A brief friendship, a lasting memory

Her doctor told her she had, at best, two years to live.  That was nearly twenty-five years ago, when Kathy Rich learned that after a brief remission, her stage four breast cancer had returned.

My friend Jamie Raab knew Kathy and I would hit it off, and she was right.  Last summer, when I went to spend a weekend at Jamie’s country house in upstate New York, she arranged for Kathy to come, too.

The day we spent together was a scorcher; ninety-eight degrees in the shade.  But the heat didn’t stop Kathy from suggesting that we hop in the car and drive over to Rosendale, to walk around at a street festival and hear some music.

I was eyeing the pool, a novel I’d brought along, thinking it was way too hot to move, let alone fight the crowds milling around between a dozen outdoor stages.  But I kept my mouth shut.  Kathy was game, and she was the one with a leg brace, a crutch, a wig, and cancer.

The music was pretty loud and mostly awful, the heat was withering, but the people-watching was exceptional – it was as if we’d stepped back in time, landing smack in the middle of Woodstock Nation.  We wandered slowly, painstakingly, through a sea of tie-dye.  We watched girls in pig-tails and bikinis do amazing things with hula hoops.  We drank lemonade, bought silver earrings, marveled at the displays of peace signs and hemp tote bags and gauzy India Import blouses, just like the ones we’d all worn in high school.  We sought shade.  Kathy never complained, though it was obvious that each step required an effort, that it hurt her to walk, and that the heat was taking a cruel toll.  What she made clear however, without ever having to say so, was that pain was a price she was willing to pay for experience.

Later, back at the house, Kathy and I hung out for a couple of hours, while Jamie went off to buy groceries and pick up another friend at the train. Kathy asked if I’d mind if she took off her wig; on the hottest day of the summer, a thick helmet of someone else’s hair on your head is its own particular form of torture.  When she came out of the bathroom a few minutes later in her bathing suit, she’d removed both the wig and the brace.  She seemed a lot more comfortable.  And heartbreakingly vulnerable.  Tiny, pale, completely bald, with enormous dark eyes and a dazzling smile, Kathy looked, I thought, like a luminously beautiful alien from another planet.  And in a way, that is what she was.  How does anyone live on this earth for twenty-five years after being told your time is up, without becoming a little other-worldly?  She’d had a foot on the other side for a long time.

To say she also had perspective on what’s important in life is, of course, an understatement; what astonished me most, though, was the purity of her joy.  Sick as she was — and even though she knew the disease she’d somehow outwitted and outlasted for years was catching up with her at last– Kathy was also an eternal optimist; how, at this point, could she be anything but? And she was, quite simply, lots of fun to be around.

I slung one arm around her waist, held on to her elbow with my other hand and, laughing at my clumsiness, we somehow managed to hobble down to the pool. We lolled around in the water for an hour or so, talking as if we’d known one another all our lives.  Kathy was that kind of person — she cut right to the chase.  Right away, I loved her for that. Why waste time on social niceties when you can get down to the real stuff, life and death and the big questions, instead?  There was no subject I couldn’t broach with her, nothing that felt off limits; who cared that we’d only met that morning?

“How long have you needed the brace, and the cane?” I asked.  She told me that, although there had been times in the past when she’d been bedridden, this new, apparently permanent disability was recent.  She was still getting used to being so visibly and so physically “handicapped.”

“But you know,” she said, “it’s a funny thing.  When I started having so much trouble walking, what I found out there was just the friendliest world.”

Kathy didn’t stick around for dinner that night.  She was tired and wanted to get home before dark.  I remember watching her slip her wig back on, give it a little tousle and a quarter turn, so that one auburn lock hung down casually over her face.  We hugged good-bye, and Jamie told her friend she’d see her soon.  And then Kathy took her crutch and made her way out to her car, lowered herself in, and drove away.  I didn’t see her again.  But I see her now, in my mind’s eye.  And I know I will remember her always, a woman who knew all there is to know about living in the moment.

