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Bonded by blood; friends by choice

Today's my cousin Karen's birthday. Of all my 42 first cousins, some of whom have now passed, Karen is the closest, though among the farthest in distance - about 1300 miles. When we talk by phone, a couple of times a month at least, our conversations usually go on for a couple of hours, and we check up on each other frequently by text. But I miss her face - which I haven't seen in person since 2019 - close to a year before COVID changed everything. How I would love to sit together today for a few hours, sharing a bottle of wine, chatting and laughing, barely pausing for breath.

When I was a kid, Karen was one of my three same-age girl cousins who hung out together when the massive Tingley family came together in the southeast corner of Kansas. She was the oldest and I was the youngest, and for some reason that year and a half age difference made her the smartest and most beautiful of the lot, wither dad's smooth olive skin, striking eyes, and deep dimples. She lived in California, and I was a military brat who moved all the time, so I didn't see her frequently, but I admired her from afar and was maybe a little intimidated by what I saw as her vastly superior maturity and wisdom. Her dad, my uncle Glen, and my dad were very close in age, the youngest of eight children, and joined at the hip. Uncle Glen had an extraordinary sense of humor - the only one of the kids who inherited my Grandpa's prominent schnoz instead of the short, slightly wide, turned up nose my grandma bestowed upon the rest of the kids. We all loved him, and Karen adored him. I can't imagine the shock and grief she felt when he died suddenly in his early 50s.

But by the time Uncle Glen died, we were all grownups with families and careers and mortgages, and as adults, we cousins had drifted apart, so I didn't reach out to Karen as I should have. I'm not sure I even knew her address. Her life had taken a far different path than mine. She was a teen mom in the late 60s, married too young and working just to get by, while I was partying in college with barely a care in the world. She took a step many young women at that time were afraid to take, getting out of a bad marriage and taking on the world by herself with a young child to support. She eventually got a job on

the bottom rung of the Microsoft ladder, gradually building an admirable career. During those years, she met the love of her life, a good lookin' guy named Bob, and raised a stunning daughter who went on to become a nurse. Karen and Bob were inseparable, completely devoted to each other and living a comfortable life. I only saw them a couple of times during those years - once at a family reunion in Kansas and once when my mother and I were visiting her family near Fresno; Karen and Bob flew down in his small plane from the bay area to spend a few hours catching up.

I had totally lost touch with Karen when, in 2006, our cousin, Phyllis (about whom I wrote in another blog post), contacted us to see if we were interested in a nationwide Tingley family reunion in Hot Springs, Arkansas. We agreed with enthusiasm, thinking we would meet and party with lots of fascinating, distantly related cousins from all over the country. The group, however, consisted of about 25 people, the most interesting of whom were an elderly hard-of-hearing couple with whom we exchanged notes to communicate. The three of us, though, had a fabulous time, catching up and laughing nonstop, vowing to make this a tradition - meeting for a few days every year or so, in a new place. And for several years we did just that - vacationing in California, Texas, Kansas, Michigan, and Colorado - and regularly exchanging long newsy emails between visits. I loved visiting Karen's gorgeous Spanish-style home in a San Diego suburb. It was spacious, airy, decorated impeccably, and planted right in the middle of a fragrant orange grove.

Karen and Bob lived a beautiful life in early retirement - traveling, socializing, and living comfortably in their dream house. I was a bit envious. But ten years ago, in late 2022, Bob was diagnosed with cancer - a shock to me, since he was exceptionally fit for a man in his 60s, who took care to eat right and exercise regularly. As his primary caretaker, I knew Karen was scared and exhausted - he had difficulty accepting that his on-the-go lifestyle had been shattered by a giant sledgehammer with the letter C on it. But the doctors were optimistic that he was improving after his chemo regimen, so they both looked forward to his recovery. Unexpectedly though, when Bob developed an uncontrollable nosebleed that landed him in the hospital, within a couple of weeks that saw both their birthdays, he was gone. It was a shock to Phyllis and I, who flew to her home for a few days to offer our support and comfort. Karen was devastated. In a matter of months, she had gone from living her best life with her soulmate to abruptly facing a future without her beloved other half.

Climbing out of the hole in her heart that was created by Bob's passing was especially hard for my

cousin. Her immediate family was small - just her daughter, son-in-law, and two grown grandsons, whom she didn't get to see often. She immediately found herself in a situation that I'm sure all widows face - feeling like a fifth wheel in a group of coupled-up friends. In the midst of her intense grief, though, she sought relationships with other single women and bought a small vacation home in the mountains of Northern California, close to old and dear friends from the days she and Bob had lived in the Bay Area. Eventually, she undertook the gargantuan task of selling her large home for a smaller one in another community outside San Diego. She had some serious setbacks after that move - both knee and hip surgeries kept her housebound for months, and just when she had begun to feel like getting out and about and making plans to travel again - COVID. Karen is the only person I know who has not had COVID - and with good reason. I have never seen anybody who was so careful NOT to get it - taking every measure one could possibly take, and more, to avoid getting it. Like many, especially our age, it is still in the back of her mind when she goes out among people, though she is gradually becoming comfortable mingling with groups of people. Friends and family tell her she's being over-cautious. But I'm convinced that Bob's brief illness and unexpected passing has left Karen with a residual trauma that she contends with every day, along with the grief that, while others have moved on and forgotten, is her constant companion.

Our cousin Phyllis died a couple of years ago, so our threesome will never again take those girl trips, but when Karen is comfortable with flying, I'm hoping we can meet again in an exciting new place. We share a special bond, like the siblings neither of us has ever had. Our daily lives are very different. I am surrounded by people every day and sometimes long to be alone, and she is alone most of the time and always happy to have company. I still see her as beautiful and wise and have confided secrets to her that nobody else knows. I have been the recipient of her generosity numerous times. The topic of our talks range from family and friends, to health (too much), to politics and the economy, to pets, to home decor, and pretty much everything in between. I can count on her to cheer me up when I'm down, and I can always make her laugh when she has the blues. We just never run out of words.

I wonder if our fathers, now long gone from this earth, have gotten together and channeled their attachment vibe to their daughters. I'll ask them when I see them again. In the meantime we'll continue to be two old ladies who love and support each other across the miles. I take comfort in that, as I hope she does. And I'll always see her as wiser and more beautiful.

Happy birthday, Cuz!! I miss your face!


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