Flashback: Kate’s Story—A Mother’s Grief

In 2004, my daughter was killed. I love her. I miss her. And now, I live to honor her life.

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Kate would want her story to begin with a laugh. About 6:30 one morning last fall, my cell phone rings. It’s Kate. “Dollface,” she says, “where can I buy underwear between Martinsville and Trafalgar?” It is a true Kate moment. She moved into a new house the night before and hasn’t been able to find some of her clothes. Now she’s on her way to teach freshman English at Indian Creek High School and needs new undies by 7 a.m.

Trying to figure out where she could possibly go at that hour on those country roads, I come up with the idea of buying pantyhose at the Morgan town IGA and cutting off the legs. “You’re the best!” she says and hangs up.

Laughter is what I remember—and miss—the most about my beautiful, quirky, tender-hearted daughter, Kate.

The music of her laughter rings through my memory as clearly as the click of her three-inch heels on our back porch steps. We laughed on that porch, we laughed in the car, we laughed at the mall while we walked with our arms around each other’s waists.

We laughed the last time we talked, on Sunday afternoon, November 7, 2004. Kate was finishing up a student-council conference in Mishawaka. My husband, Steve, and I were washing the basement floor when she called. She complained about having to sit through a long adviser meeting: “I’d rather be licking the floor with my tongue.”

But then she talked about the fun she’d had with “my kids” and about the keynote speaker, a teacher who had transformed lives in both Harlem and North Carolina. She told her dad, an English teacher at Warren Central High School, how she was going to put his ideas to work that week in her classroom.

“I love you, sweetie,” I said, as always, to close.

“I love you, too,” she replied.

Thirty-six hours later we said goodbye again, this time in the emergency room of Bloomington Hospital. She lay on a hospital bed, already dead, her face washed and her head thoughtfully bandaged. The nurse had asked Steve and me and our son, Dan, to wait while the doctor removed the ventilator; later I realized they were washing off the blood. The nurse cut two locks of her long curly hair, one for us and one for Triston, the man Kate loved who was teaching in Japan. Steve, Dan and I took turns holding her hand and talking to her, our minds and bodies convulsed with shock. I don’t remember what we said. I know I was afraid to take her in my arms for fear of knocking off her bandage. I kissed her cheek and her long, slender fingers, stripped now of the turquoise-and-silver rings she always wore. I kissed her toes through the tightly wrapped sheets of the bed and left the room. It was 11 a.m., and life as I had known it was over.

My husband, my son and I are only one year into what will be a lifelong journey of grief. I have no great wisdom to share about love and loss, no brilliant insights on healing and hope. What I do have is the story of a young woman who loved and was loved, who lived well if not long, and of how she touched the family, friends and students she adored. Like a pebble dropped in still water, her life continues to send out ripples in ways we could not have imagined, reaching people we will never meet. This is my daughter’s legacy.

Kate got up in her tiny Bloomington house on Tuesday, November 9, a little earlier than usual so she could meet the student-council officers before school. She made coffee, drank it, then washed and put away the mug. She smoothed the quilt on her bed and stacked the pillows on top. She fed Lola, her sweet, epileptic black Lab mix, and turned on the bathroom faucet so Roy the cat could play with the running water. She sat down at her computer about 6:30 and e-mailed her brother, who had told her the night before that he’d been accepted into the graduate journalism program at Indiana University. “Congrats again Dan! I am so excited for you!!!!!!!!!!” She took Lola for a quick walk in the backyard, then buckled herself into her black four-door Honda Civic for the drive to school.

Just north of the State Road 46 bypass on Walnut Street, a white Ford Taurus veered into her lane. Kate jerked her car to the right, running over the shoulder and up onto the guardrail to avoid a crash. The Taurus smashed into her car head-on and climbed over the top. The airbags and seatbelt were no help. Kate died of head injuries at the scene. A toxicology report showed the other driver, a five-time felon, had opiates, cocaine, and benzodiazepine in his system. Kate had only traces of caffeine from her morning coffee.

