This past Thursday morning, Kathleen Mary (O'Mara) Callahan--or, as I always called her, "Kiddo"--died. She was 52, the same age at which she lost her father decades ago. Although I'm relieved she no longer suffers, my selfish side feels it's totally unfair a kind and gentle person ever had to endure so much pain only to be yanked into death, anyway. If there's a life beyond this one, I hope her every moment finds her face painted with a shit-eating grin that leads to that infectious cackle of a laugh; and yet any hopes of eternity don't even begin to fill the void her death left here. In short, it sucks.
(As I'm writing this, it's easy for me to picture Kiddo tucked into the leather chair next to the fireplace, rolling her eyes and announcing, "Patty, hurry up and get in here; you're missing Asshole's pity party!" So enough of the maudlin, woe-is-me schtick.)
Through the last chaotic week or so, a great many folks, including dozens of friends and family members (plus a few who became acquainted with Kathleen only through what I and others have written about her)--turned to her Facebook page to post updates, photographs and fond recountings of special moments. I wanted to provide updates on this blog, but I could not remember how to get in (again); my apologies to any who felt left out of the loop. I expect this will be my final post to this blog, so please bear with me if I prattle on for a screen or so in sharing a remembrance of a dear friend. My words may drip with a bias for which I'll never apologize to anyone.
As most of you know, Kathleen discovered an almond-sized and malignant lump in her left breast a little more than 11 years ago. She underwent a mastectomy and, without skipping a step, launched back into business-as-usual, as though the offending boob and lymph nodes were little more than annoying skin tags. For years after that, cancer rarely came up in conversation. Why would it? In our minds, Kiddo had kicked cancer's lumpy ass and sent it packing.
Through the last quarter of 2008, Kathleen struggled with significant and increasing pain through her lower back and hip. She went for an MRI--a procedure she loathed above all others. I remember being with Patty, on a field trip, when Kathleen called with her test results. The cancer had stormed back and staked a claim throughout her spine. For this, there would be no cure; one day, that stupid tiny lump would kill her. Kathleen felt sad and frightened at first but, again, she launched back into her role as wife, mother, sister and friend, even when chemotherapy and cancer weighed her down.
In September of 2010, while hospitalized for almost four weeks with dangerously low blood counts, Kathleen developed ascites, an accumulation of fluid in the body's cavities. Her abdomen swelled so much she looked as though she would soon deliver a child; she even hammed it up for a photo, belly in hands. Her oncologist told us she shouldn't expect to live long; this was one of the signs the end was near. But we didn't lose her, and Kathleen turned another corner. She started to become a legend; she was, it would seem, invincible.
Through much of this year, Kathleen has been fighting an awe-inspiring battle. Most of her days have been spent either at the oncology clinic, at the infusion lab receiving blood or platelets, or in the hospital itself. I've been awed by this. She rarely complained about how much pain she was in, or about how frustrated she just had to be. If you pushed, you might coax out, "Yeah, my back hurts a little," or, "I just wish I could get rid of this nagging headache." She insisted on being part of things, even if her hemoglobin was so low everyone wondered how she could be upright. She soldiered through her pain, even with her platelets so depressed that docs warned us the simplest scrape or bump could be life-threatening. Patty and I tracked her numbers week after week; even as the important counts started to slip into threatening levels, Kathleen still found reserves to socialize with friends and family.
These past couple of weeks have been a total blur. Kathleen spent the day before Christmas in the infusion lab receiving blood; for the first time I could remember, she missed the O'Mara family Christmas party (Patty, the kids and I stopped in at her house on our trip home as a flimsy way to compensate.) Somehow--again, Kathleen is remarkable--she rallied to make it to the Callahans' gathering on Christmas Day. The next day, she received chemo, which made her violently ill; the day after, she stayed in bed. On the following morning, when Don took her to her appointment at the oncology lab, they redirected her to the E.R., where she slipped into a coma. An MRI of her skull revealed her brain was full of cancerous lesions. Of course, because Kathleen is a wonder woman, to everyone's surprise (including that of a neurosurgeon whose mouth fell open), she came out of her haze to spend an amazing Sunday with much of her extended family. And then she slipped back into the fog. She came out fully once again and was able to appreciate the fact her brother Kevin helped arrange expedited hospice service so her family could bring her home.
I wish so much Kathleen could have spent her last night in her family room; she almost made it. As she lingered through the past few days, gifting us with fleeting glimmers of awareness and lucidity, we all tried to fool ourselves another miracle might happen. But her vitals--in particular, her rapid heart rate and fever while sleeping--suggested she was in severe pain, even though she couldn't tell us. Her oncologist asked that she be moved to a special off-site hospice clinic, where they could administer pain relief beyond what any family member could administer. With Don and her son Sean by her side, she died in the morning. Finally, she'd slipped beyond cancer's reach.
Soon, I hope to forget most of these details of her illness; they seem so intimately tied to pain. I hope instead to fill my thoughts with joyful memories of the person who was so much more than the disease that chose to steal her. Here are just a few...
As her son Sean shared at Kiddo's funeral two nights ago, Kathleen never met a stranger she wasn't inclined to treat as a friend. I remember, more than once, riding in an elevator with Kiddo, only to have her say to a crowd of passengers, "Oh, just ignore my brother-in-law Brian. He's a smartass. We're here to spend the day with my sister Patty; she has heart failure. What are you doing here?" I was sometimes embarrassed, just a little, but I admired this outgoing nature as well. This world could use more friendly folks.
Kathleen valued her family and friends, I think even more so than most. One evening, we were reading a book of "would you..." questions when Kiddo was asked, "For ten million dollars, would you agree to never again see your spouse?" Kathleen acted like this was the most ridiculous question ever. "Of course not." She would have answered the same way about each of her children and of each of her siblings, other relatives and friends. Because of her genuine, straightforward and kind nature, Kathleen held an open invitation to any event hosted by our friends.
When my first book was released in the summer of 2010, Kathleen was first in line to ask me to make her a t-shirt promoting the book. She not only wore the shirt--she wore it out. When the new book came out this autumn, she nagged, "When do I get my new shirt?"
I won't try to tell you Kathleen was an unflawed person. At times, she could be irascible, inconsiderate and impatient; more than once, I sent her a text message blasting her for taking out the day's frustrations on her sister. A moment later, she'd call and apologize not only to Patty, but to me and to anyone else who might have peripherally been affected by her behavior. She never wanted anyone to stay upset with her; to the best of my knowledge, nobody ever could stay that way.
Without Kathleen, our home seems strangely quiet. Patty and Kathleen spoke by phone, on average, three times each and every day for years. Between the phone calls, they clogged each other's phone with texts, many quick, simple expressions of affection like, "I love you," or "I miss you." Patty is lost without her sister.
At Kathleen's wake, several nurses from the oncology clinic and hospital came to pay respects, some with faces streaked with tears. More than one said, "We don't come to all the funerals, but we just had to be here tonight. She was such a sweet and special person."
And she really was. Rest in peace, Kiddo.