remember calling Stan one afternoon and asking him: “Does she love me yet? What does it take to get someone to fall in love you?” I think Stan said, “You haven’t even gone out with her yet!”
But honestly, it wasn’t love at first sight with Karen. Someone asked me that recently — was it love at first sight? No. It was want at first sight. I wanted this woman in my life. I didn’t want to imagine any other sort of life. And there was something else at play, something even scarier. A sense of fate — what people in my generation sometimes called kismet. Kismet. I was meant to meet her and fall in love with her. The universe had arranged it that way, just so.
Friday night, Kira and Stan walked over to my apartment in the rain. “Kira wants to see your apartment,” Stan said, but I think Kira wanted to check me out a bit closer. She was screening me, making sure I was good enough for her best friend. She was always very protective of Karen. So Kira asked to borrow a few books from my bookshelf, undoubtedly a ruse to see which books I owned. Fortunately, my 120 Days of Sodom, Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, and Autopsy, Volume 3 were safely tucked away. And, fortunately, the half-naked Billy Idol poster belonged to my roommate Russ, not me.
Following a detour to Mama’s BBQ for Stan, the three of us returned to Kira’s apartment. Karen was there, of course. We played cards until 1 AM. That evening, the feeling returned — that sense of inevitability. Of kismet.
Yeah, I was thinking about marriage and we hadn’t even gone out yet.
I felt pretty good about this first date. I found out much later that Karen felt a good deal more cautious. “I still need to check out the fruit,” she told Kira. I didn’t need to check. First date, courting, the whole sex thing, meet-her-parents, meet-MY-parents: they were all technicalities. This relationship was inevitable.
That Saturday, I blew off studying and spent the whole day washing clothes, grocery shopping, and cooking. My place northwest of the Berkeley campus put me within three blocks of a bakery, three grocery stores, a produce market, a wine shop, a cheese shop, and a fish market. Only the best for this meal.
The menu was salad, sourdough bread, seafood divan, a 1978 Dutcher Creek Fume Blanc, and chocolate mousse for dessert. I didn’t finish cooking until 8:30. My roommates Roger and Russ were in and out; Roger came by to haze Karen mercilessly. Roger had just had his heart ripped out by a feminist–who, in retrospect, was a much nicer person than Roger. So he felt he had to make sure I wasn’t falling into the same trap. Karen would recall that I took part in this hazing ritual but she was just plain WRONG. It was all Roger.
A bit later that evening, my other roommate Russ came by to snag two helpings of chocolate mousse and do the dishes. Russ was always doing the dishes whether he’d dirtied them or not, because he figured Roger and I were too ignorant to use hot soap and water. And, you know, it bothered him.
Eventually, they all left us alone, and Karen and I spent the rest of the evening up in my room not having sex. We talked until 2AM. Actually, I think I talked until 2AM and I violated one of the most important Guy Rules:
Don’t tell her jack about yourself, because whatever she imagines about you is far superior to the Truth.
But if I failed to reveal all my secrets that night, I made up for it in our many late-night talks in the coming weeks. Who knows; maybe it was the right thing to do. She was checking out the fruit, after all, and I gave her plenty to squeeze and sniff.
After that first date, I walked her home. Along the way, I said, “Well, I think we’re pretty compatible. What do you think?” And she agreed.
In Rom-Coms and romance novels, you don’t expect smooth sailing. You’d be damned bored if Adam Sandler didn’t lose Drew Barrymore at least once before the end of the movie. You mean Karen didn’t have cold feet, not even once? You mean neither of you went running back to your ex for one last fling, to the horror of the other, followed by a tearful reunion and the confession, and the “I never realized how much you meant to me until now.” Nope. Sorry. This relationship was like going down a slide on waxed paper.
We had a year together. A year. A year with nothing more stressful than me getting wait-listed at Stanford for med school, then accepted, and THEN we could plan for the future. Karen would later get accepted to Stanford too, to the graduate program in Chemical Physics. After that, our future looked like clear sailing. I wanted to do research in the molecular biology of human behavior and she wanted to zap diatomic molecules with lasers, for reasons I was never too clear about. It didn’t matter anyway if I understood, because we’d be together.
