The smile. That is what I will miss the most. It came naturally to her — an ever-graceful greeting that conveyed more than words ever could. It was captivating. It was kind. It was constant. Often, you could feel it before you could see it. What a divine gift.
But then, Kia had many.
I have found myself glancing out often today through the windows at my barn. The old hay loft doors have been opening and closing with each gust of the day’s breeze. It has not sunk in that just months ago wedding vows were exchanged from that very spot — on that very perfect day. In truth, it has sunk in. But the thought of it makes me sad.
Kia didn’t do sad. Cancer holds a brutal advantage over the body, but not the spirit. Not hers. In the toughest of times, she stayed true to herself. Happy. Hopeful. Brave.
More gifts, still.
Her unwavering insistence to choose life — until the very end of her own — was her brilliantly eloquent way of saying “F*#K You” to cancer. Come to think of it, I think that was the first and only time I ever heard her swear. What keen showmanship she possessed.
Upon the birth of our youngest nephew, Cooper, my mother handed the newborn over to Kia. She extended her arms with a humorous caveat: “Mrs. Clarke — as an only child, you might as well be handing me a possum right now.” Man, she was funny. Innately funny. Innocently funny. The boys — Jake, Sam, and Cooper — loved their Aunt Kia; we all did. They know of Heaven … and know she is there.
Kia was like a sister long before she became a sister-in-law. She was family. We were blessed.
I remember my sister Annie calling to invite me to the island — the small New Hampshire island and cottage that had been in Kia’s family for generations — for a weekend in the fall of 2010. The whole family was invited. It is the sort of call that infers good news. You hope you know what’s coming, but you’re never sure. Good news came indeed. My sister Annie and Kia pronounced almost in unison: “We’re engaged!”
Immature beyond my years, I said: “Who’s the lucky guy?”
Kia laughed. She always laughed at my juvenile jokes. Boy, were we happy. What a great weekend. It was like getting a new mid-life sibling. Only this one wouldn’t break into my room and play with my baseball cards.
Annie and Kia were the happiest married couple I knew.
Really, Kia was the epitome of cool. Authenticity came so naturally to her; she was effortlessly individualistic — the sort of person who could set a trend without even trying. You would ask: “Do you want to go …?” She would answer “yes” before you could complete the sentence. She was infinitely sweet.
Optimism for the wedding was interrupted when we got word last March that the nagging fever Kia had was, in fact, masking something much worse. Cancer. Lymphoma. Stage Four. And, unbeknownst to us at the time, chemo-resistant. Doctors surmised that it had been with her for years. Years? I still can’t wrap my head around it. It’s not fair. But, as many a family has painfully learned, cancer isn’t fair.
And, Kia wouldn’t want us to dwell drearily in the past … she is too good for that.
She won some battles over the past year, but cancer won the war. Too often, it does. But that belittles the story. Kia’s many years were bigger than the few during which cancer plagued her.
We went to California last week to be with her. It was hard. The cancer was back. Turns out it never left. Nine rounds of chemo could not defeat it. New bone marrow could not defeat it. Courage and unwavering will could not defeat it. Nothing could.
On Saturday, surrounded by friends and family, an afternoon of labored breathing evolved calmly into a comfortable deep sleep. One last smile. One last breath. One last goodbye.
It is hard to say goodbye — goodbye to the brave and beautiful body in the bed. But it is the spirit that sustains you — that stays with you. The memories. I don’t think of Kia in a hospital bed, I think of Kia kayaking at the lake in Vermont; I think of her sitting on the couch knitting with a smile while we were watching sporting events that she had no interest in; I think of her drinking her coffee on the island dock in New Hampshire … greeting the morning sunrise as she had for years before. I think of her waking up early on Christmas morning to start her famous chicken chili. I think of her … smiling. What a smile.
The spirit. You remember the spirit.
Soon after Kia passed, Annie played a video on her iPad. It was one of Kia’s last requests. She knew we would be sad, but wanted us to smile. Over the past few months — in the midst of tests and treatments — Kia had taken up the ukulele.
We sat as she posthumously performed “All I Have to Do Is Dream” — smile wide as ever. The pitch … perfect. The chorus … enduring.
“Whenever I want you, all I have to do … is dream.”
Good night, Kia.
Ben Clarke has worked in Washington, D.C. as a political consultant and speechwriter for the past 10 years. During that period, he has served as chief political writer for GOP strategist Frank Luntz, speechwriter for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and communications consultant for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. He has worked on countless House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns across America. He has also worked on or covered campaigns in Ukraine, Georgia and Greece. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.