Kenna Sue Groebe was a woman’s woman. She was the most attractive woman in our small group of friends at church. Yet she had simply horrible luck with men. This gave her a humility that made her as easy to love as butter sliding off a hot knife.
We all had children the same age. Instead of trying to find babysitters we just brought our kids together to play and enjoyed each other while they were playing. Every year at Christmas we would gather at my house late Christmas Eve. The kids would play while we enjoyed a glass or two of wine. A few came without the kids because there was always that shared custody thing with the ex-husbands. And I think it helped that the women, at least, were together to share the evening even when their kids were away. Laughter would pour from all corners of the house. As 11 o’clock approached we would pile into our cars and leave for worship. It was the most magical night of the year for us.
I remember one bitterly cold Christmas Eve when Kenna either didn’t have a good coat or her car was not running. It was one of those occasions where you could feel really sorry for yourself. Yet all I could see in Kenna was her excitement in being among friends at times like that, when you’re alone and broke. This is when good friends shine through the cloudy cold night like the Christmas Star.
Kenna died of cancer—as they say, “after a long and courageous fight.” The cancer started in her breast and eventually spread, the way cancer does, to the places that make life hell and eventually kill you. Her friends knew what kept her alive. She had a teenaged daughter and Kenna was waiting for her to finish high school. I think she lasted only a few months after that.
Her friends walked alongside with her while she was sick. Some took her to the doctor and chemo. Some delivered lunch. Some cleaned her house. Some bandaged the sores on her back that she couldn’t reach. Some listened to her questions late at night on the telephone; questions women ask without embarrassment like “Will I get to meet Cary Grant in heaven?” And there was still laughter in those times. Linda and Jan spent one dark night trying to coax her cat out of the bushes when they accidentally let it out while cleaning. I still love to hear them tell the story because they are notorious for their indifference to, if not actual distaste for, cats. And the cat knew it. There was no way that cat was coming out of the bushes. Kenna was in the hospital and it was her favorite cat. It’s stories like that that women love to tell and re-tell.
After about 4 or 5 years of fighting the cancer Kenna arrived at her last night on earth. When Kit called me to come she told me this was it.
When the end came for her, we were all there: the Christmas Eve party friends, others she had made at her daughter's school and in the neighborhood. There were so many of us that we had to rotate between the room and the waiting area as we watched her struggle for each breath. The nurse cautioned us that even though she appeared unconscious we couldn’t really be sure. It was possible that she could still hear and understand us right up until the moment of death. With this in mind we sought out comforting conversations to have there in the room. There is a gentleness about death when women are attending it. As our vigil wore on into the morning we spent time softly reminiscing over our friendship with Kenna. We told stories about kids, husbands, childhoods…stories women tell when they are together. Quiet stories in a dark room.
I think everyone has their own particularly long and boring story that they tell many times over. They know it’s boring but they tell it anyway just to relive the story in their own minds. It was 2a.m. and we had pretty much come to the limit of what we had to say. Even women can run out of things to say. I came to my own boring story.
I started out with “I know I’ve told Kenna this story before…” and in fact, I had indeed told it far too many times to her. I was two sentences along when she stopped her labored breathing. Her body relaxed. A small dot of foam gathered at the corner of her mouth. Eleanor lovingly dabbed it with a Kleenex. But someone else realized what had happened and rang for the nurse while still another ran down the hall to the nurse’s station.
And all this time, may God have mercy on me, I’m looking around the room and thinking, “Wait, don’t you want to hear the rest of my story?”
None of us had ever seen anyone die. It was so peaceful yet it still brought about an enormous sense of panic. Once the nurses had made the final pronouncement our minister led us in prayer. Her friends filled the room as we held hands in shock and disbelief.
It wasn’t until months later when the shock had worn off that I realized the last thing Kenna heard before she died was me winding up to tell my story. I realized to my horror that she probably thought something like “Oh my God! Do I have to listen to this boring story again?” And God, with all the gentleness in the universe, answered her prayer.