Shared Memories: Kirsten Nelson

Iím sorry that this is going to be so long and rambling, but there are just so many memories that itís hard to pick and choose.

I first met Caia when she started at Netron, because I met all the new consultants; unfortunately she was shipped out to customer sites immediately and I didnít get to know her at that time.

On one of my visits to England to teach a course, Caia, Paul Galbraith and I went into London to have supper in Covent Garden. All three of us were sick the next day -- it was either food poisoning or some fast-acting flu. As I recall I had the worst of it, but even though Caia was sick herself she made sure I was taken care of. She brought over chicken noodle soup and videos for me to watch (the 6-hour BBC Pride and Prejudice, which I still watch whenever Iím sick).

It was still in the time before I knew her well, but I remember her purple hair vividly. I always admired her masses of dark curly hair, of course, but I was also impressed with how casually she treated it. She wanted a nice vibrant purple, and as I recall they had to bleach it first; but then the purple didnít take! After a few days it was a muddy violet, not at all what she wanted, and I think she dyed over it again.

I got to know Caia better when I started dating Mike; they were both part of "the Harrisburg crowd", the group of Netron consultants who worked in Harrisburg, PA. Caia was briefly sceptical of me for Mike, but after watching us together and considering it she declared herself steadfastly in favour of our relationship, and never varied from that opinion.

Montreal is one of my favourite places, and with Caia living there it was a perfect excuse to go there and visit her. I recall the period when Caia was having trouble with carbohydrates, and could only eat them just before bed. We would buy warm bagels at midnight and sit in her tiny living room with the bag open on the floor between the three of us, eating them with jam, cream cheese, or tzatziki. I loved her apartment, and although she probably thought I was going too far when I took pictures of the tilework in the crumbling bathroom, she appreciated that the tiny-ness of her place didnít stop us from visiting. She had a book of questions that came out the first time we visited, when I think conversation might have been running dry. She dipped in at random and that was the start of our deep conversations about the things that matter most to the three of us; although to be fair, Caia always did more prodding to understand us than she did revealing herself.

When Caia became ill in the middle of 2004, it was a real wake-up call for us; our visits had probably been getting farther apart, and we were definitely taking her health for granted. We asked if we should come immediately, and she said no; wait until the first wave of visitors had passed. We ended up planning a weekend around Thanksgiving for the whole Harrisburg crew to get together. It worked perfectly -- Mike and I picked up Mark Petrillo from the Toronto airport and drove him up, and Mark Proper and Bernie Martinelli drove up from Harrisburg. We ate junk food, played cards, talked late into the night, went out geocaching, and generally made the most of the time without any maudlin talk. Petrillo, ever blunt, asked Caia on the bus one day "Is there anything you really wanted to do, that you didnít get to do?". Her voice quavered just a bit as she said "To have red hair. And see your place in Florida". As you can see from the shade of her hair and the palm trees in the background in some of the pictures (1), she managed to do it! The same crowd gathered again in Indialantic, Florida, at Petrilloís house. We also fit in a trip to the NASA facilities at Cape Canaveral.

Those two trips in particular brought Caia and I close. I found I could tell her pretty much anything, and there was no need to treat her with kid gloves because she was seriously ill. She could joke about it in a way I donít think I could -- when Petrillo told her that her seat in the middle of the backseat of his new vehicle was the safest place to be in the case of an accident, she immediately shot back "Thatís a waste, someone else should sit here!" When she said "thatís wonderful!" or "thatís terrible!", you could tell she always meant it.

In fact, one of the things I miss the most is not getting to talk things over with Caia. She was perceptive, thoughtful, wise beyond her years, and hugely intelligent. Whereas I tend to get thinking in circles, she would cut straight through with some statement like "Well the most important thing is...", put things in order, perhaps throw in some detail I hadnít known, and come up with a conclusion that was so elegantly obvious I couldnít figure out why I hadnít been able to see it already.

When I started thinking about a career change, she was the first person I mentioned the idea of becoming a teacher to. She loved it immediately -- anyone who knew her knows how she could take up an idea -- and within minutes we were on the internet researching programs. She was excited when I was accepted to York, and I wish I could have shared all my stories of school this past year with her.

