I really wanted to hate Karyn Glick.
It would have been so easy. She was petite and pretty, with big, doe eyes and silky brown hair she wore in a stylish bob to her shoulders. She was also smart and interesting, she had a killer wardrobe, and you couldn’t help but look at her as she walked past. It wasn’t hard to imagine why she glittered among the elite bevy of “popular” kids in my class.
But she was so nice. Unlike some who reserved their attentions for a select few, Karyn was friendly with everyone – even me, not exactly an outcast but miles away from the popular scene. She talked to me a lot, in fact, to giggle about our teachers, or ask me about books or movies I’d seen. She even told me where she bought the adorable t-shirt dress I’d coveted from the moment I saw it. When I wrote a play for my English class, Karyn was one of the first people who volunteered to be in it, playing the role of (what else?) a Greek goddess.
I couldn’t envision my overweight, awkward self walking arm-in-arm with her and her fashionista friends.
Still, I figured our interaction would never extend past the walls of our school. I certainly couldn’t envision my overweight, mildly awkward self walking arm-in-arm with her and her fashionista friends through the Short Hills mall. What did we have in common, really, aside from the fact that we went to the same school? I enjoyed Karyn’s company when we were together, but I was hesitant to call us “friends”; probably, she was just being nice.
That year was the height of the social season for our class, with a stream of bar and bat mitzvahs almost every weekend. It wasn’t uncommon for us to stay up late at a party Saturday night, sleep over at someone’s house and then head out to another bash on Sunday afternoon. One day at school, Karyn leaned over to me in the middle of social studies.
“Are you going to the parties this weekend?”
“I think so,” I replied.
“And the one on Sunday, it’s at your synagogue, right?”
I remembered then that Karyn lived about 40 minutes away from where Sunday’s bar mitzvah would be. It would be a long shlep for her parents to drive after a late pickup the night before.
“You should sleep over,” I said, without thinking.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to pull them back. Was I crazy? Did I seriously think Karyn Glick would sleep at my house? It was humiliation waiting to happen. I could just picture her giggling about our exchange with her friends in the lunchroom: “And then – can you believe it?” she would say. “She asked me if I wanted to sleep over!” And they would all double over in fits of laughter, flashing perfect white teeth.
But Karyn said, “Okay.”
I was stunned.
And that was how I found myself at my kitchen table at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, dunking graham crackers into Swiss Miss with one of the most popular girls in school. But the strangest part about the whole thing was that it didn’t feel strange at all. Within just a few minutes, Karyn and I were laughing so hard we could barely keep the hot chocolate in our mouths. I quickly forgot that she was Karyn Glick and that I was me. We were just two girls up giggling too late on a Saturday night. Maybe we really were friends.
After that, Karyn and I chatted in class and waved to each other in the hallways, but we never had another sleepover.
In the spring, Karyn started missing school. A day here, a day there, and then she stopped coming altogether. The administration assembled our class to tell us that Karyn had been diagnosed with leukemia. She would be going through chemotherapy and radiation, and most likely a bone marrow transplant, because the disease had already progressed to the “blast” crisis stage. They didn’t tell us that chances of her recovery were slim – no one had survived her type of cancer before – but instead encouraged us to call her, to send her letters and even to visit, if her parents said it was a good day to come.
I wish I had called her. I wish I had gone to visit her. But I never did.
Looking back now, I wish I had called her. I wish I had written her a letter. I wish I had gone to visit her. But I never did. Partly, it was my fear of illness that kept me away – not that I would get sick, but that I would say the wrong thing and hurt her feelings. The other part was the fear that it would be intrusive of me to reach out; sure, we’d had a sleepover once and some friendly conversations in school, but were we really friends? I had thought so. But what if I was wrong?
Our Sages teach that one of the deeds for which we receive rewards in both this world and the world to come is bikur cholim, visiting the sick, because by doing so we remove one-sixtieth of the person’s illness. Though visiting a sick person does not guarantee a cure for their illness, the visit itself is a balm for the one in pain. Even just for the duration of the visit, they are relieved to some degree from knowing that someone cares enough to come and see them. It didn’t matter if she was popular and I wasn’t, or if we were officially “friends” or not, by neglecting to reach out to Karyn, I missed a much larger opportunity than I realized.
Less than a year after she was diagnosed, Karyn died. Her death affected me deeply, and I mourned her for a long time. Perhaps it was because she was young, like me. Perhaps it was because she had been so lively and real, and now she was gone. But I think it was because I had lost someone who I knew, deep down, had been a friend to me, yet I’d let fear stand in the way of being a friend back.
At the memorial ceremony, Karyn’s mother, Susan, told an incredible story about her daughter. The Make-a-Wish foundation had approached Karyn to offer her a special wish, reserved only for terminally ill children. Karyn smiled in response and told the woman, “Give my wish to someone who really needs it. I don’t have it so bad.” I understood then that Karyn had a wisdom that was well beyond her 14 years. She saw past the superficial to what was real. She looked at people, not for what they were, but for who they were. This was why although she was a “popular girl,” she never acted like one.
Four years later, I sat at an awards ceremony for my high school’s graduating class. I didn’t expect to win anything; my grades were laughably low. But one thing at which I had excelled was theater. I had starred in a number of productions at my high school and in regional shows, and loved being onstage. Yet my school didn’t have an award for that. The only art award they had was the “Karyn Glick Award,” which her parents had founded in her memory for students who were talented painters or artists.
Karyn’s mother, Susan, stood up to present the award. “This year would have been the year my daughter graduated with this class,” she told the audience, “so I am especially honored to give this award. Usually, we give it to students who have shown talent in the fine arts, but this year we’ve decided to make an exception. Instead, we will be giving the award to someone for achievement in the dramatic arts. Congratulations, Rea...”
The applause was like an electric shock bolting through my system. I shook with nerves as I headed up to the stage, my hands trembling as Susan reached out to hug me. “Mazel Tov,” Susan said into my ear. “Karyn always liked you.” Then she gave me a beautiful, handcrafted menorah plated with multi-colored glass, a one-of-a-kind piece from an artist in Israel.
The essence of the Hanukkah is to look past the external, to bring light into the darkness.
I was deeply touched, and at the same time, I felt the regret I’d been carrying for four years lift off my heart. Although I would have done it differently if I could, I got the sense, through this gift and her mother’s words, that I could forgive myself for not reaching out to Karyn when I had the chance.
I’ve lit candles on “Karyn’s” menorah every Hanukkah, and put it in a place of honor on my windowsill. The essence of the Hanukkah is to look past the external to the internal, to draw the spiritual out of the physical, and to bring light into the darkness. For me, there is no more fitting way to honor Karyn, who looked beyond the surface, than by lighting candles on my menorah, to make a connection, and to remember her.