After watching the buses pull away on May 21 last year, Kate sets up the 1980s-era video camera her grandfather has loaned her. With tears welling in her eyes, she records her thoughts for Triston, as she does nearly every day. “Today was my last day with the kids and it was so hard for me,” she says. “I love them so much. It was like they were ghosts. There’s a big part of me that says they’ll forget me and I’ll forget them eventually, and I just don’t want that to happen. I realized that they are absolutely the reason I do what I do.”

Our daughter Katy came into the world on the morning of July 24, 1980. She was pink and white and had a shock of curly chestnut hair that her friends would later dub “the beast.” Sweet-natured from the start, she rarely cried. At nap-time, she’d look up from her crib, smile and fall asleep.

She loved Barbies, Hello Kitty and stuffed animals. Like most little sisters, she loved to tag along with her older brother, Dan. Like most older brothers, he delighted in tormenting her. The backseat of our car became a war zone.

Katy dutifully tried tee-ball, soccer and basketball but preferred creating imaginary worlds with her neighborhood friend, also named Katy. The two of them drew up menus for elegant meals, then took turns “serving” each other. They pretended a bedroom closet led to tunnels and trapdoors that hid them from the Nazis.

Kate with her dog, Lola
Kate with her dog, Lola

We lived in Irvington, and our Katy flourished in IPS’ Continuous Progress magnet, making close friends she would keep for life. In sixth grade, she became a vegetarian (igniting a battle of wills that I lost), started her first journal and exchanged the “y” for an “e” to become Kate.

High school at Cathedral was tougher. Gradewise, she did fine, and she made some good friends, but she never quite felt that she fit in. That insecurity, while painful at the time, later made her acutely aware of her own students’ struggles to find their place.

Like many high-school girls, Kate worried about her weight and her skin. She cried after every haircut. She could be giddy one day, sullen the next. Daily, she poured her heart out in journals, filling a bookshelf with volumes I treasure but will never open.

At 16, Kate stops one afternoon at a pottery studio in Brown County, where we have often gone as a family. The potter, in his early 20s, chats with her and asks what year she is in school. She tells him she’s a junior, knowing full well he thinks she means at IU, not in high school. He asks if she’d like to have lunch with him the next week. So Kate convinces her friend Jessie to drive her from Indianapolis to the studio and wait in the car while they go on their “date.” Despite Kate’s best efforts to feign college sophistication, the potter soon realizes his mistake. Several years later, Kate tells me she thought he was going to run screaming from the room.

Her first weekend at IU, Kate pierced her nose. Her roommates cowered behind the dorm-room door while we fought it out in the hallway. Then she entered her “earth mother” phase, shunning cosmetics and chemical hygiene products — like deodorant. Mercifully, that phase passed quickly. She adopted a puppy I swore I would never let in my house (a ban that lasted about 30 minutes) and ran up parking fines on her bursar’s bill that she defended as part of the cost of education. When her first serious boyfriend, Ronen, left to study in Hong Kong, our telephone bill dwarfed our mortgage payment.

Still, we talked by phone or e-mail nearly every day. She cried on my shoulder when things went wrong and sometimes told me more than I wanted to know. Through it all we drove each other crazy and loved each other madly.

By her senior year in college, Kate had good grades, friends she loved and a student-teaching assignment in Buncrana in County Donegal, Ireland. She boarded the plane in Indianapolis on St. Patrick’s Day, not knowing where she would stay that night. Buncrana is so far off the tourist track that most of the students had never seen an American before. Kate was a tall, beautiful vegetarian who thought sheep were cute. They were gangly, ginger-haired middle-schoolers who wore blazers and plaid skirts. It was a perfect match. And Kate had found her calling.

In Kate’s Indian Creek English class, a ninth-grader who rarely talks walks up to her desk after everyone has left the room. “Do you need anything soldered?” he asks soberly. Startled, she vaguely remembers watching her grandfather work with dripping metal in the garage. She knows it took courage for the boy to ask her, so she comes up with an idea: “You can make me a ‘worry stone,'” she tells him, “something I can rub when I’m nervous.” The next morning the boy holds out a quarter-sized piece of soldered metal, smooth as silk. “I love it!” Kate says, giving him a hug and a bag of Twizzlers she had bought him on the way to school.

She carries the metal piece in her purse, and it is there the morning she is killed. Her brother carries it in his pocket now.

