A Memorial for Ilona

As soon as she was legally able, my cousin Ilona Karpinski changed her name to Kristie Ainsley.  Named after my grandmother, Ilona quickly isolated herself from the family.  The only exception was an occasional visit with my aunt Marysia and uncle Jurek, who were close to her mother Lucy.  Ilona was my tormentor as a child.  I vividly recall the names she’d call me and the way she’d get the other cousins to exclude and torment me.  They’d throw rocks at me or run away when we played hide and seek.  While I was a fairly quiet kid, she was loud and raucous, and liked to lord it over everyone.

When I found out that she had ovarian cancer, I had trepidation about visiting her.  I was in Chile when I got the news, and decided to pay my respects when I returned the following month.  I entered the convalescent home expecting her to be dismissive or downright mean as had happened so many times before.  A Pavlovian response.  It was hard to shake those early memories.

Instead I found her unexpectedly kind.  She seemed fairly numb about her prognosis.  Perhaps denial more like.  I imagined I would have felt the same, and wasn’t sure what to say.  So mostly I listened, and we talked a bit about our childhoods and memories.  I admired how she asked for what she wanted.  Something I had (and have) little practice in.  A bright side of her being spoiled perhaps was that she knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it.  I brought her huge Costco cupcakes and peppermint tea.  She was able to take a few sips of the tea, but never again could touch food so the cupcakes languished.  I was moved by the unexpected parallels in our lives.  She had grown up fairly lonely, an only child, whose father had frequent bouts of rage.  I could relate to all those things.  Our fathers were brothers, and I hadn’t realized how similar they were.  I didn’t know her dad well enough.  He was always on his best behavior around others, as was mine.

I tried to let her know that she was safe with me, that I wasn’t averse to any feelings she might be having.  I shared some of the difficulties I’d had, but kept it to a minimum.  I wanted her to feel like she was the important one.  I also decided not to say anything about childhood.  It just didn’t seem right.  It seemed that in those few visits, we made up.  Without talking about it. I think she was shocked that we (her family) would be there for her.  She didn’t expect it.  Neither did I.

She cried a little bit during one of our visits.  I felt honored that she trusted me to show even a bit of the grief she must have felt.  Each time I came to see her, there was a big change in prognosis and medical intervention.  Her doctors had originally thought it operable. By our third or fourth visit, she had been told that her kidneys were shutting down and that she’d have to be on dialysis.  I didn’t realize that that meant her organs were shutting down, and that she was dying.  I only saw her one more time after that.  My aunt Marylka, the oldest of my father’s siblings, told me to tell her that she loved her.

I crept into her hospital room, and sat by her bedside for a few minutes, not wanting to wake her.  Just as I got up to go, she opened her eyes, and I bent down and whispered that Marylka wanted her to know how much she loved her.  And I added, “I love you too.” She appeared to acknowledge my words, and I stayed another minute, watching her until her eyes closed.  She died the next day.  I felt urgency about seeing her the next morning, but by the time I picked up her father, she had died.  Luckily a nurse had been with her as she was dying.  I thanked her.  She had tears in her eyes and said what a wonderful person Kristie was.  I agreed.  I had seen a side of her that I didn’t know.  I admired her strength in facing a rapidly changing diagnosis, her ability to be as present as she had been.

I was asked to pick up her personal belongings, which consisted of some clothes and other miscellany. There was also a journal of a few entries that she had written while in the hospital.  This was a glimpse into her private world, hidden from view. In one entry, she wrote that she had started sobbing after our discussion about the possibility of her not getting better.  My heart went out to her being so alone with that.  Apparently the conversation had opened her up – her numbness had started to thaw.  I was just sorry I hadn’t been there to support her.  The convalescent home had given her a tranquilizer to quiet her.  Seems to be the way our society deals with grief and other strong feelings.  Shove them down.

I was stunned at her rapid slide from the promise of life-saving surgery to organ failure and death. Though I never got the chance to ask her about her last wishes, I’d overheard her say that she wanted to be buried and have a memorial. I had a memorial for her at Alta Mesa Memorial Park, the same cemetery where her beloved mother and stepfather were buried. I invited friends, co-workers, and family.

Writing the memorial was difficult.  I hadn’t been around Kristie at all since childhood, when she’d bullied me as the ring leader of the cousin gang.  I had no idea of what her adult life had been like. So I set out to talk to a few of her friends, whose numbers I got off her phone.  I also talked with coworkers at Staples and the staff at a nearby Starbucks that had come to know her well.

I first talked with Mark, who told me that he had met Kristie at the Old Mill theater in Mountain View in 1979. He was an usher and she was there to see the midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show. From infectious laugh he knew she would be fun to spend time with. They were both movie fans and saw thousands of movies together over the years. They would see movies in the theaters or would plan video theme nights complete with food and drinks. In 1981 he moved to southern California. Kristie (he called her Kriss) would visit and went to Cal State Northridge and later transferred to San Francisco State. They would visit often. In the early 1990s Kriss moved back down to southern California where she started her job at Staples. She missed the Bay Area and moved back a few years later. Over the course of their friendship, they had remained the best of friends. Mark said, “I will miss her deeply.”

