Memorial Day is a good time to reflect on what heroism means. That hit home with particular force this year as, last Thursday, one of the kindest, smartest, funniest, most generous, caring and beautiful women I’ve ever known passed away after a valiant battle with breast cancer.
Her name was Kathi Kamen Goldmark, and she didn’t just crank out the courage in fighting her illness. She had that particular kind of courage that too often gets overlooked: The courage to be happy. And she had a particular gift for welcoming others into that happiness.
Or as David Phillips, the pedal steel player for Kathi’s band, Los Train Wreck, put it:
“Kathi’s job was to make sure everybody sang.”
Briefly, a bio: Kathi was not just the lead singer, rhythm guitarist (with her trademark leopard-skin Stratocaster), and heart and soul of Los Train Wreck, she was also a novelist—the marvelous And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You— plus a contributor and co-writer for a number of anthologies and other books, a founder and the lead Remainderette for the all-writer rock band The Rock Bottom Reminders—which included Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Stephen King and Ridley Pearson among others—as well as the most deeply appreciated literary escort in the San Francisco Bay Area (perhaps the known world). So Kathi knew a host of writers who loved her deeply and miss her bitterly.
There are a number of tributes to Kathi on the web, and you can access many of them through the Facebook page of her husband, Sam Barry, himself a big-hearted mensch and old soul.
My personal favorite tribute came from Luis Albert Urrea, a truly heartfelt farewell titled “Goodnight, Queen of Hearts.”
[Luis and I met through Kathi, a friendship that “matured” into a collaboration on a short story titled “Who Stole My Monkey?” for Lone Star Noir, which was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2011, something Kathi got a particular kick out of.]
But this is a post about what it means to be brave. Or as Kathi sometimes put it: “I like to think I’m ready for anything.”
I saw in Kathi many of the same qualities I saw in my late wife, Terri—a fundamental decency, honesty and openness, a focus on others that was always generous and good-hearted. She was also wickedly funny and, yes, ready for damn near anything.
But when you got together with her one-on-one she was always fully present, even when she was sick. It was simply her nature. When you were with her, you were the only person who mattered.
April Sinclair told me that when she and Kathi spoke the Sunday before her death, “She was so warm and caring as always,” even as death was settling in.
And one of the stories making the rounds at the informal wake at Kathi’s and Sam’s house Thursday evening was that, as she wavered in and out of consciousness near the end, she gestured Sam over at one point, had him bend down toward her so she could whisper, “Rosebuuuuuud.”
I hope I can muster half that sang-froid when death comes for me.
A few weeks ago I wrote here on Murderati a piece titled Braver, Wiser, More Loving, in which I said:
In crafting our heroes, we implicitly recognize the need to be a little more than we’ve allowed ourselves to be, recognize that the fault lies within, as does the remedy.
When my wife, Terri, died, I was assaulted with well-meaning advice on how to deal with the loss, a lot of which was largely beside the point. But I saw in those attempts to be kind and caring a message I did indeed need to hear: I couldn’t live with a ghost strapped to my back.
That, in the end, was the message I took away from my grief: I had to find a way to live when the most important person in my life—my best friend, my lover, my bride—had been devoured by a savage, indifferent disease.
And after the battles with despair and rage I decided that each day I would try to be a little braver, more truthful, more forgiving. I thought if I kept it that simple—three virtues: courage, honesty and love—I might be able to manage it. And I’d live up to Terri’s example, for she was the bravest, most devoutly honest and most selflessly caring human being I’ve ever met.
I can’t read those words today, a mere few weeks after I wrote them, and not think of Kathi as well. She too is my hero. If I can be a bit more like her each day, I’ll be okay.
Christ, I’ll be grand.
Isn’t that what the heroes in our stories do—inspire not just their fellow characters but us? How often does the hero resist or ignore the sound advice of a crucial ally until that ally suffers terribly or dies, at which point the journey is doomed unless the hero recognizes his error, embraces the ally’s example, and ventures on?
How many of us have lost someone irreplaceable, and felt broken by grief until somehow we managed to not just honor our memories of that person but take them fully to heart, let our remembrance change us?
These days the cineplex is full of superheroes with inhuman powers and mythic echoes, as well as all variety of werewolves, vampires, zombies. It’s almost as though we can’t believe in heroism unless it’s supersized, even while our men and women in uniform perform astonishing acts of courage large and small every day. And women like Kathi live life and face death with incredible gentleness and courage and largeness of spirit.
I can’t see much to emulate in the Hulk. But I see much to admire and imitate in Kathi. I hope I do that. I’ve no one to blame but myself if I don’t.
The time for heroes, as always, is here and now.
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I’d love to hear from you on this. Have you lost someone close to you who’s inspired you to be a little better, a little larger in spirit: braver, wiser, more loving?