In August 2003, when Kate got the job at Indian Creek, she became the third teacher in our family. I had left my job at The Indianapolis Star a year and a half earlier and was commuting to Bloomington daily to teach journalism at IU. Her dad had taught for 25 years, at Warren Central and IUPUI. Kate spent hours asking advice and making notes, but she was a natural from the start. Just how good she was in the classroom surprised even us.

Everything Kate said and did in class was genuine. Last fall she told us, with some amazement, that she had 153 students and loved every one of them.

When her students studied Emily Dickinson, Kate told them to imagine that she was going to a college English party where everyone would be talking about poetry. The assignment: “Come up with a line about Emily Dickinson that will help me get a date.” For Great Expectations, she had students compete to make the most disgusting replica of Miss Haversham’s wedding cake. For Romeo and Juliet, she took them outside to act out the swordfight and balcony scenes. She started a letter and video exchange with Triston’s school in southern Japan. Her students learned Japanese words and songs and, in turn, wrote about Indian Creek and Trafalgar. When Kate visited Japan, she brought back a red silk obi from Kyoto that she wrapped around their waists, one at a time. Then she pulled it off, spinning them around like tops.

She called her students “pumpkins” and “dollfaces” and “little champs” and regaled them with stories of her misadventures, embellished a bit for effect. (Yes, she went to dinner with a one-eyed Czechoslovakian; no, he didn’t take out his glass eye at the table.) She laughed at her own foibles and urged her kids to be, as her friend Danny says, “comfortable in their own skins.”

She had a special place in her heart for troubled students. One boy, who had “cut” his arm with a razor, came to see her on the last day of school. “He is so bright-eyed, and I see so much hope there,” she told Triston on her video. “If I had an option, I’d adopt him this second and take him into my life. Isn’t that crazy?”

Everything Kate said and did in class was genuine. Last fall she told us, with some amazement, that she had 153 students and loved every one of them. The day before she died, she wrote on her blackboard: “You are all my heroes.” The words were there the next morning when her students heard she had been killed.

Kate asks her students to introduce themselves to their Japanese pen pals by talking about their lives in Indiana. One boy writes about hunting deer and includes a photo of himself standing next to a dead deer strung up in a tree. The picture makes me flinch, so I can imagine what it does to Kate, a vegetarian and an animal-lover. She asks me what I would do. My instincts tell me she shouldn’t send the picture, that the Japanese students wouldn’t understand it. “But that’s who he is,” she argues. “That’s part of his culture, and he’s proud of it. If I don’t send it, it’s like saying he’s wrong.” She’s right, of course, and she sends the picture.

While she was teaching at Indian Creek, two relationships in Kate’s life changed slowly but dramatically.

She and her brother, Dan, who had squabbled most of their lives, became good friends. They had dinner and went to movies. Last September, he took her to the Lotus World Music Festival in Bloomington. She loved the exotic music so much that they began planning how she might bring her students this year. The two of them looked forward to spending more time together when Dan’s classes began at IU.

At the same time, the friendship Kate had always felt for Triston deepened into something more. In college, the two had flirted for years, but something always got in the way — other relationships, travel plans, misunderstandings. Now, though, while he was in Japan, they began to write long letters and e-mails, and they exchanged video journals.

Kate talks to Triston in the videos as naturally as if he were sitting across the room. Because she recorded only a few minutes each day, her hair, clothes and jewelry change in every scene. She tells him how her students laughed when she drew Italy on the blackboard (“to a 14-year-old boy, everything looks like a penis,” she says). She dances to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” She shows off her jewelry “finds”—a black leather cuff on one arm and Chanel-like beads on the other (“I call this biker chic meets Upper East Side”).

They saw each other at Christmas 2003 in Indianapolis and met in Kyoto the next summer for two weeks—the best two weeks of her life, Kate told us. In the steamy July heat, they toured temples and drank potato wine on starlit rooftops. They sang Bob Dylan songs Triston played on a guitar he’d rescued from the trash. In pictures from that time, Kate’s face radiates a joy I had never seen before.