Honestly, I hadn’t given the proposal much thought. We were going to get married. We both knew it and had just never bothered to say it out loud. If I had thought about it, maybe I would have staged a romantic proposal. I’d have had to endure her laughter and scorn, but hey, that’s the stuff memories are made of, right? Instead, here’s what happened.
The three of us were on the road to Los Altos, where Karen and Kira had grown up together. Karen was driving, Kira sat in the passenger seat, and I sat in back. Kira, in true Kira form, began pressing me on my plans for her best friend. The conversation went something like this.
Kira: Well, young man, what I’m asking is, what are your intentions towards our Karen?
Me: Oh, we’ve pretty much decided to get married.
Kira: Really. When?
Me: We haven’t picked a date.
Kira: But you’ve proposed?
(Imagine a long silence filled with road noise and perhaps the sound of Pink Floyd’s The Wall playing on the car’s tape deck.)
Kira: Surely you’ve proposed.
Karen: Not yet he hasn’t.
Me: So what do you say?
Whereupon Kira screams incoherently, since she realizes she has just witnessed the lamest, most unemotional marriage proposal in the history of mankind.
I decided straight away to ask her Dad’s permission–that same evening, in fact. Karen’s mind boggled at the thought. Ask his permission? I think she was offended by the idea.
Her dad’s main concern was, how would I support Karen? (And now Karen’s fuming because she fully intended to support herself with her grad student stipend.) Before Karen could commit patricide, I said, “With my student loan money, sir!” I convinced him that banks loved med students and would give me as much money as I wanted, and he was fine with it.
We set the date for June 30, 1984, which would be right at the end of my first year of medical school. A little while after the proposal and six months before the wedding date, Karen and I drove down to visit my folks in LA for Christmas Break. I only remember two things from that trip. First, we saw the movie A Christmas Story in a theater — that was the year it came out. And second, that’s when Karen got sick, almost exactly a year after Stan’s smorgasbord.
Late one afternoon she told me that she had a spreading numbness on her leg. It had begun at the top of one foot, then spread up her shin, and was continuing to spread. I only had a few months of medical school in me at this point, so I had no idea what this could be. I only knew that it didn’t sound good. I took her to the Arcadia Methodist ER, and the reaction of the doctor and nurses to Karen’s story freaked us out. I mean, it’s just numbness, right? What are y’all getting so excited about? Then one of the nurses injected something into her IV. “WHAT is that?” Karen asked, and the nurse said, “Just some steroids to shrink the tumor.”
The nuns wanted to set up a bed for me next to Karen. I guess they figured we were married, and really, as far as I’m concerned, we were. We were married from that first dinner together. And we’d had a year together, a year, and now I was losing her.
But they didn’t find a tumor. They did a CT myelogram and a lumbar puncture that made her nauseated and gave her a headache from hell. We flew her home. It took her several days to recover from the testing. And it was a few months later, I think, before we had an answer, thanks to this new kind of scan which wasn’t even in wide use at the time — MRI. But she definitely had multiple sclerosis.
She tried her best to push me away. She wanted to call off the wedding and she fought me very hard for that. It’s one of our few arguments I actually won. At the time, I thought it was from love–that she didn’t want to saddle me with her problems. But I think it was her own fierce independence at play, too. She could see a future in which she would have to depend on me, and even though she loved me, she didn’t want that. She didn’t want to have to depend on anyone.
But for me, the calculus was simple. I loved her. You stick by the people you love, end of story. When telling this, though, I sometimes get feedback from people like I’m some kind of saint for not abandoning her. It really makes me uncomfortable. What I want to say to them is, wouldn’t you do the same? Really, wouldn’t you? What kind of monster abandons his loved ones when they need him the most?
And, you know, we were dealing with multiple sclerosis. She could have one or two bouts and the disease would burn out. Or she could be dead in six months. In the best case scenario, how tragic would it be to abandon the love of your life so unnecessarily? And in the worst case scenario, sure it sucks to die so young, but wouldn’t you want to be there for the person you love?
