I’d like to say I knew Katherine Russell Rich well, because she was worth knowing well. I’d love to say she was a colleague, a mentor, a friend, because that would have been a blessing. But I can’t make those statements. I barely knew her.
And when I did meet her, I hadn’t a clue who she was. She did her homework and knew me better than I knew her, and it should have been the other way around. Later, in a sheepishly grateful email, I told her I was glad, in retrospect, that I’d been so oblivious, because knowing her gifts and stature as a writer, or the medical miracle of her adult life, would have changed my approach to the meeting. Sometimes clueless is good.
I met Katherine, who died April 3 at age 56, at an annual spring conference in Boston on medical memoir writing and publishing, organized by Harvard Medical School’s Department of Continuing Education. Katherine was on the faculty when I attended in spring 2011, at my wife’s urging. My wife also convinced me to participate in an evening workshop. I approached it as an add-on to an already full day, and didn’t put much time into preparing for it. By not much time I mean no time at all.
Which is ironic, and even sad, because the evening spent with Katherine and three others who came seeking her criticism and guidance was very much about time — its limits, its worth to an individual, desperate efforts to purchase more, the value of a moment.
The short story I brought was about one of those moments, the night in spring 2006 when I watched the marrow of a stranger trickle from a bag down a catheter’s serpentine path and into the point of entry that engineers and scientists had made and a surgeon had installed, and in so doing made a way for this miraculously human fluid, drawn hours earlier from someone as generous as she was anonymous, to restore hope and ultimately life in a child, my daughter.
The transplant took place on Thursday of Easter Week. My wife and I celebrated with a red wine that held certain mystical and transportive qualities for my inner altar boy, and got us scolded by the nurse-enforcer of rules such as no red wine on the transplant ward. On Easter morning, color began returning to our daughter’s cheeks.
I hoped not to beat readers over the head with Easter’s coincidental metaphor, and Katherine said I’d handled that well. It was good to hear. “I get sent a lot of illness memoirs to read,” Katherine wrote, “and yours is definitely a cut above.” She said other nice things about my story, though she said it was missing contextual information as though it had been lifted from a longer story, and this was true. The longer story was what had brought me to the conference in hopes of finding an agent or publisher.
She knew me better than I knew her. She had done her homework. But as the five of us shared and discussed our stories, we struggled to hear over the background noise from similar dialogues at other tables. Katherine, especially, was difficult to hear. Her voice was weak and she had every reason not to be there, in a windowless basement conference room in downtown Boston, feeling who knows what from the cancer that she’d already lived much of her adult her life with. But we listened closely, and took in every word from someone gifted, and in love, with words.
Back at home after the workshop, my daughter asleep down the hall, I belatedly did my homework. I read about Katherine’s most recent book, “Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language” and the earlier “The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer — and Back.” I discovered she was author of a story my wife had read aloud a few years earlier, about a spontaneous bout of necking on an elevator with a NY fireman she’d just met, and just before she set off to learn Hindi in India. You don’t forget stories like that.
And I discovered she had survived more than 20 years with breast cancer, 17 of them Stage IV, and that one of the myriad treatments that kept her going was a bone marrow transplant. She’d not hinted that my story held any special resonance for her.
Back at the conference the next day, I queued up to buy a copy of “Dreaming in Hindi,” and ask Katherine to sign it. I knew a bit more about her, had some sense of the story behind her weakened condition. You’re not supposed to live as long as she had with Stage IV breast cancer. I was struck, as she smiled and signed her book, at her transcendent radiance.
“There’s no such thing as false hope: all hope is valid, even for people like us, even when hope would no longer appear to be sensible,” Katherine wrote, to fellow survivors, in the New York Times.
We all know we’re going to die. Some know this in a more real way than others. Some know it in a way that grants them a wisdom that makes others crowd close to hear what they have to say. Katherine knew it well. Her writing is alive, human and inspired. What a friend she must have been.
I brought home my signed copy of “Dreaming in Hindi,” but didn’t have it long, because my wife asked for a “quick look” that hasn’t quite ended yet.
The talk of the 2011 Harvard conference was Siddhartha Mukherjee, the oncologist and author of an extraordinary “biography” of cancer. “The Emperor of All Maladies” makes no mention of Katherine Russell Rich, but explains, as well as can be explained, how it came to be that she lived as long as she did; and explains, as well as can be explained, why bone marrow transplant sometimes cures what once was incurable.
“Life itself isn’t sensible, I say,” Katherine once wrote. “No one can say with ultimate authority what will happen — with cancer, with a job that appears shaky, with all reversed fortunes — so you may as well seize all glimmers that appear.”