remembering kelli

Summers, as a kid, I spent hours at our community pool. In the morning I’d ride my bike there, a ratty towel draped across the back of my neck wearing my swimsuit under a t-shirt and cut-offs. Swim practice was an hour long, steam rising in the sunlight off the glistening water. After practice my friends and I spent as long in the shower, pulling the knotted beige cord to keep the spray of hot water flowing over our nimble bodies.

Most of the time I’d hang at the pool for what seemed like all day, slathering my limbs with cocoa oil and baking on the hot cement deck, then lazily dipping into the cool water or climbing the high-dive ladder to do endless back flips.

Me and my teammate Debbie used to sit atop the stack of blue wooden starting blocks that were shoved up against the cinder block wall under the eves, right next to the PA speaker. We'd listen to disco tunes on the radio. Our favorite was Best of My Love by The Emotions. We knew all the words and had the groovin’ moves to go with them.

That memory has never faded, but into high school then after college Debbie and I didn’t see each other much. She was one of my first friends to be married but by then we had drifted apart for no other reason but space and time.

I heard from a mutual friend that her first child, Kelli, was born with a serious seizure disorder. During the first few weeks of her life she suffered two to three hundred seizures a day, so many that she was rendered incapacitated—wheelchair bound—her brain not having a chance to recover and learn between the endless battery of electrical storms. I never reached out to my friend, whether out of fear or ignorance, I’m not sure. Perhaps a little of both.

Sometime after Calvin was diagnosed with epilepsy I wrote her a letter. It had probably been at least twenty years since I had last seen her. She called me and told me about her her adorable, beloved daughter, and how she had died in her teens. She described the litany of treatments her child had endured—many the same as Calvin—toxic drugs, rigorous diets, painful blood draws, prolonged hospital stays, and more. My heart sunk and I felt a wretchedness over the lost opportunity to have reached out to her sooner showing compassion, perhaps even to have met her special girl.

Debbie had studied to become a nurse in great part due to her experiences with Kelli. She has a tattoo of her daughter’s name on her ankle to commemorate how Kelli changed her life, made her stronger. It is beautiful. And though I never met her, I think of that remarkable child who suffered so much—needlessly—fought so hard and no doubt touched many, many lives. I believe Kelli must have had the same calm glow I remember of her mother.

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