I’d like to tell you about Kay—my friend of 43 years. There’s a special reason I’m writing about Kay today—I hope you’ll hang in there to hear more on that later.
Kay and I met in the back of McVille Lutheran Church in the “cry room” (think ‘nursery’, but without toys, cribs…or volunteer attendants). Jim & I moved to McVille, N.D. in 1970, following Jim’s graduation from seminary. The population at that time was around 700. Jim served a 3-point parish—one church in town, and 2 in the country.
In 1971, a new family moved to town. Now, in a town of 700 people a new family is BIG news!! Nearly everyone is related to each other in some way, so Kay and Darrell Moon, and their baby daughter Tessa literally meant new blood in the community!! Now there were two families who were related to no one else—the Moons and the Tonnesons!
The Moons began attending McVille Lutheran right away. I believe it was the first Sunday that they were there when I saw Kay take Tessa—about 7-8 months old, out of church to the cry room during the service. I immediately thought this would be a good opportunity to meet this new mom in town, so I decided our oldest son Mark, who was 2-3 months old, needed to be taken out as well. Who knows—he may have been sleeping peacefully, but I wanted to meet Kay, so out I went to the cry room! That meeting was literally the beginning of our 43-year friendship.
Kay andDarrell lived on the other side of town from us—a whole 6 or 7 blocks away. We would put our babies in strollers and walk to one or the other of our houses to visit…to have adult conversation—something young mothers find lacking at times! After a couple of years, they moved to what became their permanent home in McVille, just a block away from where we lived.
It was at their house that we dropped Mark in the middle of the night when I went into labor with Scott in October of 1973. And a few months later in June 1974, we took care of Tessa while Kay went to the hospital to give birth to Sara. A few weeks later, Jim not only baptized Sara, but we were also her godparents.
There was a 3rd couple/family added to this mix also. Ron and Cindy Ophaug were ‘locals’ (meaning they were related to at least half the people in the community!!). They farmed, and attended one of Jim’s country churches. Their daughter, Kristi (only a week older than Tessa) was likely the first baby that Jim baptized after moving to McVille. Their son Paul joined the family in 1972. So…by 1974, the three couples had 6 young kids, and our times together were frequent, busy, and fun.
During those years we spent more time with the Moons, living only a block away. Kay and I would often check our plans for supper…and then combine them to eat at either their house or ours. Darrell worked in the bank, Jim at the church…so they often got a surprise as to where they would be eating supper when they got home from work.
We moved away from McVille in 1975 when Jim went back for training in chaplaincy work. We spent 3 years in Jamestown, ND, just 90 miles from McVille. Kay and I wrote to each other once or twice a week—actual handwritten letters, mind you. Sometimes they were 5-6 pages long! We continued to see each other frequently, with only 90 miles separating us.
During this time, Ophaugs had a 3rd child—Aaron, in 1976. Moons became his godparents. And we adopted Kimi in 1977—Moons are also her godparents. The intertwining continued. Clearly the threads of our lives were not just persevering, but were deepening. Every birthday—adult or child—was spent together. And nearly every New Year’s Eve we spent together—playing games with the kids until they went to sleep (all 8 of them!), and then continuing with our games until midnight or later.
Then in 1978 we made a bigger move—to Rochester where Jim added on to his education to become a clinical supervisor for chaplaincy/seminary training. That was a difficult move since it meant putting so many miles between us and our friends. It was only for one year, and we did manage to visit each other during that time, but it was more difficult. And…every phone call at that time was long distance, which cost money….which none of us had! So letters became our main way of staying connected.
In 1979 we moved to Fergus Falls, MN, and settled in there for 25 years. Now we were about 3 hours from McVille—a reasonable traveling distance.
The Ophaugs also moved from McVille in 1987, when farming no longer was working for them as a way to make a living. They moved to Minto, N.D., a distance of about 75 miles from McVille. So now the 3 couples were in 3 different locations…but we still managed to keep well connected. Moons and Ophaugs would often take short trips together with all their kids…sometimes to our cabin where all 14 of us would be together again.
We took one long trip with Moons while we still had kids at home. In the mid-80’s, in two cars, we traveled to/down the west coast together. We pulled a camper…Moons stayed in motels! The 4 of us have also taken trips to the east coast, and to Germany and Switzerland.