When she left Kyoto, she started to cry as she hugged Triston goodbye. She climbed on a crowded bus and scrambled to the back, pressing her face and hands against the window. While the Japanese passengers stared, she sobbed so hard that mascara streaked down her cheeks. Triston walked, then ran after the bus, waving and shouting goodbye. He jumped on a cement guardrail that ran along the street. Just as the bus turned the corner, he tripped, and he saw her manage a faint smile. They planned to meet in Indianapolis last Christmas.

At the memorial service for Kate’s Aunt Carol in Washington, D.C., the funeral director asks if anyone would like to speak. Carol’s best friend and a co-worker say a few words they’ve prepared. Her brother-in-law reads a poem. Then Kate stands up and walks to the front of the crowded room. She talks about shopping with Carol and watching professional wrestling on TV. “I’m just blubbering,” she stammers between sobs, “but I want people to know how much I loved her.” She is 15.

From the day she left for Ireland, Kate was no longer a child. I’ve known parents who long for their adult children to be little again. Not me. I relished this new young woman she had become.

“You had so much to lose,” someone told me after her death. And we did.

The new Kate remained an enigma. She loved living in the woods but refused to own a pair of sensible shoes. She hadn’t eaten meat for 12 years but couldn’t give up leather purses. She cursed like a sailor while telling a funny story, but I never heard her swear in anger. She shunned football games in high school, but, when she supervised homecoming at Indian Creek, complained that the tiaras weren’t “good enough for my princesses.”

Kate could tell a story like no one else I’ve known. Her bad-date tales were legend. She needed a radius of three feet when she talked because she used not only her hands, but her arms and her whole body.

She was always pretty, with thick, curly hair, deep hazel eyes that flashed green or brown depending on what she wore, and a perfect little nose (the one feature she approved of). But during the last three years of her life, she grew comfortable with her height—nearly six feet tall barefoot—and developed a style all her own. Steve hated seeing men look at her on the streets. When the two of them had lunch, he’d say, with emphasis, “My daughter will have a Coke.”

What set Kate apart, though, is harder to define. Certainly some of her appeal was her sense of humor. When she wasn’t happy with her hair or clothes, she’d say she looked like “forty miles of bad road.” If we complained about something, she’d say, “A single tear rolls down my cheek.” She’d shoulder me away from clothing stores she deemed too “old,” saying, “Daughters don’t let mothers shop at —-.” She was the master of the voicemail message: “He gave me a stuffed orangutan. Do I look like a woman who wants a stuffed orangutan? Call me.”

Kate could tell a story like no one else I’ve known. Her bad-date tales were legend. She needed a radius of three feet when she talked because she used not only her hands, but her arms and her whole body.

She delighted in small pleasures—”cute little old people” holding hands, grilled-cheese sandwiches made only the way her dad could make them, a pair of $13 pumps from Target that were “the sexiest shoes in the Western Hemisphere.” For birthdays and holidays or sometimes for no reason at all, she’d write us love notes with drawings of herself and us in some funny situation; her pets, Lola and Roy, always offered commentary from the corners.

She had a presence that had more to do with her confidence than her height or her beauty. She was comfortable with who she was and knew she was good at what she did. At her memorial service, Triston likened her to the geisha they had admired in Kyoto a few weeks earlier, self-assured and exotically beautiful. “This summer, there was a new element to her beauty,” he said, “a radiance that shone from inside.”

Kate lived intensely in the moment, whether good or bad, and spoke from the heart. She was, in her dad’s word, magic.

On a hot, humid afternoon in Kyoto, Kate and Triston visit a Shinto temple where sacred deer roam the grounds. Kate, dressed in a black tank top and a long flowered skirt, can’t resist feeding them. Then the food runs out. The deer swarm around her and begin tugging at her elastic-waisted skirt. Crowds of Japanese men laugh and snap pictures as the angry deer pull the skirt down to her knees.

Grief is a palpable thing in our lives. It is relentless and exhausting. It weighs on us every waking minute of every day. It preys on our dreams. It buckles my knees several times a week. Some days I push it into a corner, but it lurks in my peripheral vision. Other days I lash out at the emptiness around me or curl up on the floor with a piece of clothing that still bears her scent. There is no normal. I don’t remember what normal is.

