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A Survivor’s Heart

by Barbara Matousek October 06, 2011

By: Barbara Matousek

When I pulled into the driveway and saw the package sitting by the garage door, I starting unhooking my seatbelt before I’d even stopped the car. I had been waiting for this package all week, since the day I got the email from Amazon telling me it had shipped. And as I stand now at my kitchen counter flipping through pages like some sort of restless child, I want to go door to door and start passing out books. I turn to the first page and read a blurb from Pam Houston about Katherine’s humor and her survivor’s heart, and I smile. On the back cover is a picture of Katherine with her daughter, Katherine’s pale nose and chin resting on Josies’s dimpled brown cheek. Josie’s hair is up in braids, and Katherine’s long straight hair hangs below her shoulders.

The first time I met Katherine her hair was just a few inches long. It was a curly mop that accentuated her big green eyes. We stood on a gravel parking area near the compound of cottages our writing group had rented for the week in Pt. Reyes, California. Our writing community had been around for nearly five years, but Katherine had joined us online the year before and she was joining us for an in-person workshop for the first time. A few months earlier she had emailed us all about her clean scan and the anniversary of her mastectomy. She told us all to have a drink for her on that day. “One might wonder if that’s a day to celebrate,” she said and then answered herself. “Hmmm. Sure!”

To be honest I don’t remember much about Katherine that week, because I was absorbed in my own insane and narrowly-focused world of IVF and follicle counting, and I was still struggling with trying to figure out what the latest ridiculous messages from my ex-boyfriend were supposed to mean. But I do remember Katherine’s beautiful eyes and endless curiosity and the way she confidently placed herself into the center of a new community. And I remember reading Made of Metal and Constructed with Fire (one of the stories in her new book) and thinking what an amazing talent she was already. In the back seat of a car headed to SFO at the end of our week together, the wind blowing the warm March air through the car until we rolled up the windows, she admitted how nervous she had been to join us all and I marveled at her balance of strength and vulnerability, her ability to be honest without being overly sentimental, and the way she always moved forward despite fear.

She may tell the story differently, but from my vantage point she was confident and beautiful and unbelievably funny. We’ve all heard the statistic that 1 in 8 women gets breast cancer, but Katherine was the first survivor that I met that was willing to share her story with me, the first woman who made me laugh about chemotherapy nausea and botched reconstructive surgery. After a week of intense writing workshops with dog-walking on North Beach and kite flying on Limantour Beach and oysters at Tony’s on Highway 101, Katherine’s place in our community was cemented. She not only fit in, but she inspired all of us to new levels of courage and commitment and heart.

At my kitchen counter I pull multiple copies of “Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition” out of the shipping box and run my palm over the cover of each one. My son Sam was born nine months after that first meeting, and just before that Katherine had sent an email to our group telling us about Josie’s adoption saying simply “Our baby is here.” In the years since we first met our emails about writing and the creative process have occasionally detoured to complaints of sleep deprivation and baby gas and how it is still okay to complain about parenthood even though it was our choosing, but she is the first person to understand when I tell her how hard it is to juggle parenthood and the creative process.

I thumb through the pages of “Who in This Room” and think back over the friendship we’ve developed over the years, and I can actually feel my heart beat a little faster from the excitement of holding this tangible evidence of her talent. I want to pass this book on to everyone I know, to share this amazing woman and these poignant, funny stories with all my friends.

My friendship with Katherine is really difficult to define. In many ways we are strangers as we don’t bump in to each other at the local café or plan trips across the country to visit each other. But in a world in which we’re all busy texting and twittering while trying to find meaningful connection, our friendship is significant. The beautiful book she’s written and this journey she has survived remind me to be grateful for what I have and that when life becomes unbearable or simply scary and exhausting, I need to just slow down and pay attention and there are always reasons to laugh.

Katherine Malmo’s book, Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition, is now available anywhere books are sold. In 2005 Katherine was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer and spent a year in treatment. These days she is cancer-free and blogs about her family, adoption, race, health and living a low-toxin life at HystericalMommyNetwork.

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