Every pew was filled with a caring soul on Wednesday as many communities gathered to say goodbye to Kathy Irvin. 25 yellow roses bowed their heads in a vase at the front of the church. A shock, her passing. One minute a cheery, efficient message on the answering service; the next the news that her fragile heart had let her go.
As Kathy’s communities gathered, it was amazing how often they touched each other. Some people live life to a brass band, boisterous, bellows of heralded achievement. And some walk quietly into our lives and change us for eternity. That was Kathy.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet tells us that in order to have great happiness, we must endure great sadness; in fact, our happiness will reach only the heights equal to the depths of our sadness. For few people is this more true than for Kathy Hart Irvin. With the support of her husband (Dr. Rick Irvin) and her son Tim, she took the great grief of her daughter’s death at age 12 from lymphoma and used its energy to change an entire community.
In fact, if we look through history, we’ll see heroes and heroines whose grief has gifted us for eternity. In our own community we have today an emerging building full of hospice services, care for the terminally ill and their families. We have support for families, bereavement groups where Kathy Irvin would live again and again the experience of her daughter¹s death.
Kathy Irvin was an imp. She loved humour, she loved the people who anchored her life… her husband, her son, her sisters (natural & chosen), her nieces, her in-laws, her mom and dad. She embraced her communities with an energy and commitment that was ambitious to match. She took her unquenchable thirst to know more and applied it to books, magazines, lectures, retreats, challenges and opportunities.
Quite simply, Kathy made time.
Eight years ago, while on a retreat in Kingston, she experienced, without any advance warning, a heart attack that sent her by air to Ottawa’s Heart Institute with the ultimate proclamation that she should just not be alive. She confounded medical gurus who looked at her charts and scans and computer printouts and just could not compare them to the woman who stood before them, hand on hip, elbow at 90 degrees, and a quipped “Well, why not?”
Perhaps because of her daughter, Debbie’s death and perhaps strengthened by her own threatened time, Kathy put a lifetime into the years between 1997 and 2005. She danced. She joined a sacred circle of dance and drums. She worshipped in her church, at the water’s edge at the cottage, on a ski trail in the Copeland Forest, at the business end of binoculars taking in the charm of a deer. She wanted it all. Because the threat of no tomorrows lives at the edge of every today, Kathy was efficient with her time. She didn’t waste one minute of it. She hated to go to bed at night and she got up as soon as she could in the morning. She lived intensely, with only 17% of her heart in functional mode. She’d nurture her energy with relaxation and meditation.
She laughed. She’d squeeze her feet into flippers and with a few strokes, swim way off shore so she could ‘talk’ to Claire, the loon at the cottage. And when Claire rose above the water and called, Kathy called back. Listeners could rarely tell who was who. Last fall, Claire surfaced and Kathy slipped into a canoe and paddled close. She reached in to the water and grasped one feather, left on the surface. She brought Claire’s feather home. It served as Tim’s lapel “pin” when he eulogized his mother.
Kathy did what most of us only put on our mental lists. She stood still and watched the stars. She and Rick took time to see both coastal shorelines in this country, stopping to visit “boat people” sponsored by their church a quarter-century ago. She organized family trips with husbands, sisters, children, parents.
Her spiritual life was at the centre of each of her choices… she served on outreach committees. She took her own energy into spending time with guests who were bedding down for the night during Out of The Cold. She brought in guest speakers and helped make funding decisions that supported charitable work both regionally and internationally. After Debbie’s death, Kathy took funeral directors courses and she and Rick went to a death and dying conference. She came home ready to mobilize and hospice gained early supporters in Jane Fitzgerald, Brigid Campbell-Nash, Hazel Baxter, Barbara Tolvanen, Joanne DeBiasio, Betty Anne Stuart, Linda Gooderham, Heather Cox, Ian and Pat Brignell (who also lost their daughter), Dorothy Snider, Grant Nolan and Dr. Laura Crook.
Energy gathered and the concept moved into the community.
Kathy Irvin was a Big Sister to two young girls and maintained those relationships long after the girls became women. Both were at her service on Wednesday. She was a committed Literacy tutor, cutting short trips to make sure she kept her weekly appointment with the young man she was working with. Her literacy appointments came first.
She was an early initiator of Habitat for Humanity, involved through the Outreach Committee she chaired for her church. Targets for giving let Kathy explore need in the community and last summer she actually participated in the ‘build’ which occurred in Alcona. How like Kathy to invite the recipient family to make the promotional presentation this year!
One of her great gifts is she knew how to go to the little people, those of us who walk through our day just doing our best. She has been a steady supporter of Samaritan House, a program helping kids with homework, providing clothes and housing referrals and counselling.
She helped to bring a Vietnamese family to Canada 25 years ago and she has stayed in firm friendship. 25 roses from Nu Dang. One for each year of friendship with her ‘Canadian sister.’
She had room for lots of ideas, soaking up controversy within her traditional religion. She read to get answers, to provoke her sense of wonder, to understand better.
She did not have a mechanical bone in her body. Confounded equally by her bread maker, and the VCR, she refused to embrace the computer and email until her son went far enough afield to make it worthwhile.
Kathy’s life was summed up this week with three words: meaningful. purposeful. spiritual. Add intentional.