We sat in a movie theater over the weekend, my husband and I, and cried as we watched an epic film about making music and finding your soul mate. It wasn’t A Star Is Born (although it’s on my list of films to catch). It was the biopic about Freddie Mercury and the band Queen.
If you’ve seen “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it might strike you as a little bit odd that we were both shedding tears throughout the entire film. Granted, most of the movie should’ve kept the audience smiling with the empowering depiction of Queen’s rise to fame while determined to do things their way, and Freddie’s incredible prowess as a brilliant singer/songwriter.
But this is not a movie review. Robert Burke is great at what he does, and you can check out his 4 minute review here. This also isn’t a story about Queen, although the band did play a pretty big role in the development of my relationship with my husband. It’s about someone else. The first person who championed for our relationship. Most of those tears shed during that Sunday matinee were for her.
To tell the rest of this story, we need to go all the way back to the ninth grade, to the fall of 1980. To a grassy field on the campus of Jefferson Junior High, on the west end of Eugene, Oregon. I had just transferred schools because I was no longer welcome at the school I’d attended for the past few years.
I get it. If I was the school principal and had to deal with a feisty 13-year-old who stood up in English class and flipped the double bird to the substitute teacher, I wouldn’t want me as a student there any longer, either. I still maintain that it was an appropriate reaction, because I definitely didn’t deserve a C- on my creative writing paper, the reason for the in-class outburst. Even back then I knew I had a future with the written word, and she didn’t seem to appreciate that. She didn’t appreciate a lot of the words I said that day, before she sent me packing to the principal’s office.
So there I was, at a new school. I didn’t know anyone there, which was the whole point. I was starting over from scratch. I remember the day well, because it was one of the last sunny days of autumn. The PE teacher decided we’d take advantage of the warm weather, and the class was out on the soccer field. We’d just picked teams for a game of Frisbee football.
I can even tell you what I was wearing that day, at least on the bottom half of my body. Dolfin shorts. Like the kind fitness guru Richard Simmons wears.
Mine were solid blue, with built-in underwear. To say that the sewn in underwear is a good idea is an understatement best illustrated by the photo above.
He was on the other team, and when we lined up for the snap, he made sure he was across from me. A tow-headed, blue-eyed 9th grader. He flashed an impish smile at me, and then started singing a line from Queen, “No time for losers, cause we are the champions…of the world!” (OK, so I guess some of this story really is about Queen.) And then he tugged on my shorts. Just to see if the underwear was sewn in. That was the moment I met Eddie, my future husband.
Before class was over, Eddie had invited me to the school dance that Friday. After that we were inseparable, until I moved away in 1981. Fortunately, he tracked me down 27 years later, flashed that smile again, and eventually convinced me that we needed to make it official. Soulmates forever.
The woman in the middle of this wedding day photo is Eddie’s oldest sister, Kathy. I’ve known her approximately 38 years, since not long after that day on the soccer field. When Eddie and I met, he had also had his own troubles in school, and was uninvited from attending 9th grade in his hometown of Coos Bay. His mom didn’t know how to control him (she was never really the mothering type), so she packed him off to live with Kathy in Eugene. She was just 24 years old, but was already married, working a full-time waitress job, had a 6-year-old son, and lived in a tiny two-bedroom duplex near the junior high. She didn’t think twice about it. She just took in her little brother, and pretty much became the mother figure for him from that moment on.
I think the best way to illustrate what a mother figure Kathy was for her younger siblings is to point you back to the story I told earlier this year in the column DNA about the time Kathy’s father, after splitting from his wife, came back home long enough to kidnap younger sister Laura. Their mom didn’t run after them, it was Kathy. First Kathy begged him to take her instead, so that Laura would be spared. Then she begged him to take her too, so that she could take care of her little sister. She couldn’t have been 10 years old, but she was always ready to care for her little sister and brother. And me, too.
Back in the 9th grade, almost every day after school let out, instead of hopping on the bus right away to make the trek back to my home on the other side of the city, Eddie and I would walk to Kathy’s. We had the place to ourselves sometimes (which, I’ll just be straight up with you, was a little bit dangerous), but a lot of the time Kathy was there, making dinner or being a mother hen, and a few times she’d offer to drive me all the way across the city to my house.