As most of you who are regular readers here are aware, I’ve been finishing work on a new book, trying to meet my deadline, which is now less than two weeks away. I’ve had to let the blog go for a while, in order to focus all my time on the manuscript.  But when I woke up this morning, and found a note on my phone from Jamie saying that Kathy had died yesterday, I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of writing done today.  Instead, I took a long walk.  I went to my favorite spot in the woods to pray and meditate and listen to the wind in the trees.  And I remembered Kathy.  I knew her only for that one day, but in that short time, we managed to cover a lot of ground.  It feels odd to say it, but I feel as if I’ve lost a friend.  Certainly, all who knew her have lost a teacher.

Below is an essay Kathy wrote a few years ago for the New York Times.  I read it again early this morning, through tears.  I may have written a book called The Gift of an Ordinary Day, but Kathy Rich, more than anyone else I’ve ever met, knew just how much the present is really worth.

17 Years Later, Stage 4 Survivor Is Savoring a Life Well Lived
By KATHERINE RUSSELL RICH
Each year on a day in January — the 15th, to be precise — I go to a Web site and post a message to hundreds of women I’ve never met, saying, essentially, “I’m still here.”
Within days, a thunderous chorus comes back, 200 voices, 300. A few of them ask, “How can this be?” Sometimes they begin, “I’m crying.” Many answer in kind: “I’m here, too. It’s now three years.” “Five years.” “Three months.” “Seven.”
What we’re doing, in a way, is checking for lights in the darkness.
Now there probably aren’t a lot of Web sites where the announcement that you’re around and breathing would cause anyone to take notice, let alone respond. But this is a site for people with Stage 4 breast cancer, something I’ve had for 17 years. The average life expectancy with the diagnosis is 30 months, so this is a little like saying I’m 172 years old: seemingly impossible. But it’s not. I first found I had the illness in 1988, and it was rediagnosed as Stage 4 in 1993. That’s 22 years all together, which is the reason I post each year on the anniversary of the day I learned my cancer was back: to let women know that it happens, that people do live with this for years.
I tell them that when the cancer returned, it came on so fast, spread so quickly, that I was given a year or two to live. Within months, the disease turned vicious. It started breaking bones from within, and was coming close to severing my spinal cord.
Nothing was working, till a doctor tried a hormone treatment no one used much anymore, and the cancer turned and retreated, snarling. It remains sluggish but active. Every so often, it rears its head; when it does, we switch treatments and it slides back down. In that way, I stay alive.
I tell them: you just don’t know.
Two and a half years after the Stage 4 diagnosis, I confessed to my mother that the doctors had said I had two years to live, tops. I’d kept this information to myself because if you say it, it’s true. I told her this laughing, as if we were trading preposterous stories. “Well, I guess you’re going to have to hold your breath if you’re going to make that deadline,” she replied, in her slow Southern drawl when I gave my previously stated expiration date.
I spent the next five years holding my breath, then did the same for another five. I enacted every New Year’s resolution, past and future, all at once. Quit work that had grown stale and became a writer. Wrote a book. Went to India on assignment, fell in love with the language that was swirling around me, went back to live for a year and learn Hindi. Didn’t realize the reason I’d come to dislike that hyperbolically overachieving Lance Armstrong was that his behavior was too familiar. Take a nap, Lance! I’d think to myself, though in truth I couldn’t either.
But if I was verging on radical levels of life consumption, I had a reason: No one had told me I wasn’t going to die soon. About 12 years out, my doctor finally did.
There’s a small subcategory of people with Stage 4 breast cancer, it turned out, who live for years and years. “Twenty. Thirty,” said my doctor, George Raptis. This group constitutes about 2 percent of all cases. Doctors can’t predict who will fall into this category. They can’t say you’re in it till you’re in it — till you’ve racked up the necessary miles.
The reason they can’t is that for all the pink-ribbon hoopla, despite the hundreds of millions that have been poured into breast cancer research, hardly anyone has looked into the why of long-distance survival; not one doctor has specialized in this field.
Here’s pretty much the sum of collective knowledge: People in this group tend to have disease that has spread to the bone (as opposed to lung or liver, say) and feeds on estrogen. They tend to do well on hormone treatments. End of commonly known story.
But as Dr. Gabriel N. Hortobagyi at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston told me, you can also find women whose breast cancer spread to organs other than bone, for whom hormone therapy did exactly nothing, who had their lesions surgically excised and who have been free of cancer for 30 years. None of these women could have expected to live.
You just don’t know, and neither, unfortunately, does the medical field.
One reason, as the breast surgeon Dr. Susan Love told me, is that “many clinical trials are funded by the drug companies to run for five years,” obviously not enough if you’re investigating long-term survivors. But through her institute, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, she has begun to conduct research.
Dr. Love said she was inspired by a colleague who told her that in World War II, aviation experts focused on planes that went down until someone said, “Why aren’t we studying the planes that stay up in the air?” By no means a reflexive optimist, she thinks there’s hope we’ll find a cure.
On the Web site, I tell the women how deeply I believe there’s no such thing as false hope: all hope is valid, even for people like us, even when hope would no longer appear to be sensible.
Life itself isn’t sensible, I say. No one can say with ultimate authority what will happen — with cancer, with a job that appears shaky, with all reversed fortunes — so you may as well seize all glimmers that appear.
I write to them (to myself) that of course this is tough: the waiting to see if the shadows are multiplying, the physical pain, the bouts with terrible blackness.
“But there can be joy in this life, too,” I say, “and that’s so important to remember. This disease does not invalidate us. This past year, I’ve had the joy of falling in love with my sister’s kids, who live states away and whom I hadn’t had the chance to know. I’ve had a second book come out, one I worked on for eight years, about going to live in India with Stage 4 cancer. I’ve had so many moments of joy this year, but when I’m in blackness, I forget about those.” Then I ask them to write and tell me about theirs, and lights begin to flash.
“Had a pajama party with my oldest friend, laughing through the night in matching pajamas about old times.”
“Came in second in a bridge tournament.”
“I went on a wonderful camping trip with my family.”
“Seeing my older daughter grow taller than me. She’s now 5-9.”
One thing I don’t ever think to say: When I was told I had a year or two, I didn’t want anything one might expect: no blow-out trip to the Galápagos, no perfect meal at Alain Ducasse, no defiant red Maserati. All I wanted was ordinary life back, for ordinary life, it became utterly clear, is more valuable than anything else.
I don’t think to say it, and I never will. The women on the site already know that.

