Four years ago this month my friend and soulmate succumbed to breast cancer. Until this moment I have never written of her, although few days pass when she is not in my thoughts. Even now the pain of losing her seems too raw and fresh to contemplate, and yet her memory is so wonderful that it begs to be shared, if only to give her spirit some substance within the dimension of the living. Although mere words, especially within the constraints of my limited talent of expression, could never capture the essence of this remarkable woman. But Linda Ketner loved me and would certainly forgive my feeble efforts at a proper remembrance. And so for you my friend, I share the story that I carry in my heart.
I met Linda in Prescott, Arizona in 1981. She was working as a legal secretary in a law office on my mail route. I’m not sure why I asked her out; she was a couple of years older than me and not really my “type” physically. But she did have a great smile, and her dark Italian eyes sparkled with equal parts of mischief and wisdom, as if she was in on some cosmic joke and my cluelessness was most amusing. Well, whatever it was that created the spark, the resulting fire was to light and warm a friendship that lasted over 20 years.
For the first couple of years we toyed with romance. We were both single parents with two children. She was Catholic and I wasn’t. I was on the rebound from a major heartbreak and could not let myself love again which made her incredibly angry. I moved to Arkansas several months after we met. She brought her kids cross country by bus to visit me there. We spent time at my parents small farm in eastern Oklahoma and she told me later it was the only time in her life she had truly felt at peace and at home. She wanted me to ask her to stay. And I didn’t.
We continued to write and speak on the phone and I’m not sure how I would have borne the loneliness of that time in my life without her kindness and support. About a year later she had moved to Phoenix and I came out to see her. By now I had come to love her and was finally ready to commit to a relationship. And she wasn’t, at least with me. She had met someone else and I was too late. Which really pissed her off. I saw first hand her fiery temper in what we fondly recalled as the refrigerator cleaning incident. As she was emptying the contents of the fridge, she would hurl food items and invectives my way, telling me in colorful terms what an idiot I had been. That actually turned out to be one of our favorite memories that always made us laugh, but it was a pretty intense experience at the time.
So, we both wound up marrying others and going on with our lives. But we always stayed in touch sharing our trials and joys in long letters, and with the advent of email our correspondence became even more robust. And she was always there for me, a rock to cling to in stormy seas and a beacon of light on my darkest nights. Her love for me was always unconditional, and even when I screwed up (which was often) she gave me encouragement instead of censure. I’m not sure there is a better definition of friendship.
Looking back, I probably only saw her in person six or seven times over all those years. We were connected in a way that transcended the physical, there was just some power that bonded us in a way I cannot adequately explain. She knew how to touch the places in my innermost being in a way that no one ever had before. She KNEW me. And despite that, still she loved me. I had never known that kind of affirmation and it was a source of strength and comfort to be blessed with her love.
Whenever I lost myself she helped me find my way back. She visited me once in South Carolina. Our house was decorated in manner worthy of Southern Living magazine. She looked around and said “wow, this is really amazing. But tell me, where do YOU live?” She saw through the lie I had been living for years in five minutes.
Of course, I was only one part of Linda’s life. I’m sure I was important to her, but not the most important. She had her children, her grandson, and on her third try, a husband who was worthy of her love.
Linda was no saint, but she was saintly. I nicknamed her MT2 (Mother Teresa the second). She had an amazing capacity to love. It was her gift. She did things like visiting nursing homes and reading to strangers on a weekly basis. She was always there for the people who needed her most.
As good as Linda was, her life was hard. She was emotionally abused as a child. She was living on the street as a teenager. She married two men who treated her badly. But nothing could overcome her indomitable spirit. Well, nothing but cancer. But no, the cancer beat her body, but it never beat Linda.
She was first diagnosed in the late 1980s and underwent a double mastectomy. In true Catholic fashion she told me God was punishing her for her vanity about having large breasts. But she was a survivor. When she reached the ten year mark without a recurrence she noted that statistically she was home free.
Damn statistics. The cancer recurred at twelve years and was inoperable. But she never quit fighting. I know it is cliché to talk about the “brave struggle against impossible odds”, but Linda was the poster child for fighting the good fight against the evil that was eating her body. Her faith, courage, and strength were inspirational to all who knew her.
And just when it seemed things could get no worse, her daughter Amy died from a drug overdose. When I heard the news I thought Linda would lose her will to live. I think it was touch and go for awhile, but Amy’s son needed her and she fought on. And on. She was in pain most of the time, in mind, body and spirit, but still she would not quit. And she never lost herself. I visited Linda a couple of times during the last year of her life and always came away uplifted. It was as if she had had her faith challenged in the most severe fashion and had passed the test. Her reward was acceptance and peace of mind.
Well, maybe not acceptance. The last time we were together was at the hospice. She was drugged up and in and out of consciousness, but early one morning she awoke while I was sitting at her bedside. She looked at me and smiled, and that same mischievous mirth from the day we met was twinkling in her eyes. We talked about all we had shared, we laughed and cried, and then she squeezed my hand and told me “this is NOT goodbye”. I don’t know if she was right, but I didn’t argue the point. I love her now as I did then and she lives on in my heart. If there is a heaven I know of no one more worthy than her to reside there. She was my angel on Earth and I miss having her here watching out for me.
As I got up to leave the hospice for the last time, I accidentally tripped on the oxygen tubes that had somehow gotten twisted around my legs. Linda started gasping and clutching her throat. I stood there in shock and near panic. Then she flashed me that big smile and said “Got ya!”
Yeah babe, you got me. You got me good.