I adored her, mainly because her brother adored her. But also because she was a good human. She was simple, salt-of-the-earth, and loving. She called Eddie “baby brother.” She called me “baby doll.” She always had her long, dark hair piled up on top of her head with bobby pins, and wore thick, black eyeliner. She smoked weird, off-brand cigarettes, but she didn’t want anyone to know. We all knew. She didn’t care if Eddie and I were getting a little too cozy on the living room sofa while listening to both sides of Queen’s new album, The Game (there I go again, talking about Queen). She never underestimated the power of young love, and she didn’t think it was just a passing little thing. She gave adult respect to young teenage love, and thought we were adorable together. She thought I was good for Eddie (I was), and that he needed me (he did). Kathy was a true champion for our relationship.
Thirty three years later, when Eddie and I said our vows, Kathy was there when Eddie’s own mother wasn’t. She drove three hours just so she could spend a few hours with us before driving all the way back home to care for her disabled husband and two little dogs. She needed to get back to her customers at the Prairie Schooner in Eugene, a restaurant she’d been at for probably 20 years. She finally left that job and moved back home to be close to her family a few years ago, back into the very home that had once belonged to her grandparents before they passed, then to her mother before she passed, and now Kathy.
Around that same time, Kathy – before giving up the medical insurance she could no longer afford – went to the doctor about her lungs. She had a cough. Sshe thought she might have pneumonia, or the flu. The doctor told her it was probably just allergies, and didn’t bother to take an X-Ray.
The cough got worse. but Kathy kept on keepin’ on, driving an hour each way to Florence every day for a new full time waitressing job. She was tired. She was getting thinner, weighing less than 100 pounds. She was having trouble eating. By the time she finally took a day off of work to get another opinion on her condition, a few years had gone by. The original doctor had retired.
The new doctor diagnosed Kathy with Stage Four Lung Cancer. It had already metastasized into several other spots in her body. Her brain. Her leg. Her hip. The doctor told her to go back home and quit her job. This was six months ago.
I’ll get angrier than you’ve every seen me if I talk too much about the clusterfuck situation that arose when we tried to start finding out how Kathy might get help, so I’ll be brief and gloss over most of it. But a suddenly unemployed almost-62-year-old terminally-ill woman living on the edge of poverty with no insurance and a disabled husband was a set up for the perfect storm of helplessness. She didn’t qualify. For anything. I suggested she sit down with an advocate at the local human services agency to discuss the process of qualifying for disability and getting on Medicaid. The advocate said that because her husband was on disability and had a small pension, that Kathy’s best course of action would be to file for divorce. File. For. Divorce. That wasn’t going to happen.
In the meantime, the doctors held off on treatment for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually she had a round of radiation, and two rounds of chemo. But to be honest, it was just too late. It was always too late. Kathy wanted to fight it. What she had going for her was determination and the love and support of her family. Eddie and I drove there as often as we could; almost every weekend. I sent her an ice cap, which she wore every day. We watched her lose another fifteen pounds. Sister Laura brought over every kind of fattening food she could think of that Kathy might like: chocolate zucchini cake, chocolate milkshakes and Chinese food. Another family member introduced Kathy to CBD oil, which really helped her sleep, and helped her appetite.
But in the end, all the love in the world couldn’t save Kathy from cancer. She couldn’t catch her breath, and went to the hospital. A woman from hospice talked to Laura about setting Kathy up with palliative care. Laura knew what that meant. She tried to break the news gently to Kathy’s husband, but when he and I walked into the hospital room together last week, he broke down in tears. Of course he did. Kathy looked at him incredulously and said, “What are you crying for Jody? Who told you I’m dying? I’m not dying! I’m fighting this thing!”
Then she turned to me and said, “Valerie, am I dying?” and the moment that followed was the most long, difficult moment of my life, because I could not give her an answer.
She started pulling electrodes off of her body, and told her husband that she was going to be OK; she just wanted to go home, and cuddle up with her dogs Luna and Little Bit. So that’s what we did.
Kathy died last Tuesday, forever a champion.
In Kathy’s honor, I hope you’ll spend a little time with this playlist I put together just for her. And of course, it includes a bit of Queen.