Smalls Unplugged: A long-overdue update

There is always a strange mix of emotions whenever I happen to make my way back here. Like walking the digital side streets in a virtual ghost town of what was once my very own relatively bustling corner of cyberspace, there is a nostalgic familiarity that comes with any trip down memory lane, but so much has changed in the 3+ years since I’ve been around, it’s almost unrecognizable. Gone are the albums of outdated pictures, links to friends’ websites and the list of things I miss most. Also noticeably absent is the steady stream of visitors. The eclectic hodgepodge of lurkers, stalkers, well-wishers and shit-talkers whose web hits came in waves reaching into the tens of thousands per week when the site briefly went viral has all but disappeared, save for a trickle of former readers passing through to see what’s new — only to leave disappointed, I’m sure. Hell, the web address isn’t even the same anymore.

The words are still here, but even they seem oddly flat. My initial thought was that it might be the dull font or maybe the lame default theme causing everything I read here to ring somewhat hollow upon review, but there was a sense that it was something a bit deeper. On further inspection, or perhaps a little introspection, the difference became obvious: it’s not so much that the blog has changed, I have.

It’s true. The man in front of this computer screen today bears little resemblance to the guy who last posted on this blog a few years back. Rendered a veritable shut-in by an unrelenting cycle of medical issues and depression, tethered to a laptop as the only means of contact with the outside world and living vicariously through whatever sporting event, reality programming or political spectacle happened to be on TV, life as I knew it had ground to a mortifying halt. Fast forward to the present and you’ll find a man more or less unplugged from the matrix. I am back out in the real world and living life in a way I never could have imagined for myself when I got hurt. I recently bought a house and am living independently with the help of a team of caregivers and an annoyingly adorable service puppy-in-training named Hank. I have quite a few more scars with insane stories to match, but also a couple of tattoos with crazy stories themselves. Most importantly, I am healthier than ever and have a better grasp of who I am and what I want to do than I have had at any point in my life.

As you can probably imagine, a dramatic change like that doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye. Like the tornado that swept Dorothy up from the black-and-white fields of Kansas and dropped her into the Technicolor dream world of Oz, it took a dizzying whirlwind of life experiences to lift me out of the toxic fog I was mired in. And while it goes without saying that I would not be anywhere close to where I am right now without the help of one of the most amazing networks of family and friends a man could ask for — many of whom have been highlighted on this very website — the catalyst is someone you have not yet read about; a woman I’ve been trying to write about since this blog’s inception, but was never able to find words that could quite do her justice. Her name was Kristen. She was my wife.

Our story is an epic one about two people that grew up in adjacent towns, went to rival high schools and ran in similar circles yet never crossed paths until a snow skiing accident lands him in the rehab unit where she works as a nurse. She becomes his saving grace in the hospital and a friendship quickly forms, but they part ways not long after he is discharged, maintaining only sporadic contact over the years. It’s not until she wanders back into his life six years later to help him heal a wound that kept him in bed for 2 ½ years that they both realize that their bond is far deeper. She helps him see that he’s not as broken as he thought, he shows her what it means to be truly loved and adored and, together, they embark on a roller coaster ride of life with all its magical highs but also its tragic lows. She watches him flatline in the emergency room after a series of infections make it to his bloodstream causing cardiac arrest and he watches her struggle with the cunning, baffling and powerful disease of addiction, but they never give up on one another. Instead they take the challenges head-on, knowing full well that the odds are stacked against them, living the words “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health” in a way few seldom do. As much as I would like to end the fairytale above with the standard “… and they lived happily ever after,” that isn’t what happened. I’m sorry to say that while I survived my illness, she was not so lucky, succumbing suddenly and tragically to an accidental overdose last November, less than 2 1/2 months after our wedding.

One of the unfortunate things about life, and even more so in death, is that people often come to be defined by their mistakes and character flaws, especially when the wildly misunderstood disease of addiction is involved. That won’t be the case for Kristen. Yes, she struggled with an ugly disease that ultimately took her life, but she was also a beacon of light and love to all those lucky enough to come in contact with her, no matter how briefly. Since her passing I have heard countless stories of her impact on her patients and their families. Parents of medically fragile children she cared for as a pediatric intensive homecare nurse talk about how much easier life was when she was working; how she helped them, in her words, “do life” despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges they saw in front of them and how, if only for a single shift, their family experienced a level of normalcy they’d long since given up hope for. I know that story well, because I have lived it and then some.

