For the people who intersect with your life and affect you, without ever knowing it.
In 1987 when I was 23 I fell hard for this sophisticated older woman: she was 27.
She was smart and focused, with beautiful short black hair with flecks of grey, and a magical spirit that was just — just what I had always wanted in a girl. We spent maybe a month together, driving around Napa and Marin and having picnics in Palo Alto. I was pining for her, but she always remained a little distant. She told me she was moving away and she told me not to get attached. Inspired by David Hockney’s work I had recently seen in Pasadena, I was experimenting with large photomosaics and asked her if she’d sit for one. She didn’t like being photographed, but acquiesced. I worked on the composition for weeks. It was one of my favorites.
I only spent the night with her once. She stayed with me the night before I drove her to SFO and she took off for somewhere in Asia. That was in 1987. I never heard from her again.
I looked for her a bit in 1994, when the web was invented, and little more a few years later, when Google was functional. But she was off the grid. The only fact I remembered was that she spent some time working with an organization called the Asia Foundation. I called them but they wouldn’t disclose any information. Eventually I let it go.
When I was divorcing and thinning out my stuff, I was looking to donate a photograph we owned, a wedding gift that didn’t really fit in my interests or Jen’s taste. It was a Japanese print by Kusakabe Kimbei from 1885, a hand-colored style that was popular for tourists in that era. Then I had an idea: the Asia Foundation! — certainly they would enjoy (or could sell) this print… and maybe I could use it as an opportunity to find Kathleen. It would be cool to reconnect. I was, after all, single again.
Upon my visit to their SF offices, the director confirmed they knew her but couldn’t tell me much more. He thought she was married. He didn’t know what had happened since she left the organization, but he was pretty sure she was still in Asia. I was happy to know she was out there.
In late 2016 I was cleaning up my photo archive and I came across an image of her large photomosaic portrait. She seemed a little sad in it, which I chose to interpret as her being sad leaving me, so it made me like it more. The original was surely still packed away in my garage, still a favorite creation. Anyway, for no particular reason, I posted the image on Instagram. Of course, it got me wondering about her, so as I’d done a number of times before, I decided to Google her. This time, for the first time, I got a hit. It was a website.
As I began reading, my enthusiasm stopped. She had died of cancer the year before, and this was her family’s memorial. I spent the afternoon pouring into the person I missed, increasingly warmed to see the family she built and her life’s work. She was indeed an amazing woman, and I felt vindicated in holding onto her memory for so long.
There was an email address on the website, so after wrestling with the propriety of this, I reached out to her husband. I told him the story and offered him my condolences along with the portrait, if he wanted. He declined in a heart-felt note, telling me of his ongoing work overseas, his mobile and somewhat possession-free lifestyle, and described how he met her in Malaysia a few years after her arrival there. He told me about their adult children and the outpouring of love they had been receiving.
Sad and happy.
“I’ve pretty much always lived my life as fully as possible, following my own and often strange paths. I’ve sought peace by confronting violence, good by battling evil. I’m a skeptic if only because I expect the world should be a good place for humanity.”
- Kathleen, days after learning she had cancer, New Zealand, March 2014.