Written and Delivered by John Ivins on 7/27/10 at St. James’s Episcopal Church
In the Gospel of John, Chap. 14, Jesus shares with his Disciples the familiar words of going to prepare a place for them and speaks of the fact that when he is no longer there He will leave behind the Holy Spirit – referred to as “another Advocate” to be with them forever.
Many of you know that throughout Kathy’s struggle, one of my roles has been to serve as her advocate – to try my best to understand all there was about melanoma, treatment, options, plans, strategies and to do my best to see that she had the most aggressive approach to winning this battle; to advocate at all levels for her treatment and what was best for her. It is a role I relished … but as you heard Spud’s words and those I will share, it is obvious today that Kathy has no further need for an advocate. Our lives are the culmination of all we have done in the world and for others, and her life speaks more loudly and strongly today than any “advocate” could or would.
So, today I am not here as her advocate ... simply her husband and father with her of Jack and Jim – to provide just a few more glimpses into who this marvelous woman was.
One of my early encounters with Kathy came when she invited me to come watch her play soccer – she played on a co-ed City soccer league …. I remember getting there after the game had started. I am on the sidelines trying to figure out which team is which and whether Kathy is on the field. I remember asking a couple people where Kathy Watkinson was; to have them point her out to me.
About that time a ball was hit high. I saw these two people headed towards it. There was this pretty big guy and someone else both going up to head the ball. As I recall, they both went up to head the ball and I think they missed, instead colliding in mid-air, their heads butting one another, both falling to the ground. The person next to me said, “I think the person lying on the ground on the right there would be Kathy.” I remember both players just laid there, medical people tending to them and that as Kathy came to the sidelines, she had this enormous welt on her forehead.
I thought …. “hmmmm do I want to date somebody that is this nuts?” Then I said, “yep, that was pretty cool.” She was -- in that moment, and throughout her life -- fearless and she did not back down. This is a quality I saw early on – which especially kept her in good stead in her battle over the last 10 months with her most recent brush with melanoma.
We married in 1985 and started a family pretty soon thereafter. She was developing her career at Thalhimer as a commercial real estate broker, and I was doing the same in the trial section of my law firm, Hirschler Fleischer. As our sons, Jack and Jim entered the world in 1986 and 1988, there was so much to be done, and I saw somebody in Kathy who could multi-task with the best of them. I can remember coming home from work and seeing Kathy standing at the stove in our little house on Wythe Avenue cooking, with our older son Jack holding Kathy’s leg, Jim, the baby, in a baby backpack, Kathy in running clothes, cooking, exercising, entertaining the kids. Amazing.
She developed this skill of multi-tasking to an artform as our kids grew, keeping her feet firmly planted in the business world, but always finding a way to be room mother to our kids, active at their schools – Reveille Daycare and Collegiate. Her way of balancing all of the demands of the day – while also keeping us closely connected and staying close with friends was always amazing to me.
I remember getting a great glimpse into how she did this in 1988. After Jim was born, she did not lose her baby weight right away – which bugged her. She went to her OB who checked it out. Turned out she had developed an ovarian cyst. But, this was no ordinary cyst – Kathy never did things half way -- this cyst weighed 7 and ½ pounds! We actually named it, “Joe” and she had to have surgery to have Joe removed. I remember being in the pre-op area with her; she was already partially under anesthesia … and I will never forget this conversation with her OB, Dr. Montague – “so Dr. Montague … are you happy with your current office space? I have some great medical office space over off Bremo Road I’d love to show you once we’re done here.”
Kathy did things big, she was always “working it,” she was fearless and she knew what she wanted – and people saw this in her. Those qualities allowed her to grow and succeed in the corporate world – but, interestingly, our kids could definitely see this too.
Last Christmas, Kathy received one of her all-time favorite presents – a business card created by our son, Jim, for his Mom. The company on the card is BADASSERY, INC. and Kathy is listed on the card as “KATHY IVINS, PROFESSIONAL BADASS.”
[RANDY …. IS IT OKAY TO SAY ASS?]
The card lists, “Kathy Ivins, Professional Badass – kicking the crap out of marathons, cancer, real estate and pretty much anything in her path since 1955.” She was so proud of that.
