This is a eulogy that’s been burning away inside since last Thursday morning, when Sam Barry posted up that his wonderful wife Kathi, who’d been battling cancer for the past couple of years, had died.
My sister, my friend.
Kathi and I actually met fairly recently, as such things are defined in the world of being closer to sixty than fifty. Sometime late in 2007, when St. Martins was getting blurbs for the first JP Kinkaid Chronicle together, it occurred to me to see if she’d be up for reading it. Looking at my first email to her, the first line (and subject line) are “pssssst!”
She read the book (that’s Rock & Roll Never Forgets) and boom, just like that, this amazing woman had officially entered my world. Her enthusiastic blurb appears on the cover. She also came along to Booksmith on Haight Street for the series’ local kickoff party, and introduced me to the crowd. We had an eerie number of confluence points in our own histories. As she put it, “All along, here was this woman – this sister – who was probably living in my closet or something, and I never knew it. How did I never know it?”
Rock on, Kathi. Rock on.
I saw both Sam and Kathi the Sunday night before she died. Responding to Amy Tan’s general request, I spent Sunday shopping and cooking, and brought about four days worth of healthy quinoa and veggie-based food over to their house. I hadn’t seen Kathi for slightly over a month before that; she and Sam had done the Beijing festival of books and then gone to Indonesia with a group of friends. The last time I’d seen her, we’d both been using canes (Kathi dealing with multiple fractures and pain from the cancer, me because my multiple sclerosis was acting up badly) and we’d joked about it. That had been at El Rio, where Kathi and Sam’s band, Los Train Wreck, play on the second Tuesday of every month.
I was floored at the physical change in her. The email to her friends had been specific: she was on 24/7 oxygen, round-the-clock care, the doctors had stopped her treatments and weren’t giving her much time. So I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was. I have four friends with cancer in the critical stages. Of them all, Kathi was the only one I was absolutely sure would beat it. I was wrong.
She’d lost weight, she was hooked up to oxygen, she was covered to the chin, she was coughing and clearly in pain. But she was still Kathi, and that’s something I can’t define: whatever that essential thing was, it shone out of her, every pore of her, something with a warm gleam that infused the air around her.
I stayed for about an hour, and I can’t even find the words for how glad I am, that I had that hour. When I left, I sat in my car, parked up the street, for about another half hour, and wept uncontrollably. And yet, I was somehow still in denial, because I still let myself believe we were not going to lose her.
My sister, my friend. Rock on, girl.
Thursday morning, I woke to a frantic message from a mutual friend: Kathi was saying goodbye on Facebook, she was in hospital and going fast. I didn’t stop to think – I went to Facebook and sent them my love, my strength, and the knowledge that the second Tales From the House Band anthology would be dedicated to her. She had a story in the first Tales, and had been looking forward to writing one for the second.
Some Kathi memories, a tiny handful from so many:
When I invited her to contribute a story for the first Tales, she’d been flabbergasted: “Wow, you think I can write short music fiction? Really?!” Yes, Kathi. I did and do. Her story, “The Ballad of Billy Quiver”, is a knockout.
Too many memories of Los Train shows going back a few years to list, but a favourite comes to mind: we spent the entire Monday before a particular show rehearsing our cover of Emmylou’s perfect goodbye song for Gram Parsons, “Boulder to Birmingham”. The next night, we did it live; Radio Valencia has that in the archives. It seems almost impossibly poignant now: “Well you really got me this time, and the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive...”
Oh, those cookies. I always bring baked goods, or homemade fudge or cake, to Los Train Wreck shows. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, that summer was the first time she was staying home for her birthday. I asked if she’d like me to bake and bring her a cinnamon savarin, which I knew she loved; it’s a particularly rich cake with a hard line of cinnamon sugar running through it. Her response: “Oh fuck yeah.” Of course I brought her the savarin.
She had an idea for a book for us to do jointly, linking up the cookies with healing and how and why people use food as healing and comfort. Working title was something like “Healing and Cookies and Rock and Roll”. When my husband Nic asked if she had a format in mind, she immediately came back with “Scratch and sniff!”
SxSW in Austin in 2011. We had published Julian Dawson’s epic biography of my late love, Nicky Hopkins. I had edited the book and contributed to it as well, and the book launch was at a marquee panel at SxSW. Working on the book had left me an emotional wreck, opened old wounds, ripped away protective scar tissue. The panel included Dave Marsh (moderating) and, among others, both Ian McLagan and Chuck Leavell. It also included me, in my capacity as a female presence in Nicky’s life at a very difficult time. Until I walked into the venue and saw Kathi sitting in the second row smiling at me, I wasn’t sure I could do it. Her presence there brought that light, and gave me what I needed. Another memory of SxSW: going out to dinner with Kathi and Annaliese Moyer that night. Part of me will always be cruising Austin with her, singing our heads off.
Rock it, darling girl. My sister, my friend.
This is the eulogy I didn’t want to write. Writing it is an admission that she’s really gone. She went out the way she lived: surrounded by love, surrounded by light, and radiating both. And I miss her.
My sister, my friend.
Causes Deborah Grabien Supports
EMILY's List (early member), Amnesty International (member on two continents for thirty years), Animal Welfare causes (we rescue feral cats), NARAL and...