Having just pulled an immaculate batch of chocolate chip cookies from the oven, Karen Parman stands in her kitchen and points to memories that seem to span nearly every feeling a person can experience. Uncontrollable laughter to unconditional love. Helplessness to hopefulness. Sadness to serenity. Devastation to magic. Even though it’s been 11 years since she conquered cancer, she recalls them with an eloquent grace that makes it feel as though they happened yesterday.
There’s the patch of ground where she fell to her knees and sobbed when the phone call came. Behind that door is the bathtub she washed dishes in for six weeks while caught in the middle of a remodeling project and radiation therapy. That’s the staircase on which her daughters, 6 and 8 at the time, painted her bald head when her hair finished falling out from chemo treatment.
“I had sideburns and all,” Parman recalls, looking as if she might smile, cry or anything in between. “They were very intent on the job they were doing,”
Her girls have since grown into beautiful teenagers and her hair into a charming gray she prefers to keep short for simplicity’s sake. Enough time has passed for Parman to go on living her life without the “C” word dominating her mind. But a unique opportunity to travel to Nepal next week to hike to Mount Everest Base Camp with a group of 13 other cancer survivors has given her a chance to revisit the effects that the disease has had on her life.
“Because I do not live my life in fear of cancer anymore, I don’t really give it a lot of thought,” Parman said. “But it is really good to focus again on all of the many, many blessings that are so apparent and that you just really realize when you’re going through that. You take more time to spend with people. You take time to tell people what they mean to you. You just do those things that in the normal, everyday activity get pushed aside.”
As her dogs bark, her horses neigh and the sunshine spreads over the Parmans’ small acreage, the 49-year-old breast cancer survivor launches into a pair of stories that prove life isn’t about fulfilling expectations, but rather about moments that you never quite see coming. One fills her eyes with tears. The other fills the kitchen with roaring laughter.
Karen Parman describes her husband as quiet, even stoic in a sense. Matt Parman describes himself as not-too-spontaneous. So as Karen sat on the couch during her second round of chemotherapy with vomit on her breath, rubbing her bald scalp and struggling to find joy in the Saturday morning cartoons like her children were doing, she was caught off guard when Van Morrison drowned out the animated conversation.
“Have I told you lately that I love you?” the song began as Matt walked into the living room while his wife and daughters’ heads slowly swiveled.
He set down Karen’s coffee, pulled her to her feet, took her fragile hand in his and started waltzing her all around the house. He kissed her hairless head, singing along to the lyrics as if they were his own words.
“I can remember at that moment thinking I’m never going to forget this, ever, because it was such a testimony of how much he loved me,” Karen says of the memory as her voice cracks. “But also because the girls saw it. The girls saw their dad doing that and showing their mom this love when I looked terrible. And I’m sure I had acted terrible that day because I felt terrible.”
Because he doesn’t dance very often, Matt says he remembers the moment just as clearly. “I know she felt helpless at times, but I think the spouse feels even more helpless,” he said. “You wanna help but you really know you can’t as far as making it go away.”
Based on the emotion Karen conveys when retelling the tale, the act was anything but helpless, and her pain disappeared for much longer than a song.
Shortly after Van Morrison’s voice faded, a letter came in the mail inviting Karen to her 20th high school reunion in Indiana. Even though she was known as the girl with a huge head of wild hair back then and she would be bald upon attendance having just finished her fourth and final round of chemo, she was going. Nothing a wig couldn’t fix, she thought. Little did she know as she and her husband headed east from Iowa what a story that wig would tell.
She laughed, she danced, she apologized for ever being mean to anyone and told each of her classmates why she admired them in high school. She completely ignored her husband, until the end of the night anyway.
Even though Karen didn’t want the evening to end, she couldn’t wait to get to the car to take off her itchy wig. Sitting in the passenger seat with her bare feet on the dashboard and scratching her bare head, she looked over at the husband she hadn’t spoken to all night.
“Wanna go parking?” he suggested.
“I’m thinking if my husband of sixteen years finds me remotely attractive at this point in time, you bet I wanna go parking,” Karen recalls. “Plus, it’s your high school reunion. Isn’t that what you should be doing?”
They drove past her parents’ house down a long lane leading to the woods. In high school she would’ve climbed over the back seat, she says, but not at 38. She got out of one door and back in another, oblivious of the wig which fell from her lap during the quick switch.
“Long story short, the next morning we say goodbye to my parents, we get in the car to leave and I go, ‘Where’s my wig?’” she tells as the laughter begins. “So I go back in the house and I’m looking everywhere. My mom, who was seventy at the time was like, ‘Well where is it? I don’t understand it. Where did you leave it?’ All of a sudden, I knew exactly where my wig was.”
She tried to tell her mother not to worry about it, but like a dog with a bone, she wouldn’t let it go.
“It’s in the woods,” Karen whispered.
“Oh, you two are terrible!” her mother blurted back.
Everyone in the room laughed hysterically as they still do to this day every time the story gets told.
Karen went searching. It was easy to spot in the daylight. She described it looking like a dead, wet rabbit in the middle of the lane.
“So that’s my wig story,” she says ten years later with a proud smile.
There’s nothing bigger than the little things.
Because of a .9-cm. tumor miraculously discovered by her nurse practitioner and the rounds of hell that ensued, Karen Parman has these stories to tell. The anecdotes don’t necessarily make it worth it, but the change in ideology might.
“She takes a lot more time to smell the roses now,” Matt Parman said. “Whether or not you want to learn these lessons, cancer teaches them to you.”
Karen calls her husband “her compass” and he’s done a lot more than dance and go parking to help his wife through tough times. She remembers her initial “pity party” in which she told Matt he didn’t understand that she had a disease that she would probably die of and would always worry about coming back.
“And he said, ‘And I could step off a curb tomorrow and get hit by a bus. What is your point? You have a life to live,’” Karen recounts. “And you know what, he was so right. And so that’s what we did.”
Traveling to Nepal and hiking toward Mt. Everest is not something Parman thought she would ever do, nor is it anywhere within her comfort zone. But next week she’ll be there, challenging herself, making new friends, creating new memories, and she is confident the journey will lead her to something she can’t even predict.
“I just think all of this is the process of God showing me what it is that I need to be doing with the rest of my life,” she says. “I need to go because what I need to see is the bigger picture of this world.”
The cookies have cooled after many stories and lessons have been shared in the Parmans’ kitchen. It becomes clear that these memories are born as small moments of the past and eventually grow into the most important particles that make up life without us really noticing when that transformation specifically occurs. More moments are soon to be made, especially for someone like Karen Parman who seems to seize her every minute, and those will turn magically into the memories of the future.
The phone rings. Karen answers. Her daughter asks if her mom has read her text. Karen hints that she hasn’t. She tells her child she loves her, hangs up and checks the message.
The mother of a friend has been in an accident. She is dead.
Karen gasps as she covers her mouth. All the words she’s spoken of living for the moment that day and decade are suddenly, sadly, shockingly validated.