Kathryn Ish-Stahl left us on December 31, at age 71. Cancer, which appeared in her esophagus three years ago, spread beyond control and finally overcame her physical ability to fight it further. It was, however, only her body and not her spirit that was overcome. Through the months of increasing pain, chemotherapy, radiation, and, finally, morphine to ease the suffering, she fought bravely to remain true to who she was. Even as exhaustion and pain killers ravaged her brain, Kathryn held her ground, wresting back control and maintaining her unfailing caring and concern for others, all without complaint over her unmerited and unjust fate.
Four years ago, she and I became close friends unexpectedly. Having already known one another casually for a decade, we discovered one day that we were suddenly best buddies, able to talk about anything, laugh about anything, and revel in how many things of this world are truly fascinating. We spent hours scrutinizing the perplexing logic of human beings and the calculating ploys and indifference of those who govern them. We anguished over the heartbreaking injustice and immorality of war and its indiscriminate carnage.
Humor and satire were on our side: In spontaneous turnabouts, we launched into parodies of our own conversations, mocking and role-playing ourselves as hapless clods, clueless to the universal laws of cause and effect. We touched upon moments of brilliant wisdom:whenever not frolicking off into thin air, feigning complete lunacy! This wonderful madness belied the well-read intelligence that more precisely defined Kathryn.
She was a professional career actress, singer, and choreographer and an unrepentant scoundrel right until the last scene. And this suited her perfectly to the role in which I met her. For 12 years we worked side by side as staff in an Adult Education singing and performance class. Kathryn was the movement coach while I was the piano accompanist, working in support of the vocal instructor. This group always felt less like a music class than a gathering of kindred spirits learning of life, and Kathryn contributed her part with flair, making a direct, physical connection with everyone who came through the door.
Imagine not knowing how to stand in front of an audience-not knowing what to do with your hands or move in a way that draws others in. Enter Kathryn, literally grabbing hold of you, leading you, melding with you in a dance that knows no embarrassment nor cares one iota for your pompous dignity. Watching this woman work and produce breakthroughs was cause alone for celebration.
The number of people who delighted in knowing Kay does not come as a surprise. When in the presence of someone who lives and breathes authenticity and grace, it becomes impossible to not recognize and love those same qualities hidden somewhere within our own being. When we chance upon a person so able to care and grieve for this world and then, in abrupt turnabouts, traipse off into some land of childlike merriment, we feel invited to follow along. We’re compelled to step up and be so holy ourselves. This consistent presence is the way I understand the power of love to enter into our lives: non-judging, undemanding, and unconditional. Kathryn had this down. Whether enamored of a person’s inherent goodness or fed up with someone’s utter stupidity, her love was the same, and it was a rock.
She and I routinely pondered oddities of the English language, questioning such sayings as “letting the cat out of the bag” (what do cats have to do with keeping secrets, and how did this one get into the bag to begin with?) and “It’s raining cats and dogs!” (There’re those damned cats again!) Eventually we stopped limiting ourselves to existing colloquialisms and began developing our own: While poring over local movie listings we mused at how the longer lingering films played out their run at the Plaza De Oro. In time we began referring to anything that had outlived its day as being “Plaza De Oro’d.”
Kay loved a parade and would pull out her lawn chairs for anything coming down State Street in an organized fashion. Fittingly, on her 70th birthday, a group of us threw her a parade of her own, complete with costumes, signs, kazoos, noisemakers-whatever would create ample disruption. By that time the cancer had begun determining how her days and energy went, so we made due accommodations. Nancy completely transformed a wheelchair into a throne, most suitable for royal transport up S.B.’s main drag. Dale strummed his banjo, and Connie donned her clown costume and baton. Allegra and Ollie, Kathryn’s children, joined the revelry as just two more of their mom’s adoring gang. Passersby and sidewalk cafe patrons sang out their birthday wishes and motorists honked! Whenever the commotion lulled, Jason cracked his bullwhip like some sort of : I don’t know what! But it was definitely wild! Through all this Kathryn slipped effortlessly into her queen-for-a-day role, waving to her old and new fans and delighting in such a disturbance of the peace. Once again, no reverence for dignity!
I hold a basic faith in the order and rightness of the universe; that the process by which events unfold and lessons appear is as it should be and needs to be. Still, the loss of my friend leaves me raw and grieving, aware that such vacuums do not heal with time. Rather, I believe, we all become our journeys and our relationships, and we evolve as a sum of all we have seen and whom we have known. So long, dear one. I am granted no more walks and laughs and romps with you. Instead, you are now a part of who I am, there in a deep and hallowed place I can go to for quiet inner smiles, tears, and sighs.