Sunday, May 15, 2011

What Comes Around Goes Around

"Our deeds still travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are." ~Dr. Tan Keng Khoo; "As ye sew, so shall ye reap." ~ Jeremiah 1:19
      I contacted my friend Patty and asked if we could meet for lunch when she was next in town. I needed to talk to someone who had walked this same road; I needed the advice of a sister friend in whom I could safely confide my personal insecurities and in whose advice I could trust.
     We lunched at Swilly's on a cotton clouded overcast winter's day in December 2010. Patty took my hands across the table. With tears and a huge smile she said, "I am so happy for you Jaq. You deserve this, and from what you've shared with me, Les sounds like a wonderful human being, and a perfect fit for you." 
     With a knowing look in her eyes, Patty went on, "You know why this has happened to you don't you? This is KARMA in action. You brought Steve and me together and now all that joy and love is coming back to you."
© PGora-Mcravin, 2009
      If anyone knew my journey it was Patty. Her love story is entwined with mine, and ours are entwined with other love stories; an unbroken circle within a circle that spirals out across the world.... 
     Patty and her late husband John were both employed by Washington State University; he was a professor of Economics in the College of Business. She taught for the Women's Studies Program and advised for WSU's Distance Degree Programs. With their two children Todd and Elizabeth—nicknamed Lili--the Kraemers seemed to have a perfect American middle class life.
     Shortly after moving to Pullman from Washington DC in the 1990's, Todd suffered a series of ill health issues diagnosed as asthma and food allergies. The asthma and sinus infections were, the doctor's suggested, brought on and exacerbated by the heavy agricultural field burning which ringed the city of Pullman and the outlying Whitman County farm lands. A quarter of a million acres in Eastern Washington were burned, with over half of those acres in Whitman County alone. The burning produced toxic agricultural smoke containing carcinogenic toxins and dangerous PM 2.5 particulate matter from annual field burning.
     Not only did this practice cause asthmatics to suffer repeated bouts of breathing crises and serious secondary infections such as deadly pneumonia brought on by inhaling the toxic smoke, anyone with COPD or emphysema and heart problems was at risk, and the lives of children with Cystic Fibrosis were directly threatened by the practice. 
©, 2010
     At least nine people died in Eastern Washington and North Idaho over a dozen years as a direct result of toxic agricultural field burning by the practice of 125 farmers. Many others were injured or forced to flee their homes.
     Spurred to address the issue due to the repercussions to Todd's health, John and Patty became involved in a regional group seeking to end field burning. They filed a Federal Lawsuit in 1999 under the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act on of behalf of their minor son.
     "I had to think of new ways to keep my son Todd awake so I could administer the nebulizer treatment again. It had been two hours since his last treatment, and his cough was beginning to get worse, compromising his ability to get oxygen.
     'Honey, let's count in Spanish. You remember, uno, dos, tres? How about German? Ein, zwei, drei. Just one more breath on the nebulizer, sweetie. Do it for mommy, please?'
     I would plead like this with my son, every 2 hours around the clock, for 3 weeks at a time. His heart pounds so hard I can feel it as it beats against my hands, cradling him, trying to get enough medicine in him to keep him alive. 
     I'd sleep next to him, so that his coughs would wake me. Sometimes, we'd have to make a spreadsheet to track the 14 medications he needed. We had good insurance but some weeks it would cost $100 even with co-pays. He is healthy when field burning stops."
Ag. field burning near Pullman WA © buffalogirl prod.
     The dark plumes of smoke generated by field burning blotted out the sun and hung suspended in the air for days and sometimes weeks at a time over a period of summer and early fall months, keeping anyone who was adversely affected by it from leaving their homes for groceries, medical care, or school. 
     The toxins in the smoke effectively prohibited those most at risk from using federally funded roads, libraries, and accessing education. The suit ended up in mediation which resulted in allowing the practice to continue with regulations taking into consideration time and space conditions in a manner which would no longer hospitalize or kill any more citizens.
     In October of 2001 Patty began working full time for a North Idaho non-profit begun by a majority of local concerned physicians seeking legal action on the deadly health consequences of agricultural field burning. I was hired to replace Patty as an advisor with WSU's Distance Degree Programs. I inherited her three hundred and fifty students and carried on in her footsteps.
     Early in the fall of 2004 John began to feel like he had an ongoing case of the flu which he could not shake. Doctors were unable to pinpoint the cause of his issues which were centered on his gut, so they prescribed massive doses of antibiotics. John continued to teach at University and work on field burning issues in spite of his pain and lack of energy.
     Early in November of 2004 he was admitted to the ER with severe abdominal pain. A CT scan showed nothing and John was sent home armed with another prescription for antibiotics. In mid November a severe attack sent him back to the ER. Another CT scan was taken.
     Patty and John were told the results were inconclusive. They asked John's physician if this could be cancer. The doctor said it was a possibility and scheduled a colonoscopy for the next day, after which John was told he had the worst case of Crohn's disease the doctor had ever seen. 
     With a prescription for Remicade--a drug which costs about $10,000 but is covered by most American health insurance companies--John was dosed intravenously before leaving the hospital.
    A few short weeks later another bout of severe abdominal pain brought John back to the ER and his internist insisted on a bowel resection surgery, assuming Crohn’s disease had caused a bad section of gut.
     Unknown to either John or Patty the attending surgeon was aware John's abdomen was full of cancer of unknown origin which quickly metastasized--the second CT scan was conclusive with notes by the radiologist indicating cancer had appeared to fill John’s abdomen, and his doctor didn't disclose this to them.
