Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Milestone Year

Cheesing for the camera with Ken and my mom on Graduation Day

This past weekend marked a milestone for me: it was my 20th high school reunion. Naturally, seeing many people I hadn't seen in many years all in one room flooded my mind with memories of my past. In particular, I remember my friends and me thinking so eagerly about graduation. My dear friend, Wendy, and I would sit in each other's bedrooms and dream about that magical year that held so much promise: 1988. I was anxious but nostalgic as the years passed in high school. Wendy and I would write on the back of each of our class pictures: "Can you believe we are freshmen?...sophomores?...juniors?....and then, SENIORS?" In fact, my senior year and the year 1988 held many milestones for me: I turned 18, applied for colleges, received several scholarships, and graduated from high school. All of those moments were snippets of my future which I had only daydreamed about years before. I'm sure that all of my classmates remember similar moments and the friends who shared them when they think back to 1988.

But walking back into a room filled with people I shared my high school years with makes me remember the person I used to be. Only months after graduation, I would change. No, my goals and dreams didn't change, but my view of the world would. When I think back to the Kristin who graduated from high school with friends she had known since nursery school and all of her wishes for the future about to come true, I am sad for her. I wish I could go back and shake her, tell her that she needed to open her eyes. She was naive and believed that everything happened for a reason. She believed that bad things happened to bad people. She believed that families like those she idolized on The Brady Bunch and Family Ties actually existed. She never guessed what was in store for her or her family.

My parents separated my senior year in high school. I remember Ken writing me from college and telling me he was sorry that I had to go through that without him. I wonder if he ever thought of all of the other milestones I would reluctantly go through without him when he made the decision to take his life.

The year 1988 was not the magical year I thought it would be. In truth, when I think of 1988, I think of the big black line separating the person I was before Ken's death and the person I became after. It was the year that transformed me and catapulted me into harsh reality. I think of a person who struggled with her religious beliefs and living in her own skin sometimes. I think of a girl who watched her friends live it up at fraternity parties while she sat in her dorm room alone wondering how she would make it through another day without her brother. And I think of the woman who finally realized that all of those milestones would still come even though he was gone.

When I sat in the bleachers during pep rallies in high school chanting, " '88 is great," I never could have known the depth of meaning that year would hold for me. And seeing so many faces from twenty years ago at a reunion certainly was a memorable experience. But the one face I long to see -- my brother's face which no one has seen for twenty years -- I did not get to see at my reunion, and I will never get to see that face again in this lifetime. I only hope that when we have our own reunion, hopefully many years from now, it will be held in heaven.

From Wendy (Layton) Jett

I wasn't there when he died; I wasn't there to go to his funeral. I didn't even know about it until weeks later. And to this day I have harbored guilt that I wasn't there for my friend Kristin during such a tragic time. The phone call came from Kristin personally while I was just into the first semester of my freshman year at U of D. I sat on the top bunk of the bed in my cramped dorm room and listened to her tell me about Ken's passing. I was in shock; it didn't seem possible. I can remember the words she spoke, of how many people came to his funeral, to grieve the life of this person so adored by everyone. I have wondered for a long time if Kristin resented me for not being there, for not knowing, for not doing more afterward.

She doesn't know that I grieved for Ken.

Ken was Kristin's older brother to me. I spent many hours at the Spengler home on Kesselring Avenue, living just up the street on Alder Road myself, and Ken was always in and out with his friends. He would make a teasing remark, like brothers do, and be on his way. Sometimes as Kristin and I would head up to her room I could hear Ken and his friends in his room down the hall, door closed and KISS records blasting away. Kristin would try and drown it out with our love for Shaun Cassidy or Journey on her own record player.

But what I will remember most about Ken was his voice and his laugh. I can still hear it now.

One afternoon, Kristin and I were in the den watching tv, on the Spengler's tv that you had to use pliers to turn the channel because the knob was missing. Ken was on the couch behind us. Whether we were watching an MTV video or Ken just wanted to annoy us, I don't quite recall, but he began to sing "Roxanne" by the loudly as he possibly could. The repeated lines of "ROOOOOXANNE, you don't have to turn on the red light" was screeched sarcastically. And it only became more and more obnoxious as Kristin would tell him to stop. Then, Ken would laugh. A bellowing laugh that only Ken could make, loud and forced, like the song he was butchering for our benefit. As Kristin would scream his name, he would just relax, stretching himself across the couch as if he had no intention of stopping this personal entertainment.

When I hear that song on the radio, Kristin doesn't know this, but I cry.

And if I am totally alone, I scream the words to the song loudly enough that maybe Ken can hear me in heaven.

We miss you, Ken. I am sorry that I wasn't there to say goodbye.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

From Catherine Cooke

I have so many memories of hanging out at Kristin's house on Kesselring Avenue as a kid -- some better (destroying the family room with our art projects, usually involving bits and pieces of sheepskin) than others (piano lessons with your mom when I hadn't practiced). I remember pretending to play with my first feline friend, Muffy, but was secretly watching Ken and his friends master Atari games while earning brag-worthy blisters on their joystick thumbs. There are so many stories, but I want to forward to my first day of high school and my most vivid memory of Ken.

I was walking to a class with a friend, schedule and map in hand, terrified that some bully upperclassman would demand that I buy an elevator key from them, or worse, make me smoke in the bathroom. Ken came bounding through the hallway with a bunch of guys, all in their varsity football jerseys. "Hey Cathy! Great to see you!" he said. I squeaked out a "hello" as they all continued down the hallway. "Who was THAT?" my companion asked. "Oh, that's just Kristin's brother," I nonchalantly said. But my head was going a million miles a minute. Ken Spengler knows me! I know Ken Spengler! This is going to be MY year! That thought stayed with me through the entire day and most of the week . . . whenever something went wrong, I thought, "It's OK, I know Ken Spengler!" Sometimes I feel like him saying hello to me that day was kind of turning point in teenage confidence for me. I really wish he knew that simple thing he did has stayed with me for 25 years.

From Cedric Brown

The link to your brother's blog was sent to me by a mutual college mate. In fact, I was one of Ken's roommates the year this happened. I had gone home for the weekend, and when I returned could not believe how morbid the campus was. I had gone through my own trials and tribulations that weekend, but it was nothing compared to the news of my roommate. I have to say, seeing this brought back many good memories of him. I just wanted to touch base with you to tell you that you are not alone. We all think of him. I will send a subsequent note to you but I did want to say this.

About ten years ago, Jerry Goubeaux and I attempted to visit your brother's grave down in Delaware. We packed up the Jeep and began our road trip to our dear friend. We essentially spent the whole day driving looking for the place, and neither of us could remember where it was located. We went to two cemeteries in the area, and I couldn't even tell you which ones, but it was a good day. As we drove around aimlessly, I kept thinking of how your brother was looking at us laughing at us and calling us morons. It didn't matter, though, 'cause I also know he knew how much he meant to us, and in looking at your blog, he must of thought this was a classic Monty Python moment: Stupid, hilarious, but with good intent. He's probably laughing now...Do you hear him??? :-)

Thanks for doing this.