That may have been part of the reason we asked her to be our maid of honour, although I didnít want to put her to a lot of trouble over it. The first thing Caia did was go out and buy several books on how to be a bridesmaid! The list of details she undertook to keep me organized about was long indeed. Nothing was too big (my divorce from a long-ago first marriage, which wasnít final yet) or too small (tan lines) for her to email or write a little note about.

Caia threw me an absolutely amazing overnight stag party (she didnít like the word "bachelorette" and refused to use it) in Montreal. Two of my friends joined me on the train there, and the four of us went out for dinner. Ever-prepared, Caia had been suffering from terrible foot cramps, but wanted to keep where we were going a surprise. She had the times and addresses written on post-it notes so if she had to hop out of the cab and go home, we could continue on without her. I guess Iím easy to keep surprises from, because after dinner we walked into a live music venue, where I remarked "hey, Nathan Caswell is coming to play here!" He was indeed, and he was playing that night, and Caia had arranged for us to show up in our tiaras and boas and whatnot, and have me come up on stage and sing with him. As a gift they (which Iím sure means Caia) had bought me a karaoke machine, so we stayed up late singing Carole King and whatever else we recognized on the karaoke CDs.

When it came to how she should dress for the wedding, I jokingly quipped one day "as long as you donít wear black or white, I donít care what you wear!" Of course she took me quite seriously, those colours being traditionally inappropriate for a wedding (and who our age besides she and I know that these days anyway?). Although I tried to tell her at Ben and Sobiaís wedding that she looked smashing (which she did) and she should just wear that white top and black skirt for our wedding, she refused, because it was black and white. I think her outfit was the most stressful part of the wedding for her, and with about a week to go she emailed and said she had "put herself in the hands of some competent salespeople" and had the whole thing ready to go, complete with shoes and jewelry. And as anyone who has seen the pictures knows (1), she looked beautiful on the day.

On top of everything else she did, Caia was the kind of maid of honour who came to Toronto a day early so she could vacuum our carpets, knowing that we were going to have people over on the day after the wedding. She also played Magic: The Gathering with my son Will, apparently never getting tired of his unorthodox play, and always speaking to him as if he was a small adult, valuing his ideas and opinions just the way she did ours. When we visited in Montreal, she enjoyed taking the time to help me find just the right book to bring back for him; one time it was a reprint of the original Tintin book, and of course she knew exactly which French/English dictionary would be perfect for him.

At the hair salon the day of the wedding we decided that Caia might as well have her hair done too. On the way back to the hotel we had a good laugh at it -- Caia said "They gave me big hair! Did they not notice Iím six feet tall? I donít need bigger hair!"

Oh, and I know it has been mentioned elsewhere, but Caia had such a talent for gift-giving! For my birthday last year, which must have been just a couple of weeks before she went into the hospital for the final time, she sent me a canvas bag she had ordered online. It has cartoon characters of Mike, Will and I that she drew herself. Itís a convenient bag to carry for running errands, and Will is accustomed now to me telling him to look for things in my "Caia bag".

Itís hard to believe that itís coming up on a year since I last saw her. An acquaintance at school had a friend very ill in eerily similar circumstances, and as I talked to her about Caia and gave her advice, I was sure that Caia would have approved of me using my experience to help someone else. In fact, later I thought that in a way I was doing for this younger woman what Caia would have done -- getting down to practicalities, and being able to be the person who actually comes out and says the hard sentences that start with words like "on the day your friend dies, itís going to feel like..." She thanked me later, saying that although everyone had been quite sympathetic, being able to talk to someone who had recently been through it was the most valuable.

Iíve been thinking about Caia a lot the past two weeks because I finally got around to reading all the Harry Potter books. (Iím rather behind the times). I always laughed at her cartoons, but mostly because of delight that someone I knew was creating something so simple, yet so animated. Iíve gone back and looked at them again now that I know what events in the stories she was referring to, and Iím struck again by her cleverness. There was a community of "HP" creators that she belonged to online, and Iím glad that at a time when she wasnít leaving her apartment much, she had friends online who valued her and her contributions.

Thereís no chance I could ever forget Caia, with all the things that remind me of her. Obviously sheís standing right next to me in the wedding pictures, but there are many smaller things too. Whenever I dip a bagel in tzatziki, pull the bag she made for me off a hook, or just hear someone mention Harry Potter... she comes to mind, and it makes me smile every time.