I then spoke with Tim, who started working with Kristie 14 years ago at Staples in Mountain View. He was a support manager and joked about getting to boss her around. She was a strong personality and wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion.  She was excellent at her job and worked over time to do things right. They got close and joked around a lot, taking jabs at each other, but had mutual respect. They went out as friends a few times, and unknowingly competed to outwit each other. She pointed out flaws that might have held Tim back from advancement.  He was transferred and they reconnected a few years later at another Staples where her dedication to her job was exemplary.

He summarized her qualities saying that she was very smart (and knew it), was able to make light of almost anything that didn’t make her mad, was dedicated to being the best at her job, was reliable, was a good friend (she was his confidant when going through a breakup), and was faithful.  As he put it, “if you were her friend, she would defend you to anyone”.  He wished that he’d kept in better touch after leaving Staples. They would check in occasionally.  When she called to let him know she was sick, he didn’t realize how advanced it was.  He went to see her the night before she died.  He sat with her a few minutes but she was asleep as the nurse said she was on strong medications.

He left and called his wife, who told him to go back and wake her up as she would have wanted.  He was glad he did. In his own words, “when I woke her up, she looked up at me.  I talked to her a bit then asked if she knew who I was. She said no. I started to tell her and she whispered, ‘I know who you are’. Even at the end, she had to make a joke. I will miss Kriss.” Tim hastened to add that he had been around her when her mom (my Aunt Lucy) had passed away.  Kristie was heartbroken – she had lost her best friend.  He tried very hard to comfort her and had shared a poem with her. He remembers Kriss saying that she missed her mom so much that she wanted to go be with her.  He said, “I’m sure that now she is with her Mom and happy.”

I last spoke with Joe, who said that he’d met her in 2004 while working at Staples.  He said she was a joker but also a very private person who treated friends like gold. They would have dinner and a movie whenever he was in town, along with Mark.  They were big zombie and horror show fans.

During those short weeks before she died, she told me a few items on her bucket list: seeing her cat one last time, caring for Aunt Marysia, drinking cinnamon apple tea, going to the mall, seeing the last Twilight movie, eating cupcakes with Staples coworkers for her birthday, and celebrating Halloween. As I wheeled her out into the lobby one day to wait for kidney dialysis, I was struck by how helpless she was and how strong she was in the face of that.

I was able to grant a few of those wishes: I bought some herbal tea, and held the teabag to her nose.  I didn’t think she could drink it, but she managed a sip, saying it was heavenly.  It was the last thing she drank before she died. I also brought her favorite giant Costco cupcakes. Sadly she couldn’t eat them. Her cousin Maya brought her a cuddly custom made bear, while Paul, Greg, and Peter visited her bedside and cracked jokes with her.  Aunt Marysia and Teresa said they would take care of her beloved cat Tabitha. Marysia had been in touch with Ilona the most of our family, especially after her mother Lucy had died.

During those visits, she told me more about herself.  How she loved rain and stormy weather and scary movies, and not so much her difficult, often lonely, childhood.  We were both only children from divorced homes at the age of 12. Both of our fathers, who were brothers, had anger issues.  She’d been the target of a fair amount of rage, which I only learned during the last weeks of her life.  We both reacted to our childhood pain by distancing ourselves from our extended families. I was saddened to learn that we’d struggled with such similar challenges alone and unaided.

She had been adopted as a tiny baby, and grew into a bright and active little girl.  She was an amazing acrobat, and did dance, tap, and gymnastics.  In high school she attended St Francis catholic school and was on the gymnastics team. We’d been alternately adversaries and friends as kids. She liked to scapegoat me, perhaps because I was supposedly the good kid and she wasn’t. When we were 10 or so, we had a closer relationship when she moved to Los Altos from Menlo Park.  I have fond memories of perusing her Archie comic books together, but was jealous that that her parents gave her whatever she wanted.

Starting in 1980, she attended SF State University, earning a BA in Business Administration. Barbara Kowalewsky, a close family friend, ran into her there and commented about how pretty she was and how she liked how she did her makeup.  She moved in with her mom stepdad after they got married in 1986. Her mom worried about her isolation and hoped that her connection with her birth family would help that. However, after only a few meetings, their interest in connecting with each other dropped off. Ilona recounted how much it meant to her to take care of Lucy and Elmer.

I had met Elmer when visiting Lucy in the 1990s.  I was struck by what a kind, salt of the earth person he was. He had worked at an auto body shop and had given a young man the chance to turn his life around by giving him a job. That was the kind of man Elmer was. Lucy was really happy, he adored her, and they went dancing all the time. I saw Elmer’s love for Ilona. I think that when her mom and Elmer died, it was a nail in the coffin for her. They were the 2 people that she cared about most on earth, and their deaths were probably too much of a blow.  She had isolated herself and had few friends, and had disconnected from the family.

The day after Ilona died, I went for a walk at Rancho San Antonio.  Walking along my favorite trail, I spied a tiny bird with bright red feathers completely unaware of my presence.  It was busy digging for worms or seeds, and seemed extraordinarily content with its simple task.  I wondered whether it was her spirit’s way of letting me know that she was all right.


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