I was young and naïve, and that inner voice, the voice that said You can do this, was clear and strong. Those words had gotten me through my own childhood melodrama and a bad breakup and college. Whether this was a brief illness with little long-term disability or a rapid descent into hell, the voice was clear: You can do this.
What we got was more like a slow descent into hell. If we could’ve seen the future, that voice, which Karen must have had, too, to survive for so long after having everything ripped away from her . . . I doubt that voice would have been so confident. But thankfully we couldn’t see the future, and that inner voice kept us going. You can do this. The knowledge that you’re always just strong enough to go on one more day. That, and the fact that we had each other’s strength to rely upon.
Things started out well enough; that Christmas after we got married, we took a chunk of student loan money and did a road-tour of Europe. Fatigue was the big problem for her back then, but she walked without a cane. We saw Belgium and Paris, a few chateaux, very little of Italy since neither of us new any Italian beyond dove il gabinetto. France, Austria, and Germany we could handle. We loved Salzburg. Watched Greystoke Die Legende von Tarzan without subtitles.
The neat thing about Karen was just how much we had in common. Like, damn near everything. We had the same passion for good food. The same passion for cooking. We liked the same books and the same movies and it was incredibly rare for us to disagree on anything political. We were both Berkeley socialists. Much later, when we had employees, we were both intensely uncomfortable being capitalists, so we tended to pay people twice what they expected. We said we were paying them what they were worth. Early on, we discovered what we had both wanted all through childhood — to own reptiles. East Bay Vivarium became our favorite stomping ground, and even in our last year together we made a pilgrimage there. We bought our first pet together at EBV — we called her Boa Derek for all of about a day, and thereafter she became Baby. Soon after that we bought Baby’s mate, D.T., and since we’re in mixed company I won’t tell you what the initials stood for. We tired of that joke pretty fast, anyway.
We had good friends in med school and we tried to have a good time, even with all the crap raining down on us. We liked the same people. We’d have dinner parties where I’d make Paul Prudhomme’s Barbecue Shrimp, and for entertainment afterward we’d feed Baby and D.T. and then we’d play Bridge until we were all half asleep. Or we’d go out to Chinese restaurants with our friends and order food like we were already earning money like doctors.
It just kept going like that, too, through thirty years of marriage. Even the things we didn’t have in common, like Karen’s love for sports, I found I could enjoy when I watched with her. Same for her anime, same for her old black-and-white movies. She would get so enthusiastic about these things, it was nearly impossible for me not to feel the same way, too. And her tarantula passion — well, trust me, tarantulas would not have been my pet of first choice. I’m much more of a poison dart frog guy. But I’ll get back to the tarantulas in a bit.
I need you to realize that even though her illness was brutal and did horrible things to her, we had each other. It’s a trite thing to say, but our friends know it’s true. That early sense that I had, that we were soulmates, that we were on the same wavelength — I hadn’t imagined that. We were there for each other. There was that amazing, incredible feeling of not being alone. I don’t think we could have survived without that. Especially not those first few years.
Before long, she was sick enough that she had to drop out of grad school, and that devastated her. She had defined herself as a scientist, and the disease took that away from her. The decision to drop out — well, she wasn’t very Vulcan about it. It tore her apart, and it was easily the worst blow the disease had dealt her up to that point.
She slipped into a steadily declining course after that. I won’t torture you with the details, but none of it was easy. The disease bruised our relationship, it left more than a few scars, but it made us stronger, too. I know it sounds corny, but we were tempered in flame. We could say to ourselves, and we did say these things: We’ve been through so much together. We can keep going, until there’s nowhere left to go.
We lived constantly with the inevitability of her death — she was convinced she wouldn’t live until thirty. But finally, her neurologist tried her out on an experimental Brigham and Women’s Hospital protocol that beat the crap out of her bone marrow. And it worked. Her relapses dried up, but so did her ovaries.