The nurse that literally took me off the ventilator almost 9 years ago became the soulmate who taught me how to look past my fears and insecurities surrounding my disability and showed me that a wheelchair doesn’t mean I have to be merely a spectator in this game I call life. She reignited the fire inside me, the intensity I once wrote about so many years ago but had long since lost touch with. She taught me how to love and be loved without condition or expectation, and showed me that the only way to do life is on life’s terms, not my own.

She took that list of things I miss most that people found so poignant and effectively dumped it on its head. Her hands replaced mine, whether we were playing boardgames with friends and family or chasing an elusive booger in my nose. She proved that I could still have spontaneity by developing an organized system that made packing for impromptu road trips a snap. And 15 minutes of her lead footed road rage cured me of any nostalgia I may have harbored for sitting in traffic, that’s for damn sure.

Now I have a whole new list of things I miss most that all revolve around her. There’s her breathtaking smile, sick sense of humor and contagious laugh; the way she fit perfectly in my lap and would high-five me on the forehead as we shared a plate of food while people-watching at our favorite restaurant; her insistence on wrapping my Christmas presents even though I couldn’t open them; her irrational fear of spiders and equally confounding (at least to me) celebrity crush on Kid Rock. I could go on and on but, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m trying my best to focus on how profoundly grateful I am for having her as long as I did.

It’s been exactly one year since I lost Kristen and the gaping hole in my heart is just as big as the day she died. And though the pain is immense, I know that that hole is only there because I was loved by a truly remarkable woman whose impact as a nurse, daughter, sister and friend will be felt for lifetimes to come. That she chose to focus such a large part of her light and love on yours truly in her final two years makes me the luckiest man on the planet. When I was in the hospital all those years ago, she always joked that she was saving my life. Little did we know, that’s exactly what she would do…

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah Trott says:

    So beautifully said Kenny! A lovely tribute to an amazing Woman! I have no words, but, thank you. She is daily missed, and will forever be remembered and loved!

  2. molly says:

    Beautiful Kenny, just like her. Thanks for sharing. I came home last night to a huge mexican spider in our bathroom and immediately thought of Kristen. Live on my friend.

  3. Kent and Michelle says:

    Kenny, beautifully written – and posted today! Certainly a remarkable young lady who touched so many lives, leaving this world way to soon. Thank you for sharing your wonderful thoughts scripted so well.

    Kent and Michelle

  4. thisisourgod says:

    What a beautiful and tragic story, Kenny. My friend Sarah shared this on her page, and I think I recognize you from Carmody-Munro freshman year at CWU. I am paralyzed now too so I understand some of what you are going through. So sorry for the loss of your wife – she sounds like a beautiful person.

  5. Ean Thompson says:

    Kenny, i’m very sorry to hear about your loss, i’m glad to hear your out and living life again. I’m not as eloquent as you in your blog posts but reading your latest post brought me to tears. I’ll have to catch up with you sometime. Take care. – Ean

  6. Sheryl Huskey says:

    Thank you for letting Kristen live on through you, she shared with me on many a night shift at my house ,how very much she loved you. She would smile and glow when she talked about you and life with you. Thanks for sharing the pictures and video, it was nice to remember .

  7. Patti Jo Bucklin says:

    Dearest Kenny,
    Thank you for this remarkable visit with my dear niece Kristen. From the first second I saw her I watched you both intently through the uncontrollable flow of tears in my eyes.
    Kristen and I now share the same birthday, only now, hers is from Heaven. Today, on Thanksgiving, I want to thank you Kenny for how you completed Kristen’s life. There really are no words to describe how beautiful your life story is. Much love to you Kenny, and … Kristen, I love you honey!
    aunt Patti Jo

  8. Donna Meyer says:

    Kenny, love that you are “back” ! We’ve missed you!