And, the reality is that all of you who know Kathy well know she was a bad ass; a fighter and with this cancer, she was absolutely defiant -- to the very end. This was most definitely her way.
But, as we learned from Spud – and as many of you who knew her well are aware, Kathy was also the most loving, caring person I’ve ever met – a side many of you have encountered over the years.
We have joked in recent days that you could put 50 friends of Kathy in a room … and this conversation would not be unusual. “Hi … how do you know Kathy? … “Easy. I am her best friend.” “Well, you may be a good friend, but actually I am her best friend.” Someone else would overhear and come over to say, “as Kathy’s best friend, I’d like to welcome you.” And, so on.
The reality is that many of you are here today because you believe you are Kathy’s best friend. That’s simply how being with Kathy was. She constantly gave of herself and worked very hard to build and keep personal relationships with many people – an incredible gift.
And we have seen the fruits of that over the past 10 months in the form of literally thousands of cards, notes, visits, prayers, texts, flowers, food, emails, … you all have been truly amazing in your support for us in these most challenging times – friends here and from all over the world; acquaintances; our companies, Thalhimer and Hirschler Fleischer; clients; SealTeamers; Marathon Training; running girls; Salem girls; the “Pentagon;” the “Divas;” community Boards on which we have served like the Chamber, Goodwill, Sportsbackers, LMR, Science Museum … and the list goes on; amazing clergy; awesome church communities in St. James, PCC, First Baptist, and many others who prayed for us so fervently and for so long … and some fantastic medical professionals like our friend Dr. Sahni, Kathy’s neurosurgeon -- who carried us along for many many months and who carries Kathy today as one of her pall-bearers. Truly, in our most challenging time of need, an entire community came to our aid. We will never be able to adequately thank you enough.
A life of giving of yourself pays huge dividends. What a life lesson.
Many of you who have followed us on our life’s journey know that we both have lived very full lives -- both together and in very independent worlds. Kathy … a Sr. VP with Thalhimer. Me, a shareholder with Hirschler Fleischer. Kathy and I both active on Boards throughout the Region. Kathy, as an incredible fitness enthusiast and marathoner and me with a Christian rock band and ministry that has allowed me to travel all over the world.
We have been able to do many of those things by, in large measure, dividing and conquering, supporting one another’s passions, oftentimes passively, but also seeking to do things, especially the raising of our awesome boys, in a very collective way. This is how we have “done life” for years. It makes for a life that is very full, very rewarding. In her wedding band I had inscribed, “we’re gonna have a great life” – and we did.
Kathy was diagnosed with melanoma in 2007 from a mole she’d had her entire life on her left arm. The mole and the surrounding lymph nodes were removed – one lymph node was positive for melanoma. The hope was that we were early enough to treat it and escape.
Throughout the balance of 2007 and 2008, no recurrences. She was in a clinical vaccine trial at UVA for most of 2008; did great; ran the Marine Corps Marathon in the Fall of 2008.
In 2009, there were a couple small recurrences that were surgically removed -- but, then on November 6, 2009, we learned that Kathy’s melanoma had returned – in the form of seven brain tumors
And, we literally dropped everything. The prognosis was bad … mortality statistics harsh. But, we determined to approach this together with every ounce of energy we had.
As we entered this period of the last 10 months, we – and many others – felt that if anyone is equipped to take on the challenge of multiple melanoma brain tumors it was Kathy – after all, Kathy was not only a marathon-running, badass in the best shape of anyone I knew, she was young, strong, fit, determined, fearless, defiant and had a faith in God and personal support system – the total package of which was unlike anyone else I had ever known.
And, so the fight began … and it was tough. Melanoma is an insidious disease. Kathy had, over the course of the last eight months – 6 brain surgeries; three full on crainiotomy type surgeries; three using Gamma Knife radiation. She lost her ability to walk and use her left arm; spent weeks in rehab. Got it back. We made so many trips to the Johnston-Willis ER, they held a room for us there. Spent so many nights there, we were on a first name basis with much of the nursing staff. But, we just kept slogging; fighting; pushing – always forward. Constantly looking, aggressively, for the next move – and Dr. Sahni was there helping us make those moves, strategizing over and over again for months.
