A couple of months ago, I stumbled across some old correspondence between me and John Strong, Kathy’s dad. John had asked me for a copy of a quotation I’d used in a sermon. It was from a book called When Breath Becomes Air, written by a brilliant young brain surgeon who was dying of cancer just as he was finally finishing his medical training.
I guess you could call it a cancer memoir, because it was about the last few years of this man’s life, but don’t get the wrong idea: it was much more about how he lived through that time than about his dying.
The part John asked for was this: “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult—sometimes almost impossible—they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily of act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”[i]
It wasn’t hard to understand why this resonated with John. It was a few months before Jane died—Kathy’s mom—and Kathy was fighting her own illness, and the daily, ongoing balance of life and love and pain and hope must have been very present for John.
It certainly was very much so for all of us in the Strongs’ parish family at Good Shepherd Church. And so it would continue to be right up to the day when Kathy finally lost her fight to live—at least to live in the mortal body that suffered so much these past few years—and we lost Kathy.
And yet when I think of her, it’s not the way she died but the way she lived that I remember now: Her love of life and everything in it, and her willingness to share her love and her faith and her fight to live with everyone around her.
Sometimes life is just so hard. It’s such a mix of joy and sorrow, all mingled together—that’s the mystery of it, and in some strange way that is also its beauty.
If you knew Kathy, then you know what a giving person she was, and her greatest gift to us was inviting us into her struggle. She shared her journey through all the triumphs and setbacks she encountered, just as she shared her faith. She never stopped caring for family and friends, including her parish family, most especially her Sunday School students.
But the truth is that we all became her students, as she demonstrated for us all the lesson that life and love are precious gifts no matter how difficult the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Her way of being through these past few years embodied for me another line from the book I just mentioned, where the author talks about wanting to center his life around love and family even in the face of the truth that he might not have long to enjoy those basic human satisfactions.
He decided, to quote the book, that he “would carry on living, instead of dying.”[ii]
In her own life, Kathy continued living, and continued witnessing to a God whose love is great and who loved her personally.
She believed that both the living and the dead are held in God’s love, that our lives don’t end but are only changed when we pass from this life. She believed that after Jane died, she was at peace and waiting for the rest of us to join her in a place where, as our readings put it, God will wipe away every tear.
Because Kathy was already sick when I arrived at Good Shepherd four years ago, I never really got to see her in a Sunday School classroom. But I loved watching her at Vacation Bible School last summer and the summer before.
What a gift she had for working with those kids, a gift for connecting and teaching them what she knew about God’s love.
I think we probably all hope that when we come to the end of our time on earth we’ll be able to look back and see that we’ve made some difference here. And Kathy did make a difference.
By the way she lived her life and through her example of living in God’s love, she gave us a glimpse of the face of God.
Life won’t be the same for us who are left to carry on without her, but we thank God for the gift of knowing her, and for the faith and love she shared with us here.
One of the last times I saw Kathy, when she was in hospice down in the city, she told me she was at peace with the decision to stop fighting and let things run their course, but what really hurt was knowing she’d never go home again.
As we mourn the loss of her life among us, I trust that she is at home now, waiting for us in the land of light and joy, in that blessed rest of everlasting peace we speak of in our prayers today.
[i]When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi, 219.