Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Boxer, for Kelly -- jcarolek

The Boxer is the song I thought of as I was boxing up some goods today. It was the first song I learned to play on the guitar, and my friend Kelly taught me the chords. Thinking back on it, I find there is something interesting in the fact that this song was the first I learned from Kelly and the final stanza really defined her life better than even she could ever have known at age 16 when I was starting my love affair with the guitar.

"In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
til he cried out in his anger and his shame

I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
Yes he still remains."

Kelly was a fun, full of life girl. She was impatient for life to begin and after high school gave only a cursory try at college. She was smart and could have been anything she wanted to be, but she wanted to just live...she was burnt out on school. She got a job, got a jeep, got a dog and got a boyfriend. Life was good.

I, on the other hand, ran off to college, worked part-time jobs to help make ends meet, stacked up all of my credit hours so I could finish in 2 1/2 years instead of 4, and, well, I guess life was typical.

Some years passed and we saw each other less often. Just before my 24th birthday I received a phone call from another high school chum, Amy. Amy wanted to let me know that Kelly was very sick and was to undergo brain surgery the following day. She gave me the details and encouraged me to call.

Speaking to Kelly on the phone that night broke my heart. Her voice was high and shaky, that of a two-year old's. I wished her a successful surgery and called Amy back. It turns out that in the year or so since I had last seen Kelly, her life had taken a nose dive.

She had been employed as computer operator, and, in those days, that meant hanging computer tapes. Apparently, when she went to take a tape off the top rack, she would pass out. Other things started occurring...weight loss, loss of appetite. She went to the doctor. Testing apparently showed nothing unusual and she was diagnosed as being depressed. This was based on the fact that in the past year, her parents had divorced, her grandmother had died, she and her live-in boyfriend had broken up and her dog had been hit and killed. She was prescribed meds.

Things got worse rather than better and eventually Kelly was hospitalized...in the psychiatric unit. She was severely depressed and was wheelchair bound by this point. But always, always, she contended that she was depressed because she could not eat without throwing up, not that she was not eating because she was depressed. I'm certain it was horrible for her family to see this formerly extremely athletic woman, shriveled in a wheelchair.

She did not respond to the treatment/therapy at the hospital, and eventually, the doctors informed her parents they wanted to try shock therapy. Kelly pleaded with her parents to believe her...she was not psycho....she was physically sick. Her father called Johns Hopkins and they agreed to admit her.

That was a Monday night and they took with them the CAT scans originally taken at PG Community Hospital some two months earlier. In no time flat, the Johns Hopkins doctors were able to see the tumor on the brain stem of my friend. They wanted to put her through another scan, but she was not able to tolerate it. They decided she must undergo surgery the following day, or she would have not chance of survival. And they knew they were essentially going in "blind," not being able to see the current condition of the tumor's growth. They told her parents that the type of tumor Kelly had was one that is typically only seen in the elderly, and upon which they never operate...the risk of death in surgery is too great. They told her parents that if she survived, it was a high probability, it would be as a blind quadriplegic. But they had faith and signed the papers.

On Wednesday night Amy called to let me know that surgery had gone well, and that Kelly was awake and lucid. The doctors attributed her remarkable results to the fact that she was in such excellent physical condition before the onset of the tumor growth. She had been conditioning for the decathlon. Amy said I should call. I did. The little girl's voice I had heard a couple nights before now replaced with a much more grown-up sounding voice. An angry voice. "They SHAVED MY HEAD" she proclaimed!

Over the next four years, Kelly recovered, relapsed, had drains installed, took steroids, underwent more surgeries....the tumor kept growing back. She was adamant in each subsequent surgery that the doctors were only to shave the part of the head necessary. Each time I saw her, she had the quirky hair cut that was 10 years away from coming into style. She was PUNK.

Shortly before our 28th birthdays Kelly passed away. She had always been a fighter. And she lived every moment of her life, refusing to just lay down and die. She will always be in my mind when I play and sing, The Boxer.

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