Who in your life has represented heroism? How has his or her example changed you?
Have you written about that person, or has she inspired one of your characters?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Here’s a video of Kathi—that’s Harpman Sam, her husband, on the harmonica—with the Rock Bottom Remainders performing her signature tune, “Older Than Him (the Slut Song)”:
As Mum lay dying being ground away bit by bit by cancer, maybe a week before she went, she had my daughters and I gathered around her bed, and she kept trying to tell a joke. She'd repeat a certain line over and over and we'd sort of look at each other thinking about how strong the medication was and thinking she was slipping in and out. However she was telling us the punch line and we kept missing it. So there is Mum on her way out still running rings around us with her wit.
There are many ways Mum inspired me, but her generosity of spirit was truly awesome. She pushed past her own shyness to become very iron fist in the velvet glove… a magnificent maker of lists and things happened around her, people stood straighter and found some more of themselves from being around her. She had a kind heart with a pithy wit.
I think being raised by her I've been truthful, kind, loving and built some wisdom into my interactions with others…now I just need to be braver. Trust more, act more, live larger…love that little more fiercely.
Thanks for sharing your heroes David.
Catherine: Thanks for that wonderful story about your mom. I think you touch on a crucial point — there are just some people who change us simply because we have the good fortiune to be near them. Their sheer presence inspires us, calms us, grounds us. That grounding permits us to look at ourselves a bit more honestly, and to do the difficult with a bit more poise and humility and quiet strength.
As for the lack of trust, use your mother as a touchstone. When you feel like withdrawing from a challenge, call on your mother's memory, bring her vividly into your mind and heart. As a Catholic, I was always told to call on the saints in times of temptation or weakness. But the saints were abstract, the stuff of folk tales I barely comprehended, and wasn't sure I believed. But Kathi, your mom — we know their strength tangibly, in our bones. They showed us the way. Now it's up to us.
Thanks, David, for this post.
On Memorial Day, I got to thinking about the deceased, but also the vets who have returned. Seems likes sometimes we forget them. It takes courage to fight a useless farce of a war, but it also takes courage to return and deal with debilitating PTSD, people who don't understand what it was like over there and perhaps even spit in your face, and a government that doesn't provide proper support. I mourned for them too.
My dad was a vet, and when he was dying of cancer, he was obsessed with making sure that my mom would be okay financially. He kept trying to teach us, his daughters, how to continue his financial investment strategies. He'd make us take notes. In his last days, all he thought about was Mom's welfare. It was sweet, but it also saddened because this was the only way he knew to show his love. I wish he could have been more peaceful in the end…
When my dad was dying of cancer, utterly weak and nearing his last moments on earth, I phoned for a priest to come and perform the Last Rites. It was the middle of the night at the Honolulu Kaiser, and I despaired that a priest would come in time. Surprisingly, one did arrive quickly. I returned to my father's bedside and excitedly said, "Dad the priest is here!" My father's last smiling words were, "How capricious of him."
It seems to me that the last moments of life distill our spirit to an ultimate truth. My dad was always one to appreciate the humor in situations. In his last days, I saw how that humor reflected his love for life and for those who came within his embracing circle.
Today, whenever I smile, I think of Dad's brilliant smiles. It's true that heroism is in the moments of daily life; those moments are enhanced for me by my inheritance of joy.
Lisa: The general feeling is that the vets aren't being shunned and shamed and abused like they were after Vietnam, but there's something else going on, perhaps even mroe insidious. ON the one hand there's the military's resistance to fully dealing with PTSD, for fear of opening a serious can of worms. Not everyone gets it, so it's easier to fault the men and women who get it on the grounds of a prior psychological disposition than to address the core problem: combat fucks you up. Surviving it is sometimes the hardest part.
But that brings up the second problem, which is the vast social disconnect between those who serve and those who don't. There isn't the self-righteous snottiness you saw when the Nam vets came home, there's just a chasm of ignorance that can feel all too often like indifference. Especially when jobs are scarce and the economy seems to be in a ditch.
Your dad went out the way he lived. I know you'd wish a more peaceful passage but he was true to his own caring soul. He sounds like he was the best man he knew how to be, and that's all we can ask of anyone.
Kate: What a wonderful story. "How capricious of him." Perfect.
Your knowledge far surpasses mine. What I know about the vets at home comes from friends of friends, and from NPR, but when I hear about those with PTSD and what's not being done to help them–well, I get mad.
There is a disconnect. I know I feel it. And for me, it's because I don't know what to believe about the "war." The whole thing felt/feels like a brainwashing of the masses. I know I'm ignorant, but where can the truth be had when it's spin-doctored away?
