“My name is Caitlynn. I am the grand child of Kathleen. My Nanna Kathy passed away last Thursday, and my mom was wondering if you wanted to come to her memorial service? I see your pictures in my Nanna’s scrap book from your trip to Europe all the time. My Nanna talked about you often. This Facebook message is our last resort to get in touch with you. We would love to have you there if you could make it.”
My heart ached with sadness and memories. For decades Kathy was an important part of my life, although we had not spoken in recent years.
Before we met, I heard about her. As a student in my friend’s group counseling class at the college where I worked, Kathy sat silently in the small, circular room for an entire semester with a coat over her head, too scared to speak. That was her introduction to college, where she showed up after her husband confronted her alcoholism with the words: “Living with you is like committing suicide.” Then he walked out the door.
By the time we were introduced, Kathy was in the second term of the therapy group, now talking and visible, a somewhat overweight woman in her early forties, always in jeans and sandals with straight greyish-brown hair. She and her counselor, Diane, decided it would be healthy to run around the football track together. Because I started jogging the previous summer, they invited me to come too.
“Daily,” said Diane. “Even if it rains. Buy rain gear. We’re running no matter what.”
At the first sign of dampness, Diane was the one who bailed, but Kathy and I carried on. Our friendship began as we huffed and puffed around the field. Shared musical interests provided a conversational starting point, morphing into our first excursion together, a Joan Baez concert at Stanford’s outdoor theater. Our second event? Bob Dylan in San Francisco. Next? An all-day Bread and Roses concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, an annual multi-artist event sponsored by folksinger Mimi Farina. I no longer remember the exact line-up, but one highlight was Kris Kristofferson walking on for an unexpected duet with Baez.
“They’re together. I can tell,” Kathy said. “They’re lovers. Look at how they stare at each other.” I was less sure, but their fling was confirmed by a later interview with Joan.
Kathy was like that, more intuitive than me.
On the surface, we had little in common. I toiled away on my doctorate while she completed her first year of college, constantly fearing failure. Only six years older than me, she was divorced and raising five children. I remained unmarried and childless. Kathy scraped by with loans and financial support from her ex-husband. My academic career allowed me to pay bills with money left over.
In other ways, we matched. Kathy had a working-class aura reminiscent of my father and his brothers, including incorrect grammar, which felt comfortingly familiar. She had a hysterical, self-deprecating sense of humor which made me laugh constantly. When she confessed she’d driven in reverse on the freeway after missing an exit, I admitted I’d done the same. When her bedroom was being painted she discovered her whole life could fit in one box. We laughed together. And she had an amazing heart, including at the age of twenty taking in her two younger siblings when their parents died in a car crash. I admired her endlessly.
The first time she visited my one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, Kathy looked around and said, “A college teacher should have matching sheets, and curtains that are not made out of madras bedspreads.” That’s another thing I loved about her. She was never afraid to say what was on her mind.
In addition to our Monday through Friday running, we began to spend weekends together. We camped in the Santa Cruz mountains, so stoned we could hardly wash the dishes from laughing so hard. We backpacked in Point Reyes where our tent fell down and almost blew over a cliff into the ocean. On a driving trip to Ann Arbor, returning an Audi 4000S to my boyfriend, Kathy was in heaven. Her own car’s paint was peeling so badly that her children asked to be dropped off a block from school so as not to be embarrassed in front of their friends.
She loved driving the Audi, a fantasy beyond her dreams, until she was stopped for speeding and barely escaped a ticket she could not afford. Since Kathy’s previous experiences included only California and Nevada, we side-tripped from Michigan over the border into Windsor, Canada so she could say she’d ventured out of the U.S. Two years later, we traveled together for several weeks in England, Scotland, Wales and France.
Over time, our friendship deepened. I was there when her son was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, legally blind before his teens. She called me, nearly hysterical, after accidentally backing the car over her children’s kitten. We called each other and cried together when John Lennon was shot. She spent the night with me when my relationship broke up, and when I brought my adopted daughter home from the hospital.
In spite of being told by a nun from high school that she’d never amount to anything, Kathy grew in confidence. She graduated from community college, the only one in her family to earn a degree. Hired first as a Job Corps advisor, then as a juvenile hall counselor, she eventually graduated with a bachelor’s in sociology from John F. Kennedy University.
When I spent a year in Ann Arbor, Kathy felt abandoned. Later I lived in England. Again, she was dismayed about being on her own. I suggested she needed more than one friend.
Somewhere during those years, Kathy confessed she loved my daughter, but she’d spent enough time with little ones for a lifetime. She began to withdraw. I was sad but understood. Having children changes relationships.
When I moved to England a second time, Kathy developed new friendships. After I returned to the Bay Area, things were no longer the same between us. I met the women she hung out with but felt no connection to them. Occasionally we still talked on the telephone or met for lunch. Her family invited me to Kathy’s surprise 60th birthday party. I went. She called, crying, when her granddaughter died. I attended the memorial service. She phoned to tell me she was retiring. I took her out to lunch to celebrate. I told her I missed her. I wanted to reconnect. She said she missed me too and needed to be away from her friends. “They’re not healthy for me,” she said.
We agreed to see each other more frequently, but nothing changed. I called several times, months apart, and left messages on her answering machine. No response. She often had a temporary roommate, someone who needed a free place to stay—a niece, one of her children, a friend. Perhaps they didn’t tell her about my calls. I telephoned that Diane had been appointed interim college president. Kathy left me a message that she’d read it in the paper. I called to tell her I was retiring. No reply.
I gave up.
At the memorial, I learned Kathy struggled with Alzheimer’s for the previous five years. Her children took turns living with her until they could no longer handle her needs. She moved to a care facility.
I cried at the funeral and chastised myself for not trying harder to keep our friendship alive. Perhaps her lack of response related to early symptoms of the disease. I’ll never know.
Although she died recently, I’d already missed her for a long time.