Have you ever had a friend whom you could tell the most intimate secrets of your life? I’m not speaking of these couples who say that their spouses are their best friends. Many of us would concede that this is an impossibility.
Could those claiming their spouses are their best friends tell them that they find another person sexy, amazingly attractive, and that they dream about a special time with that person. Absolutely not as this would damage their current relationship. They might share their fears and their uncertainties with their spouses – if the spouse is patient, empathetic, willing to listen.
Research in communication shows that many American men are not. Women, on the other hand, tend to be listeners, so as women, we turn to other women. Even so, we have few best friends. And one of mine is Dr. Karen LaRoe Williams.
When I met Karen, her husband Joe had recently been killed in a single-car crash returning home from work. With two small children Karen had major decisions to make, and with the financial and emotional support of her in laws, Joe and Harriet West, she enrolled at Urbana College. I was a young faculty member there.
We became friends and then best friends. As best friends we shared our secrets and our aspirations. I left Urbana to become dean of a community college and then president. From there, I traveled to Texas, California, and Missouri as opportunities for top positions were offered to me.
Karen understood my path, my work, and my philosophy. Few ever understand the life of a college CEO, and relatives referred to me as a teacher when I was chancellor of a California college that enrolled over 40,000 students in credit and non-credit classes!
Karen wanted to be a college CEO, too, so she earned a doctorate in education, became an administrator and realized her dream when she was chosen as a CEO of a West Virginia college.
We both were in first one state and then another as we pursued our careers, but the distance was never too great for a plane trip, and we met at conferences.
When Karen was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she was reluctant to put a name to the disease and felt that with superior medical care, she’d beat it. I read about the disease and was not as optimistic as she was. Each time I met her, she’d ask, “Can you tell a difference ?” Could I? Yes. The tremors, the tightening of the facial muscles, the changes in her gait. Karen loved to talk, to debate, and soon those skills began to weaken and were gone.
My response was always to her, “Absolutely not.”
We talked often about the concept of death with dignity, the religion of our youth, and we had very different points of view on both.
She had a dream, and I initially embraced it, too. We and our closest friends would live in cottages on a big farm with a lake in our later years. And the unexpected happened. Some of those friends began to die. One, Veteran Army Master Sergeant Jean Holland, had special skills we needed. As I cried at her funeral in Urbana in September of 2016, I thought of Karen.
I knew I’d be no good on a farm: I’d be the one to sit and read as I’ve never had any luck with even a simple tomato plant, and my cooking skills are dreadful.
Karen was the farm girl, knew all about it from her parents’ farm in southeastern Ohio although she had long ago given up plowing and fertilizing for designer suits and fancy shoes.
She pictured herself as a stately woman, going to the pond to feed the ducks, supervising farm workers because she knew exact when to plant and when to reap. She took great pride in her physical strength, her knowledge of the natural world.
In spite of the best medical care and an attentive, intelligent, loving husband, Karen’s decline continued and she continued to resist: fishing, boating, exercising, golfing traveling, gardening.
The end is near now and our conversations have gone from unintelligible words to silence. May Karen rest in peace. As my secrets, my fears, my doubts go with her, may I come to peace with losing her.