I talked to a man, a conservative, who just returned from Afghanistan, and he was disgusted by the whole thing. A sham, all of it, according to him. He had many examples and details, which of course, I've forgotten now. But I remember his parting statement, "If only people knew what is really going on over there…"
My dad did do his best. And Mom is okay financially…
I recently watched a friend pass at the age of 48, rather suddenly. He had an aneurism, survived enough to get on facebook, then in bout 10 days deteriorated until he finally could hold on no longer. While his last acts were not so profound — on the day he died he managed to kiss his husband goodbye and waited until they brought dear sweet Willow, their dog, into intensive care to say goodbye, to finally pass (the nurses were amazed at how he hung on). Brent's legacy was the circle of friends there, along with his husband Chip, at his bedside as he went, who gathered afterwards to support Chip, who showed up at memorials in DC, at dinners, at brunches, at gatherings in Iowa where Brent was from, at ash scattering in Maine where he and Chip vacationed. As a result of his death, I have 20 new friends, new circles, new support — it is such an illustration of how he lived his life. He loved people and his most sincere pleasure was introducing two of his friends to each other and creating new bonds. And even after he was gone, he did this (and continues so) well. I loved Brent in life, he was caring, generous, open and one of my favorite people. In death, he continues to nurture through all the relationships he fostered.
I’m sorry I never met Ms. Goldmark. When I was listening to her song, I thought that I shouldn’t be laughing out loud. . . But from your description, she was the kind of marvelous person who rarely missed an opportunity to invite people to laugh out loud. So I did, in her honor.
I’ve lost family members, friends, and acquaintances, and was affected and changed in a different way each time, which makes sense. I’m still stuck in the rage stage for one death after four years, another has left me bewildered, while one or two brought nothing but a sense of shared peace.
The first taught me that taking my own life — not *giving* it, taking it — is not the correct answer to any question I can possibly ask. The second taught me that questions need to be asked sooner rather than later. And the last taught me that when the time comes, allowing my life to be released may be the best possible answer to any questions that still remain.
I don’t know if any of this has made me a better person. But I’m still here, I’m still asking, and I’m not as afraid as I once was.
Heroes are tricky people to define–you know 'em when you see ‘em. But however they choose to act (or not), they don’t seem to allow personal consequences much weight in their decision-making. They look outward, not inward, I think.
Sarah: If you're no longer as afraid as you once were, I'd call that an improvement. A major one. Give yourself an attagirl.
As for outward-looking heroes: I'm re-reading John Truby's THE ANATOMY OF STORY right now, and he very much believes that the hero's path is defined by a crisis of insight that forges a decision that changes his behavior. Prior to that insight and decision, for whatever reason, he acts immorally and (perhaps unconsciously) hurts the people around him. (Robert McKee essentially agrees.) I don't agree with this is always or necessarily the case, but I do believe that such heroes effect us deeply and are some of the most memorable: Joe Buck in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, Jake Gittes in CHINATOWN, Michael Clayton, etc. The turn outward comes after a dark night of the soul, an examination of conscience or a shattering crisis that refocuses the hero's energy and understanding: He becomes more focused on the general good, not his own.
I'm oversimplifying horribly, but I think that most stories that reflect deep change in the hero oblige this kind of inward reckoning before the exterior manifestation of the change can take place.
If I've misunderstood you, I apologize.
And yeah, Kathi would have loved the fact you laughed. It's a funny song.
Thank you so much David for this beautiful and moving piece about my dearest, life-long friend Kathi.
The depth of your words has helped be deal with her passing a little better today than yesterday. Your heartfelt words about your wife and Kathi remind me to be brave and be a little more like them each day. Thank you for moving me to tears and for one more reminder of how incredibly grateful I am to have had Kathi as such major part of my life. Sending love, Kai Bravo.
Kai: Hey, hon. I got a glimpse of what you're going through Thursday at the house when we got a chance to chat. Kathi was your mentor and friend and confidante for so many years, it must feel like a part of your heart had been ripped from your body. The good news: It will get better. And her memory and her example are how we carry forward what she gave us. That's the only way to fill that gaping hole in the world where Kathi used to be. It's simple. But not easy, especially now. The loss feels too inexplicable, too raw, too vast, too wrong. My heart goes out to you, my dear. Be gentle with yourself, and I'm sure we'll see each other soon.
Oh, David. I'm so sorry for your loss. There's just too much of it in life, isn't there?
I've lost many people, but the one I'm thinking of today is Helen Renwick, a gorgeous dark chocolate colored woman with a voice as rich and deep as decades' aged, wood-barrelled scotch. She spent her life doing for others without any thought for herself . . . just doing and doing until ALS got her and knocked her down hard. Still, she didn't lose her sense of humor or sense of purpose.
I'll never forget her as long as I live and I miss her every day though she wasn't even one of my closest friends.