In Memory of Karen E. M. Johnston

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay in our lives for awhile, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never ever the same.”
— Flavia Weedn

“Don’t cry,” Karen said to me, after she told me her doctor had given her two months to live. “I’m not afraid. I want to see my dad again.”

Funny that in this scenario, she should be the one comforting me. But it shouldn’t surprise me. Throughout the duration of her illness, this has been her refrain. “Don’t cry.” “Don’t cry.” “Don’t cry.”

And so I didn’t. For Karen’s sake, I swallowed my tears and I talked of my writing, about which she never failed to ask. I told her (and Stephanie and Sharon, with whom I often visited) how my kids were doing, and we reminisced about old times.

I saved my crying for later, when I was in the privacy of my own home. Because it’s one thing to be strong for someone with as much grace and dignity as Karen, even in the face of her own passing. It’s another, nearly impossible, task not to shed tears over the loss of someone so special.

Why is Karen E. M. Johnston so special? This is where my powers of writing fail me. I’m afraid, deep down to my bones terrified, I will never be able to do her justice. And so a big part of me doesn’t even want to try. That part wants to shut myself away and grieve in private, where my feelings and memories can’t be judged unworthy.

But I won’t. Because Karen would want me to try. She believed in my writing from the very first time she read it. Her faith in my abilities exceeded what I dared hope for myself. I think Karen would tell me not to be scared. To do my best, and that it would be enough.

More than anything else, Karen ¬†deserves to be remembered. For whatever small memories I or anyone else can contribute. And so, for one of the kindest and most beautiful individuals I’ve ever known, here goes:

I met Karen when we both volunteered as time-keepers for the pitch appointments at the WRW retreat. She had the shift after mine, and I was free to go after she arrived. After exchanging a few words with her, however, I was entranced. By her smile, her earrings, her scarves, her charm. Instead of leaving, I sat with her for the next hour, and we talked about everything from writing to family to life.

A few months later, I came across Karen’s contact information on an SCBWI database and emailed her to see if she would be interested in critiquing together. Now, you have to understand Karen had plenty of CPs. ¬†She was already meeting two other critique groups on a regular basis. All she had to do was explain the situation to me, and I would’ve understood. Instead, she offered to form a third critique group, just so I could be in it. When I protested she was already overextended, she laughed. “I love writers,” she said. “Who couldn’t use more writer friends?”

As a writer and CP, Karen was unparalleled. In addition to her published middle grade novels, she had wide-ranging interests, from YA to women’s fiction. She went to Wegman’s every single day, where she sat from 8am to 2pm, and dedicated herself to her craft. Her words made me laugh out loud, marvel at her wit, and choke back deeply-felt emotion.

When I was on the agent search, she dictated to me word-for-word what I should write in my correspondence. When I was in revision mode, she would be “on-call” for days at a time, where she would respond within five minutes to the ten or so scenes I would shoot her throughout the day.

The writer in Karen never left, even when she got sick. After she was diagnosed, she immediately came up with four new story ideas inspired by her brain tumor — one picture book, two women’s fiction, and one erotica. During the last two years, she wrote and queried a picture book, as well as continued to revise and resubmit one of her women’s fiction manuscripts. What’s more, even when she lost the use of her hands and could only read large-print material, she continued to serve as my critique partner, offering her wisdom on pitch paragraphs and story ideas and first chapters.

In the end, though, all these memories are just facts, and Karen is so much more than that. I think my daughter summed it up best.

Last summer, I took my kids to have lunch with Karen. Before we arrived, I said to my six-year-old: “Now, I don’t want you to be surprised. Karen’s been sick, so she might not look the same as a healthy person.”

But my warning proved unnecessary. Maybe it was because kids understand so much more than we give them credit for; maybe it was because, even at her young age, my daughter sensed something in Karen we all knew and loved. Maybe, like her mother, she was simply entranced. For whatever reason, over the course of the next two hours, she stood next to Karen’s wheelchair for long minutes at a time. Neither of them spoke. Neither engaged in busy work with their hands. They were just being together.

Afterwards, my daughter said to me, “Mommy, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Karen didn’t look sick; she was nice.”

I think, in one simple statement, my daughter captured Karen’s essence more thoroughly than I ever could. Because she wasn’t talking about Karen’s pleasant demeanor or her exceeding generosity — to which anyone who ever knew her can attest.

My daughter was getting at something else entirely. The intangible quality that is so hard to define. The spirit that made Karen who she was. The something so unique and powerful and beautiful in Karen E. M. Johnston even a six-year-old could pick up on it.

Karen, I will be forever grateful you have entered my life, however briefly. You move my soul to dance. You make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. You have left a footprint on my heart.

And I will never, ever be the same.

***

What footprints has Karen left in your heart? If you would like, please share.