The name Kathy used to be the cool girl’s name.
This meant that, if you were named Kathy, you’d be born among your contemporaries into a sort of automatic class, like Jen or Ashley, who were just a few years ahead of the Carries, Caras, Carlies. You get it.
Only those of us named strangely felt this. The Frannies. The Ruth Anns.
Each of the Sweet girls, four sisters, daughters of Mae and Henry produced their brood post-WWII; and, the third born, Frances, absconding from the Plymouth Brethren to put down roots in radical Parma, Ohio, would be blessed late in life with Kathleen, the last of the grands, circa 1962.
And, our Kathy embodied cool like nobody.
Oh, not because she was a social follower. Kathy O’Keefe was anything but.
The Sweet genes, formidable enough, bestowed their lion’s share upon the daughters of their daughters. And, Kathy, the only “carrot top” in the bunch, was not to be overlorded or overshadowed by any of them.
From her earliest days, sending her signal through the whole extended family like a current, we would learn that Kathy had been born with a life threatening abnormality. Before anyone could comprehend “transplant”, some cutting edge surgeon from the trending Cleveland Clinic installed a replacement porcine aortic valve into her heart muscle.
Kathy wouldn’t just live. She would thrive, with a pig valve, for many years. Naturally energetic, loving the outdoors and as much physical activity as her teeming mind would allow she threw herself, headlong and whole heartedly, into everything – camping; hiking; and, especially, water skiing on Lake Chautauqua. She could water ski before the rest of us had learned to swim.
Heading toward college, equally determined to use her frontal lobe to its fullest, Kathy became a math teacher. And, not just a math teacher, she was a mathematics and economics whiz, rising to the top of those respected among her ilk. Inheriting the shrewd, critical thinking intellect of her mother, a strong work ethic its corollary, she made highly organized productivity into a lifestyle.
We among the family would get to see her at Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, when the O’Keefe clan would make the extra effort to tool east to meet the rest of us at Mammy and Pappy’s on East 29th. Her intensity was always palpable ( and, audible – talking is what the Sweets did ) – from the moment she burst into the room until the final, equally driven departure. Kathy was purposeful; there was always a motive to act, because there was a reason for everything. When it was time to go, it was time to leave. On to the next thing, the next reason to keep on living.
Her second heart valve surgery came around age 21*. The pork valve may have had its own shelf life, but she did not. However, this replacement was man made, mechanical, and bore with it a lifelong ticking clock which could be both heard and, mostly, felt. Kathy would now live by that clock, the ever present reminder that, to her, each moment was the gift.
Childbirth is toil for any woman but, for Kathy, the reality would prove confrontational; right as she approached the date of her own daughter Kristen’s arrival (yes; she was married) that valve would signal its own, looming demise. The CC team of surgeons gathered, obstetrics and cardiology; Kathy would give birth, naturally, even as her second aortic valve was about to die, and receive the third and final prosthetic in the months following.
For me, when the cousins married they slowly retreated from my view; I was the last to tie that knot, and the first to let it slip loose. But, when Kathy’d met Rob, they were bound forever. Theirs was the deep, abiding friendship built on common outlook, interests, and activities that makes marriage true. Part of a family whose society was determined by close proximity and faith-centered commitment to each other, they lived out their own place therein in the finest of form.
But, the baby of any family has a special spot to occupy. Kathy’s relationship with her Dad, a Baptist minister, was both admirable and endearing. She regarded him with absolute, Godly respect, and he toward her with complete encouragement and acceptance. As he aged, enduring heart health challenges of his own only to survive them against unheard of odds (massive coronary, age 80? subsequent infection, triple bypass surgery, and still living to age 98?), Kathy would come to expect that indomitability was both inherited and learned.
Maybe this indomitability both informed and drove the decisions she would be forced to make when, just a couple years ago, her symptoms finally led to the sobering diagnosis of a cancer which carried with it erratic statistics; multiple myeloma was “manageable”, treatable, potentially less than life curtailing. Kathy of all people could most definitely fight and win against this level of foe. All she had to do was, well, be Kathy O’Keefe.
Enter the silent enemy, the ever-wielding unknown. Powers, those that both were and those that aspired to be, dictating the courses of treatment. Everything distilling down to the perceived sources of trust and trustworthiness, and those who embodied each. Like her mother before her Kathy would make clear to everyone and all; decision making was her domain. Her devoted husband, perhaps he only, fully understood this. At every point, juncture, even apparent impasse, Kathy would ready herself to choose.
The latest news had rendered a sort of last gasp euphoria, in recent weeks. Inexplicably, after struggling to sustain the stem cell replacement therapy which had been effective for so many, she’d survived the only remaining chemo protocol, including an infected gall bladder; now, the latest, most “promising” treatment regimen, just FDA approved, was finally in her hands. The Cleveland Clinic had the whole thing ready, and her body seemed equally prepared.
We’d all watched, through the lens of social media, as she took her first, second, third dose, only to marvel at the ever present grin and thumbs up outcome of each tentative step. Suddenly, it was Christmastime and, discharged from the Seidman Center, Kathy and Rob and Kristen were allowed to go home. This news, alone, was an extra special reason to celebrate the joy of the season.
Silence was less familiar, to the Sweets. To us, when you didn’t talk, something wasn’t right. And, this time, something wasn’t. Kathy had been full of life, playing (and, winning) board games, running at her familiar nearly frantic pace; but, just beyond the fully decorated Christmas tree, a quiet cloaked the scene.
The promise of a final protocol which was heralded as life sustaining had failed. Kathy’s body curled up, giving its spirit over to the God who had governed the O’Keefe clan from go and its soul into the arms of her father, Pastor George, who welcomed her with transcending relief. The woman who had run so hot, her body cooled by death, was ever the embodiment of a life lived on terms that would challenge even the most arrogant women and men. Kathy had withstood; she had persisted; she had run a course most would merely observe, and that with awe.
Kathy O’Keefe Linger. Not just another Kathy. Loved by so many. Admired by more. In a class, by herself.
*precise chronology on these surgeries still in edit/awaiting clarification.
Copyright 1/4/23. Ruth Ann Scanzillo All rights those of the author, whose story is hers, and whose name appears above this line. Please respect the family. Thank you.