Every milestone in our lives found us at each other’s side: confirmations, graduations (high school and college), parents’ funerals, weddings—we always knew the other 2 couples would be there to support and celebrate. Sadly, we also were together when Aaron Ophaug died in 1999, one of the lowest, saddest times in our long friendship!
After our kids were all out of the house, we began a yearly tradition that became known as MOT weekends (think last names). We took turns planning these weekends, but almost always they were in the winter. We went skiing in Montana, but mainly we stayed in MN or ND. Kay always tried to find a place in ND…she is one of North Dakota’s most loyal fans!!
In January of 2009, Kay was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme—a common and deadly form of brain cancer. Surgery was done immediately to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Radiation followed for several weeks, and then chemotherapy. The prognosis was dim: most people die within 6-18 months. Only 5-10% survive beyond 2 years. The 6 of us gathered that winter for our regular MOT weekend, and many tears were shed. We believed it would be our last MOT. Still, we tried to make it as normal a time as possible, which meant the women went shopping! I remember Kay didn’t buy anything—she just felt it wasn’t worth it since her life would soon be over. It was a sad, sad weekend!
News of Kay’s diagnosis spread among family and friends, and Kay also set up a CaringBridge site to keep people updated on her journey. Soon she had hundreds of people praying for her, and supporting her in many other ways as well. Her CB website has had nearly 49,000 visits in the past 5 years!
She had oncology visits with CT scans every 3 months. We all waited on pins and needles to hear the report after each visit. The reports were encouraging—the tumor wasn’t growing, and Kay slowly began to regain some normalcy to her life—a “new normal”, but one where we all began to have just a little bit of hope. It was during these early days of her cancer than her grandson, Trey (then about 10) asked his mom how long she thought Grandma Kay was going to live. Sara was very honest with Trey, and told him about the 6-18 month prognosis, and the 5-10% chances of life beyond 2 years. Wonderful Trey said: “I guess Grandma is going to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records!”
Trey’s wisdom and hopefulness have prevailed because every 3 months for over 5 years, Grandma Kay got the same report from her oncologist: “No changes in the tumor”. The MOT times together continued…and became more than annual.
Then July 2014, Kay went for her regular oncology visit. With stunned silence, Kay, Darrell, and Sara all heard the news: “The tumor is growing”. And as they passed the news on to the rest of us, we also were stunned with the reality that the book of world records was beginning to close.
A couple of years ago, Kay and Darrell moved to Fargo, close to Sara and close to her medical caregivers. Tessa, who is a pastor, lives with her family in South Africa. In early August Tessa flew home to spend 2 weeks with her mom and family, but is now back in SA.
Cindy and I spent a couple days with Kay in early August. We could see changes—her walking was less stable, for one thing. But in spite of the gray cloud hanging over us, we enjoyed being together—going out to lunch, going to a play.
Yesterday we drove to Fargo, as did Ron and Cindy. We spent several hours together—had birthday cake, because today is Kay’s 68th birthday.
In the midst of the sadness that we all felt, we found ourselves laughing together like we’ve done so many times over the years. Kay not only joined in on the laugher, but cracked a few jokes herself! That felt so good!!
I just talked to Kay to wish her a happy birthday. She told me about her birthday gift this year—a shiny new walker. After seeing her yesterday, I know that it’s something she needs immediately. She can no longer walk by herself. She has been told to expect new symptoms to appear quickly, which could include falls, seizures, etc. She’s more tired, and that will increase as well.
We’ve all pledged to be with her and Darrell as much as possible in the next weeks and months. Kay has no siblings. But she has her friends of 43 years that she can count on to be with her as she faces her last days.
Kay is not afraid to die. She has a deep faith, and she knows Jesus will warmly welcome her when she leaves her earthly time behind. But that doesn’t making the leaving easy. She has a wonderful family including 5 grandchildren who she doesn’t want to leave behind. Sometimes this is just too sad!!
I seriously don’t know how to bring this post to an end…because…well, you know. It’s not going to end well. There’s no happy ending here.
Mainly I wanted to write about long-term friendship, and the honor I’ve had to be Kay’s friend for 43 years. Kay—I know you will be reading this. I love you!