Many years ago, when I was a co-director of our school district's Honor Choir, we decided to put on a themed concert of "Heroes and Legends". While we were brainstorming ideas, we asked each other if we knew any real-life heroes.
The first one that popped into my head was my friend, Karen Nelson.
Karen was an amazing lady.
She had a voice like an angel, which is how I first got to know her. We sang together in community choir, and my mom and I always tried to get a seat in front of her so we could listen to her beautiful voice. I had the privilege of being onstage with her many times, and even during the craziest backstage costume changes and prop fiascos, she was kind, professional, sweet, and funny.
Karen had a form of arthritis that was treated during her childhood with a medication that made her bones extremely brittle. During one performance of "Brigadoon", she actually stepped off a ledge slightly too hard and fractured a bone in her foot! Yet, she literally did not miss a note - continuing the entire rest of the performance with her injury and even more performances the next week.
Later, Karen was out on a late night call (she did amazing volunteer work with our local Crisis Center, for domestic violence victims), when she dozed off and was in a terrible car accident. Her foot and lower leg were crushed, and she endured many months of physical therapy and restorative surgeries. However, in characteristic bravery, she decided to have her leg amputated since she would never have full recovery.
I remember very well going to visit her in the hospital in Eugene after her amputation. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting - surely Karen would be sad and grieving the loss of her leg, right? Instead, my sister and I walked into a room dominated by cards sent from her many, many friends and family and a happy, smiling Karen who welcomed us with open arms and spent the hour chatting happily with us. Not a tear, not a single regret - no looking backward, just forward at what joy was to come. Her goal? To dance the waltz again with our friend Charles (they had danced together when they starred in "The King and I"). She knew she wouldn't have been able to dance if she hadn't had the amputation.
Later that year, Karen and Charles waltzed together at our wedding.
And for Halloween, Karen came to our party dressed as a peg legged pirate. She was never afraid to laugh at herself!
One of Karen's strongest gifts was the choice to use her experiences, good and bad, to help others. After my miscarriage, she reached out to me in the midst of my grief to talk to me about a child she lost at 20 weeks long ago. She endured years of domestic abuse, which she turned into a lifetime of volunteering at the Crisis Center. After her amputation, Karen went around to elementary schools speaking of her experiences. She often spoke one on one with new amputees to offer consolation and perspective.
Her middle name was Joy, a name she lived up to in every sense of the word. Her beautiful soul emanated joy at absolutely everything. She truly lived her life as a light to draw others to her brightness of spirit.
Karen passed away yesterday morning. Her life on earth is no longer, yet her legacy of kindness, laughter, giving back, resilience, love, faith, and JOY will live on for years.
Undoubtedly, Karen changed my life for the better. I'll miss her dearly, but I'm a better person for having known her.