And in the latter days, where doctor’s advice began to be laced with language including the consideration of concepts like palliative care and hospice, she absolutely was not interested, defiantly pushing on. We never stopped moving forward until Kathy could move no further.
We did this every day, and we knew nothing mattered, but winning. And, in the midst of this attack and these daily challenges, two people married over 25 years, discovered new depths of love for one another in our 24th year of marriage. Who knew that could be even possible? But, the reality is that in many ways, the experience brought us so close, deepened our personal and collective faith in God -- it was as if we had fallen in love all over again, learning to love each other more deeply and to care for one another so strongly.
As I said in my final update to many of you, we truly dedicated ourselves to this challenge and gave it all we had, learning to live not with a 30-year planning horizon, but with one more like a 3-day horizon. We learned to appreciate all that life had to offer each and every day and to take nothing for granted – especially each other. What a world we would have if we all lived like this every day of our lives. Another life lesson.
We never, ever believed we would be here – always believing we would find a way through.
Tragically, that was not to be. And, that is hard for me today, for Jack and Jim, her Dad, siblings, all her family – and for those of you who have known each of us over the years.
So many of us prayed every day for a different ending. It is difficult to understand how in the midst of all of this, with a person so cherished by so many, this had to be her time.
But, as Christians and as people of faith, we believe that God is here and has been here throughout. We mourn and grieve that this day could not be delayed, but we have seen God’s hand so present and so often throughout this journey, guiding us all along the way. I was raised Baptist … we learn to pray out loud at an early age; but for Kathy, raised Episcopalian, the idea of praying out loud – other than from the Prayer Book in church – was new. Yet, as our faith together grew, there we would be, praying out loud at night before we went to sleep. And one night in the hospital just a few weeks ago, Kathy and I were praying together; I remember distinctly her prayer – and I took a moment afterwards to write it down. She was actually on quite a roll. But, the essence of her prayer was, “God … just show me how to be thankful; more grateful. I cannot thank you enough for all you’ve done; the love you have showered on us. Just show us how to be.”
And, when we were finished, she looked at me with that awesome smile and said, “I think I prayed better tonight!” I assured her I thought God heard and loved all of her prayers. But … they were especially good that night.
We can’t know why this was Kathy’s time, but Jesus was God in flesh; which has always meant to me that every emotion we saw in Jesus is an emotion of God’s. The Bible tells us that Jesus wept, laughed, consoled, showed compassion for others and most of all, he loved so deeply … and as these days have approached, I have felt that God has been doing all of those things as well – knowing our need to be comforted at this time.
And in these last few days, God has been so powerfully with us through the many words shared with us by you and the community that has been with us walking this journey for so long.
One of my best friends in the world wrote me last night, saying the following, “Kathy’s life was indeed too short, but the quality of it was that of which most people can only dream.”
I thank you and wish to conclude by reading the words of one of her colleagues at Thalhimer, Birck Turnbull, who wrote to me last Wednesday, the day before Kathy passed on:
I have filled empty moments over the last several days with prayers, petitions and reflections about Kathy. I hear her enthusiastic voice down the hallway of the Thalhimer office. Expect her to round the corner with a smile and a good joke. Hear her ask me about my wife and kids and genuinely mean it. See her, the picture of fitness, in her jersey and running shorts. Hear her "hoo-ya" call to a fellow Seal-teamer. The Kathy I see in my mind is the Kathy with strength, grace, integrity and just simply, class.
As I search for reasons why those images of Kathy contrast so sharply with her recent suffering, I think of a marathon. Anyone who's ever run this race knows that around mile 20, the pain and suffering become excruciating and the runner physically and mentally slips into another dimension. Finishing becomes uncertain. When the body gives up, the mind takes over. It is the ultimate test of individual perseverance.
While Kathy has finished many marathons on her own, this race has been different. This time, at mile 20 when the pain and suffering were unlike anything she had ever faced and her body began to give up, she had the love and perseverance of an incredible family, team of doctors, and countless friends to help her reach the end. You all have carried her to within a mile of the finish line. Now God has stepped in to take her the rest of the way. God, who has been with her all along, has her in His arms for the last mile. The suffering of mile 20 is over. She will finish the race and celebrate. Those of us who have been privileged to watch her run are humbled. It will be her sweetest victory.