     After surgery the attending surgeon told Patty in the waiting room that John was completely full of inoperable and untreatable cancer which had metastasized all through his body. He angrily refused to help tell John this news and suggested to Patty that it was useless and would be "too expensive" to feed and hydrate her husband; the surgeon left it to Patty and her twelve year old daughter Lili to give John the gruesome news--he had two days to two weeks to live.
     John's physician, in an attempt to save his own ass, referred them to Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Washington in order to have a consult with a doctor who had pioneered a way that might deliver enough chemo to keep John alive for six more months.
     It was a long shot. Flying out of Pullman shortly before Thanksgiving, John arrived at Virginia Mason with the hope this treatment could buy him more time to be with his family.
     On John and Patty's 19th wedding anniversary Oncological surgeons at Virginia Mason told them nothing could be done for John--he had two weeks max. The plan was to take John home and let him die in his own bed, but he threw an embolism on December second and could not be moved. John died in hospital on December 10th, 2004 with Patty at his side.
     In the same hospital, on the same floor, Monica Jones was receiving toxic chemotherapy treatments for bile duct cancer. She had undergone twelve and half hours of surgery and would endure three years of ongoing chemo treatment with a brief remission before cancer returned to stalk her.
     During that time her husband Steve continued working full time to keep their health insurance and fund the expenses that come with a life threatening illness in America. He paid for trained Certified Nurse's Assistants to provide Monica the attention she needed at home where he could help care for her.
     Steve held down the fort for their seven children and took out a second mortgage on their home to provide Monica with money to travel back to Germany to visit family and fund a trip for the two of them on an Alaskan cruise to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. After a three year battle, Monica died in 2006 at Virginia Mason Medical Center from the cancer and the chemo. 
     My job required me to travel to the West side of Washington twice a year to meet students in person. February 12th 2007 found me in Port Angeles, Washington at the local community college staffing a table for Student Advising and Recruiting Day.
     The Director of Recruitment and Student Training walked slowly across the room to my table. As I watched him approach I became aware of his aura which was pulled tightly over him, thick and gray like a raincoat. This was an angry, lonely, inconsolable man.
     After a curt introduction, Steve Jones demanded of me in an accusatory tone, "Whatever happened to Patty Kraemer? She used to visit my school every year, and she would borrow my office to meet with our students. I liked her. She had a great sense of humor and we used to laugh, we did. Then all of sudden she stopped coming on visits."
     I explained to Steve that Patty took the job of her dreams in 2001, working to overturn agricultural burning in Washington and Idaho; that I was hired in her place and the same year budget cuts forced WSU Distance Degree Program advisors to stop traveling to community colleges. We didn't simply stop visiting his school--we stopped visiting any schools.
     "Hmm, well all right, it was nice meeting you. I've got students I need to advise. If you see Patty tell her Steve Jones said hello." Without further conversation he turned away from my table stooped forward as though he carried an enormous weight on his shoulders.
     At that very moment I heard a voice say, "Tell him about Patty." Looking around there was no one nearby. I shrugged to myself uncomfortably. I couldn't divulge my friend's grief to this stranger--I didn't know him and he was such a bitterly unhappy person...again came the summons only louder and followed by what I can only describe as a feeling of being struck on the back of my head--by what I know not as there was no one behind me, but I felt it nonetheless: "TELL HIM ABOUT PATTY!!!"
     I blurted out, "Patty's husband died of cancer some time back." Steve froze in his tracks, turned slowly and lifted his head to look at me, his gaze piercing mine. Walking back towards me he stopped again in front of my table and said, "My wife died from cancer last year."
     We stared at one another a very long minute. I waited, knowing something larger than myself was unfolding. 
     "Do you have her phone number? I'd like to get in touch with her."
     "I don't have it on me, but when I get back home I will find it and email you. Let me get your email address and phone number." Steve handed me his business card, thanked me in his soft southern drawl and ambled away, standing a bit taller.
     Tuesday, February 14th, back in my office in Pullman, I called Patty and told her about meeting Steve. I gave her his contact information knowing that I had done my part in whatever drama was about play out in their lives.
     Patty called Steve and left a voice mail message saying "Isn't this awful? It feels terrible and if you want to talk please give me a call." Leaving her phone number and email address, Patty hung up and waited to hear back. Six weeks went by. Steve was driving home from work one evening and he heard a voice in his head say, “Steve why haven't you called that nice lady back?"
     Patty was in her living room working at her computer in the early evening dark when the phone rang. It was Steve. They had an amazing conversation that seemed to last for hours about survival in the aftermath of widowhood and how the experience pulled the rug of life out from underneath them both.
     Patty told me later, "It was the first time since John's death that I felt humanly connected to someone else--that I didn't feel like an outcast from the human race."
     I had known how hard John's death hit Patty. She nearly died from her grief. It was only the needs of her children combined with a ton of support from the close knit Pullman community that helped her survive.
     A very experienced Hospice volunteer providing bereavement counseling to her told me that Patty was her most challenging client ever because she recognized how close to death Patty came in her grief over the loss of John. The volunteer knew Patty might choose death over life and there was nothing to be done to change her choice--all the volunteer could do was accompany Patty on the journey.