Not quite, though. When I was in my last year of residency, it sort of slowly dawned on us both that she was doing okay — not great, but okay. Things had stopped getting worse. She was no longer having relapses. We thought, you know, maybe we can have a family. She didn’t get pregnant, though, so that’s when we discovered her premature ovarian failure. She had three specialists quote some ridiculous statistic about how we had a three in ten thousand lifetime chance of conceiving the old fashioned way. We started going through the motions of doing in vitro fertilization, but it’s not like we stopped trying. And when she went in for her baseline ultrasound to check for uterine fibroids, the ultrasound tech said, “There he is.” He didn’t know any better — he thought it was a routine ultrasound for pregnancy. Karen rounded on him and said, “THERE WHO IS?” Afterward, she paged me to tell me she was pregnant. I did pretty much the same thing in front of my clinic: “NO. YOU’RE SHITTING ME. THIS IS REALLY CRUEL, KAREN, STOP KIDDING.” But, no, it was for real.
Having Jake — well, when I think about the good things that happened to us, that’s the big one, that and the fact that we got more than twenty more years out of this marriage than Karen thought she was going to get. She had time to see Jake grow up to be an amazing adult. Jake, you’re better than both of us. I don’t want you to ever forget that. We take full credit, of course.
When Jake was born, the emotions took us both by surprise. We still thought of ourselves as dispassionate scientists. But anyone who has had kids knows how powerful that surge of feeling is, that charge you get within hours if not minutes of the delivery. The first night, we were fighting over who got to change his dirty diaper. The world had started making sense to us in a different way. We had never thought our world could be bigger than the two of us, but suddenly it was. And we were totally okay with that. Such an amazing feeling.
So we raised a son together. Karen was a great mom. She was always incredibly patient with Jake during his infancy and toddler years. I’d lose my temper, but Karen never did. She would talk to him like a little adult, reason with him, show him the logic of things. She always tried to get him to think for himself and take nothing for granted. She raised a little Vulcan.
We also raised chameleons and frogs, and even took an unsuccessful stab at raising tarantulas. Damn things refused to breed. But she loved those tarantulas and had an amazing way with them. She was the tarantula whisperer. Didn’t matter if one them would run up her arm and perch atop her head — “Don’t worry,” she’d say. “This one’s arboreal. It’s what they do.” And she’d coax him from her head onto her arm and get him back into his cage. She was never bitten, not once. She said they knew her. She loved them, and if there’s one thing I could do to guarantee a haunting, it would be to neglect her critters.
We kept snakes, scorpions, and centipedes. As we got older and more sentimental, we went mammal and kept degus, ferrets and cats. We set up my private practice together, even though neither one of us had any business experience. We made very few mistakes, none of them big ones. She got some training in audiology, enough to do my audiograms. And she managed my practice until she broke her pelvis in 2005. I wasn’t there when it happened, but the way she described it, she didn’t fall, really. She lost her balance, slumped to the ground, and hit her butt at a funny angle, and that’s all it took. And that was pretty much the beginning of her final downhill slide.
The hip fracture slowed us down but didn’t stop us. We still had our trips to Vancouver and Seattle and Las Vegas, could still take long drives up the Oregon coast. She home-schooled Jake from fourth through eight grade — Karen took the math and science, I took English and the rest of the humanities. Every math problem she gave Jake, she would do it herself first, because she didn’t trust the textbooks not to give unsolvable problems or incorrect solutions. And she found more than a few errors, too.
I have one last story for you before I conclude.
After Karen died, I traded in our crappy old Camry that had 146,000 miles on it, and bought a new Prius. As part of my job, I have to drive over the Grapevine not too infrequently, and I was really getting nervous about that Camry. I bought the Prius at Bill Wright Toyota here in Bakersfield, and I was happy with the experience. My salesman, a young guy named Justin Swartz, was friendly, informative, not the least bit high pressure. But we had some trouble with the title on the Camry, since Karen and I had bought it in Oregon and we held it jointly. So before I could seal the deal, I had to shlep back to the office to pick up a copy of Karen’s death certificate, and then bring it back to the dealership. They seemed to be satisfied with that.
A few days later, Justin called to apologize. They needed me to go to the DMV to put the title entirely in my name. So one Wednesday afternoon, I spent a vile amount of time in line at the DMV, and all I received was a bit of paperwork and an appointment for the following Wednesday. Went back the next week, spent a little less time waiting, only to be told by the DMV worker that the paperwork I’d been given was all I needed. She said, “Take that to the dealership. If they know what they’re doing, that’s all they need. You DON’T want to put the car entirely in your name, because then I’ll have to ask you to smog the vehicle and you’ll have to pay registration all over again. Just give them these papers.”