Katherine Russell Rich is the author of “Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language” and “The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer — and Back.”

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your comments

  1. Katrina, what a beautiful testament to what sounds like a truly extraordinary woman. I love your image of her as having had a foot on the other side for a long time. xox

  2. Beautiful, and of course made me cry. It’s the push I needed today, to get to get to the gym and seize this day in all the right ways. Her essay was beautiful and makes me wish I’d known her too.

    I’m thinking of her family today, and hoping they are hugging each other tight, thankful for the gift they had for so many ‘extra’ years.

    (Happy to have you back too, Katrina…I even clicked over here a couple of days ago to make sure I wasn’t missing something!)

    Judy

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I have kept Kathy’s article since i first came across it 6 years ago after my own breast cancer diagnosis. I am sorry to hear of her passing but grateful she had so many more years than expected.

  4. It’s a fitting post for this week I think as well.
    Thank you.
    Thank you..

  5. Deirdre says:

    Dear Katrina, I had forgotten why you were busy but I am glad you are back! My condolences on the loss of your friend. She sounded so special; what a thrill to have connected so quickly with another person.

    I have just sent a friend, Sita, the link to this piece for the simple reason that it is inspiring. My friend, who too has breast cancer and after chemo, radiation and now hormone treatment, is doing so much better than the doctors predicted, was recently told by her doctor “not to get her hopes up.” Her response was clear “why not! I AM going to get my hopes up.” And she does every day.

    Thank you for sharing your words with us today.

  6. Katrina, I am sorry to hear the news about your friend, but am very grateful to you for introducing her to us. What a remarkable testament she is to the gift of an ordinary day. How blessed I am to have one of those before me today.

    It’s a joy, as always, to read your words. xo

  7. What a woman. What a story. What an inspiration. Thank you, Katrina.

  8. “…for ordinary life, it became utterly clear, is more valuable than anything else.”

    Thank you for this post out of time, your words and Kathy’s move me deeply and through tears I feel as if I’ve made and lost a friend by proxy.

