You probably never knew my friend Kathy Rich. You really missed something. A good way to find out what is to read Margalit Fox’s obituary for her in the April 7 New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/07/health/katherine-russell-rich-who-wrote-of-cancer-fight-dies-at-56.html?hpw). I’d bet all my socks that Fox knew Kathy, partly because she captures so much that’s crucial about her and partly because Kathy seemed to know everybody. (I seem that way too and we had more than one laugh about our mutual reputations in this regard.)
I’m not so sure Kathy would be thrilled about the headline–she did so much more than fight cancer, although to a lot of folks it would maybe seem like she just lived her life (likethat’s a little thing). But her book, The Red Devil, is the definitive account of the price of surviving cancer–in her case, a 19 year struggle against stage IV breast cancer, and yes, I know that sounds impossible. All the more reason for you to read it, for anybody who is beginning or in the middle of cancer treatment to know it by heart, which is what happens when you read it.
It is not a guidebook on how to survive. Stage IV is lethal, and after a couple of decades even Kathy Rich couldn’t live with it anymore. Fuck that. What matters is, she lived.
I met Kathy in ’94, I think, or maybe late ’93. I told our mutual friend Joanne Goldberg that I was going to up to Sloan-Kettering, the NYC cancer hospita, to do something else. She said that Kathy was in the hospital with stage four breast cancer, and she was a writer too. I ought to meet her. I’ve gotten better advice but not often.
Kathy was a horror, as anyone is after bone marrow transplant. Swollen of face, scrawny of limb, bald, her room a havoc. There were no pictures around but I understood for other reasons–personality, confidence, but not complaints–that she was under what had previously been normal circumstances an attractive woman.
Sitting in the chair next to the bed talking to her was a guy who turned out to be the best friend of my own family doctor. He and I sat by for an hour or two, as Kathy held forth about the travails of the hour–not just cancer, but the treachery of magazine jouranlism and of the men in her life. She did not so much continually reiterate as act our her intention of beating her illness…fuck cancer, she was more or less in a mood to beat death itself. And you had to think, yeah, yeah, she might.
We had journalism in common, which we had practiced very differently but there is not all that much distance between Rolling Stone and Allure, come to that; and we had had very different experiences of cancer, and while what had already happened to my duaghter Kristen and what not been happening to Kathy suck equally, they are quite different–survival without the disease relinquishing its grip might be worse than death, or so we had to suppose. But we also had to suppose that living was better tahn dying, and there you are, the paradox of young adults with cancer. “Can’t stop won’t stop,” indeed.
Anyway, we supposed both things together and for all our differences, after that day, she was my friend and I tried to be hers. I did what I could to support her book, when it came out, and I knew I could send any young woman who needed it to her book and thence to Kathy herself and they would always have some wisdom imparted from that source. We have many more friends in common for many other reasons.
Then, when she didn’t die, Kathy went off to India to study the language. She had a habit of sort of disappearing for a couple of years and then turning back up, always chastened, never less determined, and she’d tell me about the journey, the weird people she met, what she’d learned, what she decided not to learn, how many relapses and surgeries and dodged bullets had come across her path. I’d fill her in on what I’d been doing. We’d do a little gossiping, we’d laugh, we’d both wonder more than we let on how long anyone could survive stage IV breast cancer (as the saying goes, there is no stage V). I don’t know what she assumed. I assumed she was so tough and smart, she might outlive me, at least, and probably a whole lot of other people. (And in a whole lot of the other cases she did and hell yeah, that’s something to brag about.)
And that was it. The second book, Dreaming in Hindi, was both a struggle to read — it was so internalized, it was so unmetaphoric, so literally true. Which mean you couldn’t put it down either. It’s really not about learning to speak Hindi, and it’s not even a travel book, or a book about how to live in cultures that are poles apart. It’s about trying to inhabit the mind of strangers, maybe. And it is ruthless about the strangers, the author, the world in which it occurs, and out of that ruthlessness comes a stronger sense of Kathy’s intelligence, courage, and determination than you get in the cancer book. I read a few chapters and thought about them and read some more. Sometimes a year would go by and I wouldn’t touch it and then I’d dive in again and get lost in her head. I never told her this–it was embarassing, no one reads books like that, it’s like an implicit criticism. But really all it means is, you don’t drink a strong bottle to the bottom any way but warily…if the contents are as pure on your palate as they are powerful.
Kathy’s struggle seemed endless: when we met, I had hair and Kathy didn’t, then I lost about half of mine and the rest turned gray, while hers grew back and looked just fine. Twenty years is a very very long time. And most of that time, we had no idea what hte hell was up with her. But when I sent a newly diagnosed friend, whose tumor was also at stage four and also seemed indolent, to talk to her, it was just the right thing to do and Kathy and I emailed about it but we didn’t talk on the phone or see one another for lunch or any of that. I didn’t know such a serious relapse had occurred–although I knew there were relapses, they were pretty much continual– and the news took my breath away that Saturday morning.
Kathy was nothing like Kris Carr, who has an indolent tumor and has an hilarious survival yarn about it that has, I suppose, saved many lives, presuming that relying on eating a lot of wheatgrass and other dietary stuff, and yoga, etc. has anything to do with surviving cancer. I don’t know what Kathy ate and if I had asked her, she’d have very likely said something that amounted to, “What made that your business, buster,” and moved on to what she was actually interested in, which was her life. (Skeptics are like that and no journalist worth anything is not a skeptic, even if the writer in question is also a true believer.)
But these kind of semi-survivable tumors do exist and not only in breast cancer. They’re rare but so are the kind of people who know how to make a life, really a life not just a series of struggling days. Kathy taught me that, and how you have to live differently and not compromise a single one of your goals or principles as you fight, because you fight. And that it could be done.
I asked her once why she left Allure, and she said some of the things about it that are in the Times article and then–now that I think of it, it might have been that day in the hospital–she spun this long, rather mordantly funny story about her last days in the fashion journalism world, and how Conde Nast reacted to her departure: They gave her a lunch with the staff, or something like that, and a Prada bag, the same thing they gave everyone who left in relatively good graces. The message was not “I’m nothing special,” the message was “they don’t know I’m something special.” Is there bitterness attached to that? Well, there ought to be.
Kathy wasn’t everyone, she was as specific a someone as anybody I’ve had the luck to know and care about. And I am pissed off about it to this day, because she’s right, the devil of cancer is red, not black. Blood red. And to this day, when I see Prada–the logo, the clothes, the ads–I think about Kathy Rich and how little respect she got and how much she deserved.
Well, all I’m trying to say is, Kathy Rich was a great person and I loved her, truly I did. And, you know, as long as I’m here, she’s here, I’ll make sure of remembering her however I can. And telling you about it is part of that.
So startled and sad as I was when I heard the news, I didn’t cry. I started to and then I got to thinking about Kathy and how it was that we met and how it was that we were friends, and I think the tears just got beaten back by the only thing that sometimes can do that, even in the face of death, which is the living truth, as we have ourselves witnessed it.
Here’s what she taught me in a nutshell: You have to die and you have to bear it in mind. Then you have to go out and be who you are and let the dying take care of itself. And rage, rage, because that isn’t Tinkerbell’s light that’s dying, it’s your own and, goddamn it, it’s irreplaceable—irreplaceable to everybody not just you.
So don’t clap your hands to save Kathy Rich, just live your life and refuse to forget that it will end someday. That’s not just the acclamation she deserves. It’s the one she earned.