I didn’t like her when I met her in the 1990s. She was everything I didn’t want to be — a conservative Christian wearing mom jeans, sporting a boring curled-under bob hairstyle, driving a minivan. I was trying hard to be an artist, with long blonde hair and boho clothes, teaching at a community college, driving a red sports car.

I made assumptions: She was boring; she didn’t know how to have an intellectual conversation; she took the Bible literally. She was active in the abortion-opposition movement, something I abhorred. I would have ignored her entirely, except that she was my new husband’s ex-wife, and they shared three daughters.

I thought little of Kelly’s beliefs and lifestyle, but I confess to being jealous of her resources. She lived with the girls in a big house out in the suburbs. She had her own business, a Christian bookstore that rivaled Barnes & Noble in the era before e-books. The business afforded an upper middle-class lifestyle for her and the girls with beautiful clothes, cushy new furniture, a beautiful yard, nice vacations at least once a year. The girls took music lessons, taekwondo, dance, cheerleading. They attended a private Christian school.

Theirs was a lifestyle I could never achieve on a professor’s salary, especially considering the circumstances.

My husband and I lived in an apartment in the city and then a small duplex, barely big enough to accommodate all of us when the girls visited every other weekend and one day during the week. For most of our four-year marriage, he couldn’t seem to find a job, despite good economic times. Nothing seemed good enough for him. Or it wasn’t the “right fit.” He worked odd jobs here and there to sometimes pay the small amount of child support he owed. I paid for everything else.

The thing that made friendship possible for Kelly and me, I suppose, was that neither of us saw the point in hating each other. I was someone who spent significant time with her children — Kelly wanted to know whether she could trust me. She wanted the girls to like and respect me.

I didn’t have children of my own yet. What’s more, I had been raised by emotionally distant parents in a farming community — very different from the child-centered culture of the suburbs. I had no idea how to be a mother or a stepmother. But Kelly showed me how, leading by example.

Now I wonder what she thought of me, six years younger, no kids, looking like a hippie blonde. My nose was always in a book. Or I was writing poetry. I was liberal, outspoken.

Maybe she saw a little of her younger self. I later learned she had been more of a bad girl than I had ever imagined. The responsible, boring, religious woman I knew developed as a reaction to lessons learned the hard way. She used to party hard, smoking and drinking. She worked at Chi-Chi’s, a Mexican restaurant that was a hot spot in the 1980s. And she lived the lifestyle of a server — working hard until 10 or 11 p.m., partying until 4 in the morning.

Then she got pregnant, got married, and it all came to a screeching stop. She went on to have two more children with a man who wasn’t much interested in being a supportive spouse — financially, emotionally or otherwise.

But I didn’t know any of that. All I saw was a woman who believed in black and white with no gray areas. I didn’t see her complexities. I didn’t notice her devotion to the people who mattered most in her life: her children, her parents, her closest friends — you know, the people who hadn’t failed her.

Turns out, the person who failed us both was the man we had in common.

When he left me, Kelly became my adviser and confidante. At one point she even gave me a list of ways to protect myself and my newborn son. Our ex-husband was very good at presenting a good public image, but he owed (and still owes) us both thousands of dollars in child support. And he refused to be a true co-parent.

Kelly was the only other person who knew what he was like in private. And that cemented our friendship, which kept going strong for the next 20 years.

Then Kelly was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of cancer.

She handled it with spunk, as usual. She prayed. She wrote blogs. She networked with other cancer patients. And she fought hard for seven years.

Kelly died last November, just days after telling me about a new cancer-fighting drug she was trying. She was scared, anxious. She asked for my prayers.

So I prayed. I prayed for her to know how much good she brought to the world, how her generosity inspired kindness in me and many others. I’m so grateful for our friendship, our kinship. I miss her.

 

Kris Bigalk is director of creative writing at Normandale Community College.