     Grief taught my friend why people in times past wore dark armbands and dressed in black for long periods of time. It was a signal to the community that the grief- stricken person could not be approached and dealt with like everyone else. It was a sign that this person was on a separate path and they needed to be treated with loving kindness and care.
Couer d'Alene Classic Car Show, ©
   Steve and Patty began calling one another regularly and their phone conversations became longer and longer. Finally they met in June of 2007 in Spokane for their first date. They each booked rooms at the same hotel, but on different floors. Patty knew Steve was a vintage car enthusiast. A classic car rally was being held that weekend in nearby Coeur d' Alene, Idaho.
     She packed a picnic lunch and they huddled in the cool, early June weather on the beach at Lake Coeur d' Alene, laughing and talking as he held her legs in his lap, rubbing them briskly to warm them.
     That evening they had dinner at Ella's Jazz Supper club. Everything went fine until the vocalist began singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"--John's favorite song compilation for his beloved daughter Lili, who loved the Wizard of Oz--which also turned out to be Monika's favorite as well.
     Steve and Patty survived their awkward moments--each of them having been with no one else but their spouses for several decades. Finding themselves back in the "Dating Game" was the very last thing they ever expected and of course the rules of personal relationships had changed drastically in the intervening decades as I myself was about to experience in the not so distant future.
    Over the ensuing months Steve and Patty propped each other up, secure in the knowledge that their kindred hearts traveled the same path together now toward the land of the living--no longer merely treading water alone.
     Steve proposed to Patty in July of 2008. I asked her how she knew it was right. She replied, "I had a laundry list of twenty things I thought would keep us from marrying; the main one being that I had two children I had to raise and I felt it was my responsibility to raise them.” Steve overturned every item on her list.
     With respect to her children he said, "I am all in Patty--I'm all in. I've raised seven children. 'I'll do anything to give Todd and Lili a good a life--and to give them back their mother."
     Patty realized Steve was a man who lived a life of highest integrity and love. His was a spacious heart "with enough room for me and all my personal struggles with room to spare; I realized with him everything would be all right. He meets me where I am; he fascinates me and challenges me--but in a gentle way that helps me grow."
     Steve’s commitment to Patty, Todd, and Lili showed in his actions.
     Patty lived in Pullman, Washington, nine miles from the Idaho state border. Steve lived in Spanaway--on the West Side of Washington State. He drove six hundred miles almost every weekend for two years in order to be with Patty and her children, nurturing a tenuous relationship with another man's kids--who were not keen on him or the idea of their mom marrying someone else.
     Theirs was the grief of childhood's loss; the loss of a parent and their family as they had known it. It took a long time for Todd and Lili to move through the stages of grief. Steve supported them in any way he could--any way they allowed--until he finally won them over with his spacious heart.
      In August of 2007 Steve and Patty called me and asked if they could treat me to lunch while they were both in town. At the restaurant they sat across from me holding hands. Each of them reached across the table and took one of my hands. Steve looked me in the eye and said, "We were told of your cancer diagnosis and we want you to know that if you decide to have treatment on the West Side we will be there to support you. You can stay at my house and I will personally drive you to your treatment sessions. We've both been on this trip Jaq and we know what you are facing. We will do everything in our power to support you."
     There were no dry eyes at the table that day. I was so deeply touched I had no words. It was totally unexpected and left me weeping in gratitude for the phenomenal gift of friendship…     
Beautiful! © PGora-Mcravin 2009
     I attended Patty and Steve’s wedding March 14, 2009 and had the honor of making their wedding cake. A glorious confection of lemon cake and Lemon Italian Buttercream Frosting with fresh raspberries soaked in Eau d' Vie d' Framboise in between the layers, my favorite oldest daughter Jesse--a trained pastry chef—worked with me; I baked the cake and made the frosting and she decorated it beautifully.
     At the church I was introduced to Steve's children and grandchildren as the woman who brought Steve and Patty together. They welcomed me with hugs and a certain level of respect. At the reception we danced, ate and celebrated with a mighty joy.
     Patty emailed me on the Winter Solstice two months before Dear Sir was due to arrive in my arms. 
From: Patty Kraemer
To: Jaqueline Almdale
Sent: Tues 12/21/2010
Subject: Checking in...
     And since you and I are now the best experts around on true love....I had to tell you this story. Steve came home from work last night with a big bouquet of flowers in his hands for me. He always finds those stargazer lilies whose fragrance I adore.
      He told me that a young student from work, Andrew, had talked to him that day. Andrew told Steve about how he was about to propose to his love this Christmas, and Steve described how Andrew pulled out a few rather ill-suited little bands to display.
      He asked Steve if he thought the young lady would actually say yes, seeing his meager offering of betrothal. Steve just said, "I got you covered, man."
      He remembered that there was a sweet three diamond ring that he'd gotten Monika the Christmas before she died, when she was on chemo. She didn't really ever wear the ring. And none of the daughters had claimed it.
      Steve just offered that ring to his student so Andrew could make the sort of proposal he felt his sweetheart deserved. I was so moved by that I just cried with happiness. Steve is just the dang sweetest and most romantic man I ever laid eyes on. (Of course, I haven't met Les yet!). I can hardly wait to hear how Andrew's proposal goes. And so, true love keeps on coming and growing. And embracing us all.
 Love Patty