Looking back, the first month after Kate’s death was in some ways the easiest. We were in shock. Our minds couldn’t grasp the enormity of the loss. This didn’t happen to Kate; it didn’t happen to us. It happened to other people we didn’t know. This wasn’t our script. This was some terrible cosmic mistake that just had to be straightened out.

Then came the panic, which has never left. It stabs me in the chest when I lie down to sleep. It grips me on my way to work. It hits me when I spot a tall young woman with curly hair. In crowds and confined places, Steve and I now feel trapped; we tried to see a movie last December and haven’t been back since. I couldn’t go to the grocery for weeks. I couldn’t bear to see the foods that Kate loved—cauliflower, Cheez-Its, veggie burgers—that I’d never fix for her again. I can’t go near the stores where we shopped together; I throw away catalogs and magazines unopened.

The “if onlys” haunted me for months. I watched for Honda Civics on the road to compare their size to other cars we might have bought her. I drove by the houses she didn’t rent, the ones that might have put her on a different road or schedule that morning.

If only she had brushed her hair 10 seconds longer that morning. If only Lola had lingered in the backyard.

If only the other driver hadn’t gotten behind the wheel of a car.

As I write this, a trial is scheduled to begin October 24. It could be postponed, or he might plead guilty at the last minute. If there is a trial, I don’t know how I’ll get through it. But I struggle not to give in to anger or hatred. I know they would consume me.

Steve and I function best in a quiet routine. We watch old mysteries and miniseries on TV, shows that take us to another time and place. We ignored Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and our 30th anniversary. The day before Kate’s 25th birthday, in July, I wrote her a 10-page letter telling her how much I loved her and how proud I was of all she’d done. I kept a copy and burned the original. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her that morning.

Every first, no matter how small, brings pain. The first time we see someone since the accident. The first day of every month without her.

If I have a reasonably good day or two, the pain comes roaring back, like an infection not treated long enough with antibiotics. It’s hard to be with people, but harder to be alone. Goodbyes tear at my heart. I’m jealous of happy families without wishing them pain.

Our world has shifted as surely as an earthquake shifts a home’s foundation. Steve won’t walk Kate down the aisle. We won’t rock her children to sleep. We won’t hear her laughter echo through the new house we designed for family visits. We won’t see her rush in from a shopping trip to show off her latest finds. We won’t hold her hand when we die.

I believe that, with time, I will accept what we’ve lost. But I will never accept how Kate was robbed of the life she loved. She won’t have the home and family she wanted so much. She won’t feel a baby move inside her body or see that child’s first smile. She won’t travel the world with someone she adores. She won’t sip greyhounds with old friends on a hot afternoon or see her students grow up to have families of their own.

And I’m haunted by the fear that must have gripped her in those brief final seconds before the crash. Kate was afraid of dying young. Mostly she worried about airplane crashes. “What if I die before I have a home and children?” she said just before her flight to Japan. I tried to reassure her about the safety of air travel. “You’re far more likely to die in a car accident,” I said.

As a waitress at Bloomington’s Uptown Cafe, Kate has to explain the evening specials for customers. A vegetarian from the age of 12, she nonetheless describes the meat dishes with such dramatic flourish that other waiters stop what they’re doing to watch her. This particular night, the special is chicken. “They take two chicken breasts …” she begins, cupping her hands under her breasts. She freezes in mid-sentence as the guy at the table stares. “Uh, I can’t believe I just did that,” she says. “That’s okay,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what’s for dessert.”

People tell Steve and Me how great we are doing, and I can see why. We pay our bills and wave at neighbors. We laugh and talk with friends at dinner. We focus on our students in the classroom.

We are more sensitive to the joy and pain of others than we were before.

But I feel encased in a giant invisible bubble wherever I go. I see people, and do and say appropriate things, but I exist in a separate world, a world where the very air is laden with grief.

They bring up Kate’s name often, a precious gift, and listen to our darkest thoughts without flinching. They are “doers,” not “sayers,” and we owe our lives to them.

I had always worried about losing a child. Maybe all parents do. I never wanted Dan and Kate to ride in the same car. I insisted that they call me when they got home after a visit. I never said goodbye to them angry. I lay awake at night when they were out, listening for the sweet sound of the back gate clanking shut. Every now and then, I’d be driving home and suddenly imagine that a police officer was there, waiting to tell me about an accident. I’d panic until I pulled in the driveway and saw that everything was okay.

