Karen Schirmang was my 1st-grade teacher. She was teaching partners with my mom who was also a 1st-grade teacher at Des Moines Christian School in the late 1980s. She was a little lady with a big personality. She also had a big laugh. A big loud laugh. You could hear her from down the hallway. That was one thing I related most to in Karen because I also have a loud laugh. She was a phenomenal teacher. She didn’t have any kids of her own so her classes became her kids. She was kind, caring, sassy, fun, but also knew how to keep control of a classroom. Karen also loved hearts. Her classroom was decorated in them. She wore hearts on a lot of her outfits. She had jewelry that was hearts. I remember giving her paperweight for Christmas that had a heart in it. She loved it and kept it for a long time. She would tell me “I looked over at my paperweight today and thought of you.” She loved hearts some much so that everyone started calling her the heart lady. We connected over our love of hearts. She used to call me her “little heart girl” since I had so many heart surgeries. Karen and my mom became very good friends, and she remained a big part of my life, even when she moved to Minnesota in the mid-1990s.
I remember being eleven years old and my parents let me fly up to Minnesota by myself to visit her one weekend. She treated me like a princess. She took us to get our nails done which was the first time I’d ever gotten my nails done in my life. She took me shopping. We ate out every meal. She showed me her new work office and took me to her church. It was such a fun trip. It was like I was visiting a beloved aunt because that is really what she was like to me. I also remember it was on this trip that she told me I could now stop calling her Miss Schirmang and just call her Karen. We were friends now. Not a teacher and student. I felt so mature to have an adult friend, and so honored it was her.
The next year when I was twelve my friend Carrie and I visited Karen in Minnesota with Carrie’s mom. Carrie and I had met in Karen’s first-grade class. Even though we went to different schools by then we stayed in touch for quite a while. Carrie and her mom were planning a trip to Minnesota to visit Karen, and they called to ask if I wanted to go along. Of course, I did! We had so much fun. I remember two things, especially about that trip. First, Karen took us to the Minnesota renaissance fair and I thought it was so cool. I’ve also wanted to go back now and see if it holds up now that I was an adult. Second, Karen told Carrie she may now start calling her Karen as well. I remember Carrie being so excited about that.
I remember Karen coming down to see me in the hospital when I was 13 and had my second open heart surgery. She always kept tabs on me. I didn’t see or hear from her a whole lot in middle school or high school days, but every once in a blue moon she would show up unexpectedly to check in and see how I was doing. The last time she did this was when I was graduating high school. It was the day of my graduation open house. She had been invited but I honestly didn’t expect her to come, so when she didn’t show up I wasn’t too surprised. Then later that night after almost everything was cleaned up and I was getting ready to go out with friends our front doorbell rang. I went to the door and there stood Karen. I was shocked and elated to see her. “You thought I forgot didn’t you?” was the first thing she said to me. I laughed, hugged her, and invited her in. My parents were just as surprised to see her. It was like she had come home. She stayed for about 30-45 minutes. She was the kind of friend that you could just pick up right where you left off with. Before she left she gave me a graduation gift of a charm bracelet with hearts on it. I loved it. I still have it to this day. We also took a quick picture together, which is the one posted here, and that is the last picture I have of her.
After that, I didn’t see or hear from her much at all. She was invited to my wedding in 2005, but couldn’t make it because she had become her mother’s full-time caregiver and couldn’t leave her alone. She sent me a lovely gift though, but I was sad she couldn’t come to meet my new husband. When I started writing my book I remember thinking that one of the people who was going to be most excited about reading it would be Karen. She was on my list of people to mail a free copy when it got published.
I am sad to say Karen never got to read my book. In March of 2016, she had been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. It had spread to her intestines and in two short months she passed away. I regret to say I didn’t know of this until she had passed. A friend posted a RIP message on Karen’s Facebook page, and that is how I found out. I asked around for details and finally got the story from a lady who I used to work with and also knew Karen. It was hard to take in. Karen had always been “there” in my mind. Even though we had lost touch I knew if I ever needed to talk to her she would be just a phone call away. Now she’s not. I find myself thinking of her often during big life moments. Like the day my we celebrated my book launch. She wasn’t there for me to invite, even though I’d like to think she would’ve made an effort to come. The morning of the book launch I put on the heart charm bracelet she gave me as a way to have her there with me.
I look back on Karen’s life and I am amazed at how many people’s lives she had touched. She was a great teacher, and friend to so many. She never knew a stranger and was so kind to everyone. She made such a positive impact on my life and I think about her often. I can only hope that I can live by her example and make a positive impact on the younger generation. Thank you, God, for Karen Schirmang.