Sunday, February 25, 2018

Joy and Inspiration in the Obits

I'm not sure just when I stopped skipping the obituary pages in our local newspaper and started perusing them with growing interest.

At first, I think I just skimmed over them to check out the ages, watching with a bit of alarm as the average ages of the deceased began to get uncomfortably close to my own. In time, cause of death became of greater interest, too.

But recently, I've been reading the obituary pages more thoroughly, trying to get a sense of the people and the lives recounted, each in a few short paragraphs. There have been homemakers who lived rich and fulfilling lives and died surrounded by their loved ones. There have been people with careers of service and dedication. There have been lives limited by a disability but lived with great love and lives cut short heartbreakingly soon.

And, every now and then, there is a life that makes me smile, that lifts my spirits and makes me wish I could have known this person in life.

I came across one like this the other day.

It was for a 95-year-old woman named Velma Elizabeth Coffin Kwart, M.D. (aka Dr. Beth).  And I was hooked from the beginning: "For all who knew her, leaving [this life] on Super Bowl Sunday was apropos. In fact, it is rumored that the thought of Tom Brady and the Patriots playing in yet another championship game was the last straw."

I went on to read about Dr. Beth as a little girl on a farm in Iowa, shucking corn with the rest of the family but showing little interest in the domestic arts. Instead, she had a passion for science and medicine and "performed what was perhaps Iowa;s first stone heart transplant into a porcelain doll at the tender age of 8."

Born in 1922, Dr. Beth came of age at a time when women, in general, were not encouraged to go to college, let alone professional school. She excelled in her college studies with a double major in Music and English and taught high school English for several years as she saved money to pay her way through medical school. It was a fight -- to be admitted, to get a surgical residency. But she did it, becoming the first female surgeon in Iowa. Her first job, however, was far from the state of her birth.. She was a surgeon at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

This posting led to some pivotal life directions -- meeting and marrying her great love, Navy pilot Philip Kwart, with whom she traveled the world and had five children. Her Alaskan adventure was also the beginning of her lifelong commitment to treat underserved Native Americans. Later on in her life, she and her husband settled in Arizona where she took a surgical position with the Indian Health Service, treating diabetic amputees, those with knife and gunshot wounds and end-stage liver disease.

Even when she reached her sixties and experienced the loss of her beloved husband and her own health (after being diagnosed with Addison's disease) and made the difficult decision to retire from surgery, she remained fully engaged with life. She lived to learn, to love and to share her musical skills as a pianist and singer in area churches. She delighted in her friends and her family -- her children, grandchildren and growing numbers of great grandchildren.

Her family reported that "Up until her last few months, she kept up with her Hawkeye football team, read the Wall Street journal and New York Times daily, and played Scrabble in Spanish. Those she knew were often recipients of 'clippings' she felt relevant for their lives. Her valued input and twinkling blue eyes will be missed...."

As I read Dr. Beth's obituary, her emotional generosity, vitality and the love of the family members writing about her life reached beyond death, beyond the pages, and touched my heart. I felt joy in reading about a life so well lived -- not just her years as a surgeon when she used her skills to make such a difference in the lives of those often underserved, but also her later years, after so many losses. She didn't give up but remained active, engaged, loving and giving to the end.

Dr. Beth is an inspiration in aging with grace, embracing each phase of her life with courage and gusto and joy.

I think I needed to read her story at this point in my own life. Not only am I increasingly conscious of my own mortality, but, in the past few months, I've also faced some reminders of loved ones' fragility and mortality.

My dear friend Mary's husband John, who had, over time, become a treasured friend of mine as well, passed away during the holidays and was remembered warmly by family and friends in a moving celebration of his life last month. I watch from a a state away but emotionally close as Mary works with quiet courage to build a new life on her own.

Several other cherished lifelong friends have developed shocking, life-changing medical conditions in the last two months. And my husband Bob is suddenly losing his eyesight. We don't know yet whether this will be permanent. But, nevertheless, he is trying to adjust to living without some things we so often take for granted -- like driving. And my sister Tai, who is ten years younger than I am and whose life has been far from easy, is facing a terrifying new challenge: the recent diagnosis of breast cancer that, she told me recently, has spread to her bones and brain.

 I find myself, at times, overwhelmed with sadness for these loved ones, but needing to be present and strong and supportive of them in their transitions and struggles and, in my sister's case, her fight for her life against daunting odds. For Tai, for all my loved ones touched by sudden health challenges and for me, this is a decidedly difficult phase of life.

So I found myself inspired by Dr. Beth's graceful acceptance of the changes that these later years can bring. When we can no longer do the things we've always done -- whether it is pursuing a career or driving or traveling or cooking elaborate holiday meals -- do we sit with despair or, like Dr. Beth, forge ahead into our new reality, finding moments of joy, of discovery and deep satisfaction in new pursuits, in cheering others on and maintaining close and loving connections?

It seems that, however long we have on this earth, we always have a choice: to give up and use our remaining time to grumble, to complain, to demand, to criticize and/or to watch endless hours of television or to engage fully with life -- following our favorite teams (I've been an Olympics junkie since my teens and vow to continue until my last days!), paying attention to the latest news and trends, and seeking relevance in the world and at home. Most of all, we can choose to engage with love, enthusiasm and emotional generosity with those we cherish most.

Then, whatever our challenges, life can be so good -- with every moment, every day, incredibly precious.


  1. So true! I love reading the obituaries too, just hearing everyone's life stories. You shared a really inspiring one!

  2. I was just chatting with someone last night and we were talking about how people we knew seemed to be dying more. And of course, why not? We aren't 30 anymore. But it is both sad and disconcerting and I am reminded of my aunt who at mid-90s said "All my friends are gone." The lesson from this: Make young friends.

    Just last week or the week before a woman with whom Rick was very much in love between Robin (his ex-wife) and me died suddenly. I never asked if they found out a cause -- he didn't know when he told me. But we've talked about it often and I see how significant this loss is to him. His grieving process is a tough one. The good thing -- they were still long-distance friends. But the thing is, it's a huge loss. And sudden and surprising.

    And it was yet another reminder to grab life, not hold off on that trip or that experience or to make a call or be in touch because we really never know.

    I'm sorry to hear about Bob's sight and Tai's cancer rearing its ugly head more aggressively. I know you know what strength both those things will require from you and I send wishes that you will be able to meet those challenges head on.

  3. Dear Kathy, thank you deeply for sharing this inspiring obituary about a woman who loved life and lived it fully. It reminded me of the last lines from the poem "Ulysses" by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Since I first read them my senior year in high school, they have been sort of a guidepost for how I wanted to live my life as I aged. Your last words are such a thoughtful reminder to all of us to embrace whatever period of our life we are in. Peace.