“I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you,” I told her many times.

But I have borne it. I have no choice. I live minute by minute, hour by hour. I surround myself with pictures of Kate and the little things she loved. I try to keep busy at home, and I listen to books on tape when I drive, anything to keep my mind from going back to that terrible day, or worse, imagining the future without her.

We lean heavily on many remarkable people whose kindness and strength have taught us about true friendship. These friends make sure we get out of the house each week. They helped us pack up Kate’s things and handled the hospital bills and insurance forms. They’ve held my hand at court hearings and blocked my view of the other driver, who has been held without bond at the Monroe County Jail since his arrest. They’ve made us dinner and raised scholarship funds to honor our daughter.

They bring up Kate’s name often, a precious gift, and listen to our darkest thoughts without flinching. They are “doers,” not “sayers,” and we owe our lives to them.

And we have come to think of Kate’s friends as our own. More than friends, in fact, more like our children. They e-mail us, call us, visit us, cry with us. They share memories of Kate that are all the more precious for being new to us. They give us a glimmer of hope for the future.

When Kate carts our battered Ping Pong table to the garage of the house she shares with her friend Teddy in Bloomington, a year-long rivalry begins. They play, and keep track of, more than 1,200 games. No one else can touch them. They play first thing in the morning and last thing at night. They trash talk. They taunt each other with notes scribbled on a blackboard. Dressed in heels and a black skirt, top and shawl, Kate stares down Teddy over the table. “Game, dollface,” she announces after the winning point.

Steve and I have no fear of death now. Our lives were so rich and full before Kate was killed that the years that stretch ahead seem unbearably long. But we have each other and our son, Dan, whom we treasure all the more because of our loss. We have my parents, our brother and sisters, and our friends. We have the opportunity to make sure that Kate’s magical life is not forgotten.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in When Bad Things Happen to Good People that parents who lose a child have no choice about the loss. The only choice they have is how they respond. They can choose bitterness or they can choose compassion.

So in Kate’s name, we are trying to do what good we can. We do so not because of any innate goodness, but because it is the only path left to us, the only way to keep our daughter’s spirit alive.

She would laugh at the idea that she had an “estate.” But while the felon who killed her had no car insurance, Kate had basic coverage as well as life insurance from her job. We used much of the money to set up a scholarship for an Indian Creek student. We started a fund to help families from Trafalgar and Brown County. And we contributed to the Warren Central High School scholarship that Steve’s friend established.

Already the scholarships are helping two local students pay for college. Indian Creek graduate Jordan Schaaf, who spoke at Kate’s memorial service, is studying physical therapy at the University of Indianapolis. Sarah Wyn, a former student of Steve’s, is studying English education at IU. The memorial fund has paid for heating bills, clothes, Christmas gifts and field trips.

Kate would love that But Steve, Dan and I all wanted to do something more personal, something as original as Kate herself. So Dan taught himself origami and made 1,000 beautiful cranes, a traditional Japanese tribute to someone who has died. He collected paper of all kinds and wrote notes to Kate on some of it. Then he folded the cranes and strung them together. In September, his 1,000 cranes circled the marquee at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington, the chief venue of the Lotus World Music Festival that he and Kate had planned to attend.

Two other ideas—one from me and one from Steve—germinated, grew and eventually intertwined.

I knew how much Kate loved her friends and the roadtrips they had taken over the years. Why not, I thought, give some of her money to her brother and the 10 closest friends from her life—money they could use to travel somewhere they’d always wanted to go? We came up with an amount that would cover airfare and a few days’ living expenses just about anywhere in the world, then invited them all, some who knew each other and others who’d never met, to our house during the holidays last year.

Katy Schluge and Jessie Dyar knew Kate from birth. Vanessa Smith had been her best friend at School 37. Teddy Parker-Renga, her Ping Pong rival, hung out with her through high school and college. Jeremiah Jackson worked with her as a copy clerk at The Star. Petra Slinkard was her freshman roommate and Ronen Gal-Or her first serious boyfriend in college. Danny Cheshire and Sarah Cahillane were her inseparable companions after college. Triston McMillan was the love of her life. Over the years, Kate had remained close to them all.