    Here’s to compassion and friendliness in the world we share, and to soul across the transom that we all might find courage and wisdom to live our lives fully, bravely and consciously of the love that seems truly to be there, even though we often struggle in anguished darkness.

  9. Kathi Russ says:

    Thank you Katrina, for sharing the gift of Kathy. Truly a remarkable woman. Let’s learn from her and embrace “ordinary life” every day.
    It is women like her that inspire me.
    Sending you strength in your sadness.
    Kathi

  10. I’m so glad you shared this. It reminded me of my friend Roni, who beat back Stage 4 ovarian cancer until last year. She had a similar perspective on life that only people who have been given a death sentence can truly appreciate. I also needed to be reminded that no matter how bad things seem now, it could be much, much worse.

  11. Your story of Kathy (and her own lovely article) blew me away. What a beautiful tribute to her resilience and her joy. Thank you for sharing this as a reminder of what is possible, and the infinite capacity of the human will and heart.

  12. I lost a dear friend to stomach cancer two weeks ago. While the prognosis and resulting treatments were never anything but gloom and doom, Willa kept doing everything she could to maintain the normalcy of her life for as long as possible.

    Every day is a new chance for a miracle. In the meantime, thank God for the Kathys and Willas of the world who show us what really matters, even in the face of knowing that one’s days are coming to an end. My sympathies go out to Kathy’s family and friends.

  13. My dear friend Krista has just recently been told that her breast cancer is back and is Stage 4 and I think she must be related to Kathy, because she inspires me every day with her love of life and her desire to embrace the ordinary in every day.

  14. Thank you for sharing Kathy’s story, Katrina.

  15. Thank you, Katrina for this post, and this reminder to treasure all of our days, even ordinary days, for they can be exceptional if we are aware. And, I practice this awareness every day. There was a recent post in the SAQ about mothering. The writer of the post did not support stories of motherhood in the SAQ, but rather stories about “greatness” from Smith alums, and how happy we would be to tell about our lives after children if we only took the time to develop our lives away from our families. I was outraged, and still am thinking of a way to craft a kind response. My best thought is to point the reader gently in the direction of your book to let her know how precious and valuable mothering is. Thank you, Julie

  16. What a gift to have had a teacher like her if even for a day. I’m sure there are hidden teachers all around us. We just need to see them.

  17. Wow! Another reminder for me to enjoy the wonderful, ordinary days of my lovely life. Thank you, Katrina for taking the time–once again–to inspire us all. Good luck with your book deadline, I can’t wait!

  18. The gentle ripples of Kathy’s story reached me this afternoon and I am so very grateful that they did. I will be with my friend tomorrow as we both know that she is stepping away from life after 15 years of battling her breast cancer. Hope will be with us in spite of it all. We are all here to learn from and to teach one another. Thank you for these two lovely stories.

  19. How amazing to have had that day and experience.

    The idea that “pain was a price she was willing to pay for experience” sums it all up for me. We love, knowing full well, we may experience pain and sadness (because of it) in the future. But it’s all worth it. We must live fully and risk; that’s life.

    As you know, there are moments when I wonder if I would give up the close relationship I had with my dad to avoid the pain I feel today with his passing. Although tempting at times, the final answer is of course “no way!” To live fully is to risk loss and sadness, but the experiences of joy and love seem quite worth it!

    I am sorry for your loss, but so glad you had the tremendous experience.

    XO
    Meredith

  20. God Bless Kathy Rich and all the brave women on her blog. Courage is so beautiful to experience. Happy Easter and the hope it promises.

  21. As always, I find your writing stunning. It is beautiful and raw and real and makes me a better person for having read and saved each one.

    I treasure gift and am so happy you choose to share it. Even on the really difficult days.

  22. I love this post, Katrina, as well as the essay that Kathy wrote. My mother-in-law was similarly diagnosed and given six months to live: three years later she’s better than she was at the time of her diagnosis. Although she maintains no illusions that she is — or ever will be — cured, she lives her life much like Kathy does. She even bought her dream house last year, which seems to me like the greatest vote of confidence for life. Life really is a mystery to which none of us holds the answer.

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