From: Patty Kraemer
To: Jaqueline Almdale
Sent: Monday 01/17/11
Subject: Cool news...
      You remember that I told you that Steve had given the ring to Andrew to propose to his girlfriend? Well, she accepted! She's thrilled. And guess what? The ring fit her PERFECTLY. True love rules!
      They both love hiking and backpacking, so he took her on a hike near Leavenworth and had the ring and box in the snow for her to discover.
      They came by today to show Steve and thank him again. That was truly my Christmas gift this year. I hope you and Les and all the kids had a good holiday. February is just around the corner!
 Love Patty

Post Script:
Patty is ordained and will be officiating at our wedding. Steve will walk me up the path and stand with me as a part of the community that supports me as I choose to come forward and marry Les. And the circle of love grows, an unbroken circle within a circle that spirals out across the world....

Patty & Steve: A kiss to build a dream on


  1. Wow Jaq, that is SO sweet! I am SO delighted for you I briefly reevaluated my position on romance! Came back to the same position but I evaluated nevertheless . . .
    The cancer component is chillingly familiar though. What the medical community did to Val came back in living color, and STILL makes me cry. It is not an easy thing, escorting a loved one to the veil, particularly when there are children here who make it difficult for them to travel in that direction. I guess I am grateful though that the medical community gave me a direction in which to direct and exercise my anger. To this day I cannot comprehend the reason for sending a clearly terminal patient for a mammogram.

  2. Thanks Little Woman! I am delighted you reconsidered your position on love and romance--even if only for a moment; sometimes that is all it takes!

    (I have no doubt if the right man for you became available you too would follow love's lead. It would be the sensible thing to do and you are nothing if not imminently sensible.)

    After all I was the MOST unlikely candidate most of us know to do such a thing. I still have friends reeling at the idea I am willing to give up a single book--much less nearly my entire library to live on a boat with a man!! :)

    What you did for Val and her daughter Shelby was a heroic act of love and friendship. Everyone deserves a good death--especially if their life has been hard. Val could go knowing her child was in good hands--the same hands that cared for her until her last breath. I am blessed to call you my heart sister and my friend.
    I love you,