We gave each one a letter and a three-month certificate of deposit. We told them to go somewhere they’d always wanted to go but hadn’t thought they could afford. Our only request was that, on the trip, they raise a glass to Kate and do one small thing to make their destination a better place. We imagined they might ladle soup at a community kitchen or read to children in a hospital ward one afternoon.

Instead, these amazing young men and women will devote weeks of volunteer service on at least four continents in Kate’s name. We call them Kate’s ambassadors.

Danny and Sarah spent August in Costa Rica, protecting green sea turtles as they laid their eggs on the beaches. Danny will join Sarah again in Kenya next year when she begins her tour with the Peace Corps. Ronen and Triston are doing tsunami-relief work this month on the southeast coast of India. Katy will go there with her husband, Jon Richardson, next year. Vanessa and our son, Dan, both plan to visit Brazil. Jeremiah will go to Israel with his girlfriend, Amy Rheinhardt. Petra, Teddy and Jessie are still making plans. Only a fraction of the cost of these trips will be covered by our gift. All of Kate’s ambassadors are volunteering, keeping journals and sharing travel e-mails with the others. Someday I hope to compile their words and pictures into a book.

Kate's engraved wallstone
Kate’s engraved wallstone

Steve’s idea came to him during one of his many winter walks: He would build a rock wall, with his own hands, at the cottage we bought five years ago in Maine. It would be a stacked, mortarless wall like the ones that roll over the New England and Irish countryside.

By her own choice, Kate was an organ donor and was cremated, so there is no gravestone to mark her years on Earth. The wall does that and more. It is no ordinary wall. Mixed in with 17 tons of granite are rocks that Kate’s friends are collecting on their journeys. Others come from our friends and family. So far, we have stones from the U.S., Japan, Turkey, Scotland, Canada, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Moldova, Tibet, Italy, Thailand, Laos, China, Israel, Iceland, Sweden, England and India. There is an antique clay tile Triston and Kate found in Kyoto. There is a geode from Brown County, sea glass Kate found in Maine, and pennies from Ireland and Japan. There are ashes from the letter I wrote Kate on her 25th birthday.

Many of our friends worked on the wall with us this summer, in sun and rain. Petra, Danny and Sarah drove out to help. So did Jeremiah and Amy. Triston flew from Tokyo to spend a week with us in late July. The wall now stands three-feet wide and two-and-a-half feet tall and stretches about 80 feet across our backyard. Next summer it will grow even longer. A stoneworker carved Kate’s name and the dates of her birth and death into one stone and the name of each person who has helped build the wall into others. Although it’s not yet finished, the wall already looks old. Steve imagines that someone will walk by 200 years from now and wonder who this young woman was and why so many people cared about her. As the anniversary of her death arrives, I like to think that Kate’s spirit lives on in the hearts of the many people who loved her and in those whose lives will be better because she lived.

Before Kate leaves for Ireland, we have never been apart more than a week or two. During the three months she’s gone we e-mail each other every day and talk once a week by phone. She tells me about little boys who write her love poems, about holding a newborn Iamb that pees down the front of her clothes, about how everyone complains about the weather as if it isn’t always the same. She tells me about the loneliness of being far from home, about how she misses us, her friends and Lola. We make plans to rent a car and tour the country together, just the two of us, after her teaching assignment is complete.

That day finally comes, and I drag my suitcase into the Dublin airport terminal. Kate spots me first. She drops her bags and runs to me, bursting into tears and wrapping me in her arms. We cling to each other and sob as travelers flow around us on all sides. I think my heart will burst with joy. It is the memory I cherish above all others.

I don’t know what happens when we die. I hope a lifetime on Earth is only a fraction of a second in eternity. I hope Kate doesn’t know how much we’re suffering or how much of life she missed. I hope she is on a new adventure that we can’t even begin to imagine.

And I hope she will be there waiting for me when my own journey is finished. And, once again, I will run into her beautiful arms.

This story appeared in the November 2005 issue. You can read a continuance of Nancy’s story of grief, published in the November 2014 issue, here.

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