Which is what I did. Justin took the papers, thanked me profusely, and I thought it was the end of the story.
But then I got a call from someone named Leslie in the accounting department. She left a message saying that it was Toyota policy that I would have to get the title entirely in my name, and that Toyota couldn’t do this for me, so I would have to go back to the DMV, et cetera.
I stewed about this. I figured I would have to waste at least another hour or two of a Wednesday afternoon, which is when I have my Permanente-approved quality me-time, futzing around at the DMV. I wasn’t angry yet, but I was getting there. I didn’t want to be angry. I wanted this problem to go away. I wanted Karen to make the problem go away, but she was gone, and I’d have to deal with this one by myself, no little Darth Vader at my side.
Monday came around. It was the day before Karen’s birthday. And I woke up and now I really was angry, but I had Karen’s voice in my head, finally, saying, You know how to do this. I SHOWED you how to do this. . . . You can do this.
You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Karen was a dirty street fighter. She believed that any argument worth fighting was worth fighting to the death. Use every tool at your disposal, give no quarter. I called my salesman that morning, choosing Justin in particular because he was young, seemed a little green, seemed VERY eager to get those perfect tens on his customer evaluation.
“Justin. Hi. It’s Doug Hoffman, the guy you sold the Prius to last week? Remember, the death certificate guy? Good. Who’s your boss, Justin? Who do you answer to?”
He said something, sounded like Cal Cootchie. I start writing down “Cootchie,” C-O-O-T-C-H and I hear Karen saying, “Get him to spell it.”
“Spell that for me, please.” He spelled it. “And the guy who did my financing, what was his name? Who’s his boss, who does he answer to? Thank you. And the head manager at Bill Wright Toyota, what’s his name?”
I took names. Then I told him what had happened – who had called me, the phone message she’d left. “What’s her last name, Justin? Spell that for me, please? And who does she answer to?”
After he was done (and sufficiently intimidated), I said, “Justin, I have done everything you guys asked me to do. I’ve spent between two to three hours of my time doing it and I haven’t complained. I’ve given all of you guys the highest marks on your surveys, too. My wife and I have been Toyota customers forever. We’ve bought two Priuses from this dealership, and before that, we bought two Camrys elsewhere. Our first car together was a Tercel. We’ve always been really, really happy with Toyota.
“Now I want you to imagine what it’s like losing someone whom you’ve been with for thirty-two years. I want you to imagine how much anger I must be harboring, losing my wife like that. And I want you to imagine how very much I would like to point that anger at someone. So here’s the thing, Justin. Yes, I’ve already filled out the surveys. I gave you guys the highest marks. I’ve been happy with you, even considering the hassle factor thus far. But this new thing is a Toyota problem – I know that because the woman at the DMV said you guys have everything you need provided you know what you’re doing. So it’s a Toyota problem, and Toyota is going to make the problem disappear. And if it doesn’t disappear, I’m going to have a convenient target to focus all that anger. And I will make it my passion to make your lives hell. I will complain up the food chain as far as I need to go.”
I would have gone on, but by now he was interrupting, saying that this is the first he’s heard of it, he’ll call the woman who called me, he’ll take care of it.
Poor guy. I actually liked him, and I’d go back to him in a heartbeat. But in that moment, I had Karen’s fire in me, and I could hear her cheering me on. “Yes. You did it.”
I look at her and say, so that’s what you left me with: the ability to be a dick when the need arises.
And she says, “No, I taught you how to grow a spine.”
Okay, I’ll grant you that. You taught me how to grow a spine. I grew one because I had to and because I had no other choice. You taught me that I was strong enough to endure. You were strong enough to endure, until your strength failed. We’re all strong enough to endure, until our strength fails. We endure because we must, because we have no other logical choice. We endure until we can endure no longer. You taught me that.
And despite all of that, I love you. I miss you.
Thank you, everybody.