“Maybe I should write a book about my experiences in Mexico,” Kaye said with a twinkle in her eye.
We sat together at lunch on a sparkling summer day at Salty’s in Federal Way, Washington with the deep blue Puget Sound behind us. Kaye Kvam and I were reconnecting after more than thirty years, catching up on our children, families, interests, and livelihoods. Kaye had graduated from Stanford’s PA program in 1978 and then worked for thirty-five years as a Physician’s Assistant.
Her first job was in a rural Spanish-speaking clinic in Healdsburg, California, where her clients were vineyard migrant workers. She did a post-grad ER residency at the LA County USC Medical Center and stayed on to become the clinical director there. She worked over twenty years, until her recent retirement, in family practice in Washington State.
We laughed remembering hilarious moments from our college days, when we shared a small apartment in Davis, California. Her smile and laughter were two of the most delightful things about this old friend.
We had lost touch in the 1980s when, busy with children, husbands, and careers, we misplaced addresses and years went by.
Late in 2013, I found her while searching Facebook. It was only then I learned of her medical diagnosis: Kaye has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
At lunch last summer, after telling her about my writing – self-published Bible Studies, devotionals, and the non-fiction book I was researching at the time – she casually mentioned she had always wanted to write her own book. I smiled and encouraged her, but really gave the idea very little thought at the time.
We finished a delicious meal and her husband Tom snapped a photo of the two of us. Kaye leaned on the railing and I put my arm around her. As we said goodbye in the parking lot, I tried to tell her how much I admired her attitude in her illness. She answered, “My life has been so full of blessings; this is just the biggest, juiciest blessing of them all.”
I could barely back my car out, my vision blurred by tears.
The next day I flew home to Pittsburgh. A long uninterrupted transcontinental flight is a wonderful place to think. For some reason, life seems clearer and plans come together for me at 30,000 feet. During that flight it occurred to me that I might assist Kaye in writing her book. I even discussed it with the stranger sitting beside me on the plane. The idea took on an unexpected moral imperative and before landing in Pittsburgh I resolved to ask her if we could do this together.
At home, I penned a long letter, thanking her for lunch and our satisfying visit. I offered to write her story or help her write it. I stressed this was a serious offer. I have other writing projects in progress, but I wanted to assure her that this would be of high priority with me. I begged her to consider it and then I waited.
Several weeks went by and finally she agreed. She had given it much thought, consulted her family, and decided that if it could help or inspire someone, it would be worth it.
Kaye was already using a walker and wore a neck brace to hold her head up. I knew almost nothing about ALS beyond the fact that it can move fast to snatch life from the most vivacious among us. I had poured ice water on my head the year before in the social media phenomenon known as the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.” Lots of money was raised during that campaign, but there is still no cure.
It took the doctors quite a while to accurately diagnose the cause of her trunk weakness in August, 2013. Since that time, her ALS has progressed slowly, but as a medical professional she knows what is in store.
Kaye offered to dig out her dusty journals from her time in Mexico as a volunteer at a small clinic in the mountains. I had only known her after her return to UC Davis, when if anyone asked about her studies, she always answered with a smile: “I’m writing my own major.”
We set a time for a phone chat. I figured she could just tell me her stories and I could type them out on my laptop while listening. I would ask questions as we went along. We could edit and add literary flourishes later. So we began.
The program, “Project Piaxtla,” utilized interested college students and others to offer rudimentary medical treatments to poor communities in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. David Werner, a Stanford professor, had started the project in the 1960s. Kaye’s months in Mexico in 1974 had crystallized her desire to work in medicine as a way to help people in need. It had been a big step for a young woman not yet out of college to take the leap of faith and travel to the mountains of Mexico like she did.
At first, only the bare bones of her story came out. I asked lots of questions Kaye couldn’t answer. She couldn’t remember exactly what steps she had taken to prepare for this adventure. She struggled to remember names and places. She recounted only the stories documented in her humorous journal entries and letters home. But as days and weeks went by, Kaye was able to recall with great detail the days of preparation, her amazing travel stories, and her feelings along the way.
“I sometimes have to pinch myself awake from what seems like a vivid dream as I relive those exciting days,” she told me.
Soon Kaye was spending time each day writing out rich stories with her signature sense of humor. Her dear lifelong friend Nancy Crawford typed them out. We now exchange drafts by email and discuss changes by phone.
Kaye maintains a transcendent attitude toward her illness. I cannot imagine facing the inevitable prognosis with the unflinching grace she demonstrates daily. She will soon need a feeding tube, since her throat is constricting making it impossible to eat. Her vocal chords are atrophying so our phone conversations may soon be cut short. While her ability to get out and do other things has waned, her focus on this book has intensified in the few months we have been writing.
Working on these memoirs has given Kaye a sense of purpose despite her increasing physical limitations. She can lose herself in memories and share them with me and her friends and family as she recalls her experiences. If her goal in writing had been fame and fortune, she probably would have turned me down. But as a person whose whole life has been focused on helping others, Kaye finds real satisfaction in writing something that may sustain or inspire others. “Even if it is only for my son, I am glad to be writing this down,” she says.
As for me, it is a true honor and a pleasure to simply assist Kaye in this process. We are renewing and deepening our friendship. I am inspired by the faith and grace this wonderful woman displays. And together we are adding purpose to her days and giving hope to some yet unknown readers, perhaps inspiring them to live more fully in the present, to share what they can with the poor, or to prepare for a career in medicine. Knowing how to help a person with a terminal illness may be as simple as helping put memories on paper. Kaye’s story will outlive her struggle. Write it while you can.