    Donna (GSH)

  9. Caraline says:

    It’s funny, I read your blog years ago at a very different place in my life. And for some reason I decided to check it out again today to see if you had posted again. Glad I did.
    You are right, blogging definitely gives an outlet for some of the more complex parts of life, but it also helps us process stuff that is sometimes too heavy to tackle head on. Or at least it helps me in that way.
    This was a great post, it sounded like something that you needed to get out. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  10. Paul's mom says:

    Dear Kenny,
    So good to hear from you again. I am so so sorry for your loss. Maybe you will remember this–sending good thoughts your way.
    Paul’s mom

    1. Hey you! Thank you for the condolences. My mom updated me on your loss as well, I was so, so sorry to hear.

      It is comforting to see those familiar words after all this time, thank you for stopping by. Hugs…

  11. Lana says:

    This is beautiful. I am still so sorry that you are having to go through the pain of losing someone you love so much. Trust me when I say that the pain dulls a little over time, but there are moments, years from now that a smell, a sound or a dream will slice you to your core. It’s a delicate line we walk, those of us who have lost a love.
    Now, with all of that said, HELLO, STRANGER!!!! I have been poking in on you but not nudging and taunting you the way I used to. You are right about these blogs being mere ghost towns the halls we used to rule. What? I won a Best of MSN Award? Guess what? No body believes me! LOL! I’ve lost all my pull! 🙂
    Seeing other Spaces people feels like running into people at a Twilight Zone reunion, doesn’t it?
    I will be visiting often. Count on it. XO

  12. Paul's mom says:

    Hi Kenny,
    Just stopped by to say hello . . . . wishing you a good day.

  13. Paul's mom says:

    Hi Kenny,
    Thinking of you . . . . sending good thoughts your way,

  14. Paul's mom says:

    Hi, Kenny.
    Just dropped by to say hello. Hope you and your family are doing well.
    Paul’s Mom

  15. Leslie Kwiatkowski says:

    Hi Kenny,

    Its Leslie from Buffalo. I used to check in on you a few years ago, and for some reason I was thinking of you so I googled my way back. Wow life sure does feel like a carousel on turbo speed sometimes you just have to hang on. All kinds of changes for you. I lost my husband four years ago of a massive heart attack, he was on his feet one minute and BOOM on the floor the next, so my heart hurts for you. as I know how that goes…. she sounds like she is an angel, and I think they are still around… I like to think of heaven as a big room full of overstuffed lazy boy chairs with a huge flat screen and they are all sitting around watching our misadventures and tears.

    Well, I send you a hug and some sunshine. I am also sending a link to a dear friend of mine who could use a little pep talk, but you already know that you are an inspiration to a zillion people. God bless you and like the saying goes ‘Keep on keepin’ on’ 🙂

    Leslie Kwiatkowski

    1. Thanks, Leslie. I’m terribly sorry to hear of your loss, but glad you’re still hanging onto this turbo carousel with me!

  16. Heather says:

    Hi Kenny,
    I just wanted to say I’m so sorry to hear about Kristen. You don’t know me but I took a microbiology class with Kristen at TCC a few years ago. I was so drawn to her amazing personality. We only had one class together but I knew there was something special about her. I’ve thought about her over the years, did she finish her RN? I didn’t know her well but man would her face light up when she talked about you. When I met her she was planning the wedding and you guys were building a house and not for a single moment did she hold back when it came to talking about you.
    I am so sorry for your loss but thank you for you blogg

    1. Thank you for this message as well as the kind words, Heather. She never got to finish her RN, unfortunately, having to step back from that when she sought treatment. You’re absolutely right about her personality & spirit. You couldn’t help but have fun around her. Thanks again.

  17. You two are disgustingly cute together. It should be illegal to have that much good-lookingness in one couple. I love how her eyes are both dangerously mischievous and a little sad at the same time. From the way you write, I’m guessing you have an equal amount of snark. You guys are perfectly matched.

    Note: I never used past tense for anybody. I don’t view the phases of life that way. To me, y’all haven’t changed much, except that she’s working a different form. You learned to come at life from a chair; she learned to share it with you from a different state. Rock on, my lovelies.

  18. shanalamo says:

    Hi Kenny,
    I was one of those avid readers of your blog about 10 years ago, shortly after you began writing it. Your posts were frequent back then, but as you said, things and people change and our priorities shift. My husband and I actually met through your blog, and just celebrated our 7th anniversary yesterday. We adopted a child, and in our home study, it is mentioned that we met through your blog. So you are forever immortalized in our adoption paperwork! 🙂
    You came across my mind the other day, so I decided to google you and see if your blog still existed. I am very sorry to hear about the loss of your wife. She sounds like an amazing woman. Such a great story of love and devotion, and the “Do Life” that she taught you is such a powerful lesson. The video you posted is also powerful. I love the wedding pictures, and the way you danced together. Although your time together as husband and wife was short, your journey together will continue in other ways.
    I have no subscribed to your blog and look forward to updates, no matter how frequently they are posted.
    Best wishes!

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