The Moth Remembers Katherine Russell Rich
April 9, 2012
by The Moth,
Katherine Russell Rich tells her story at The Moth, 2003 / Photo Credit: David Polenberg
Our much-loved, deeply admired friend Kathy Rich died last week, nearly two decades after her doctor said she had a year left, two at most. You might say she was living on borrowed time – except that Kathy didn’t borrow time; she owned it, planting her flag firmly and ruling that span of seasons fiercely, wisely, hilariously, benevolently, and beautifully.
Hearing of Kathy’s passing, many of her heartbroken friends had the same strange feeling: We’d seen her approach the brink of beyond and bounce back miraculously so many times during her years of combat with cancer that though we understood she’d truly left the building, we couldn’t help thinking, “But it’s Kathy! She just might have a trick up her sleeve!”
Well, she did. Her work conjures one kind of immortality, of course; she was a potent sorceress of a writer and an enchanting storyteller. But an even deeper magic lies in the legacy of her example. She showed us a way to move forward and savor, no matter what. “Uncertainty is not necessarily to be feared,” she wrote in a memorable 2010 piece for O, The Oprah Magazine, about committing herself to living fully despite the lethal threat of an illness in and out of remission. “It can make your life bloom, give you power; at least that’s what I’ve found. ‘So what?’ I’d tell myself. ‘Just try it.’” Go live in India for a year, she told herself. Buy a house in the country. Be a New York Public Library scholar. Teach at Harvard. Just try it. So what? She left us a memorable model and a marvelous metric: What Would Kathy Do? Her vast network of pals – she had a great gift for friendship – and the strangers who met her through her writing and storytelling will be asking themselves always, “What am I waiting for? So what? WWKD?” The great trick she’s pulled off is to inspire a glorious epidemic of day-seizing.
During our more than 30 years as chums (so much fun! so not long enough!), I saw that Kathy didn’t deny pain, terror, or sorrow; instead, she acknowledged them as part of living fully, and set out to learn how to navigate them with grace. It wasn’t easy, and the fact that her equanimity was hard-won, territory that sometimes needed reconquering, only burnishes her accomplishment. That lesson is part of her legacy, too.
Though her corporeal self is absent, we have many ways to summon Kathy’s voice and image—in our thoughts; through her writing, especially her two extraordinary books Dreaming in Hindi and The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer—And Back; and by means of technology: photos and tributes on her Facebook page; the rollicking video trailer for Dreaming in Hindi, in which she relates some of her “many spirited adventures”; through her three Moth stories (about a hot fireman, a twist-of-fate love affair, and thriving under the threat of death. One highlight from that tale: When the doctor first gave her a year to live, she decided for the sake of practicality not to look up new words in the dictionary, since she wouldn’t need them).
The Moth stories capture Kathy’s essence. They’re wry and insightful, shapely and sharp, with a lightness anchored in moral heft; beneath slight goofiness lies great gravitas. In her author’s video, Kathy says that Dreaming in Hindi is about how learning a second language affects the brain, but it’s also about “extreme joy and transformation.” That’s what Kathy was about, too.