From then to now—seven years of pain and change

April 5, 2016 14:00 – 14:00

A lot of people know about my difficult journey over the past seven years, but many more don’t. I occasionally share longer “updates” on Facebook to spare myself and others I meet of the often painful but sometimes joyful details. If you already know all about me, please skip reading this note. Retelling the story helps me put everything into perspective as well as sometimes keeps me from having to retell it in person. At some point, one despairs of having every first meeting, every first date, or every first whatever end in tears.

Seven years ago was a very happy time in my life. My work was thriving and Karen and I were looking forward to early retirement, and relocating in New England to be closer to Katie. Karen had recently recovered completely from stage 4 breast cancer, which was as cured as breast cancer can get. Our amazing daughter Katie, who had just turned 21 in March, had just graduated from Boston University with honors in Music and Mathematics and Statistics—a feat she accomplished in three years, thanks to all the AP courses she took at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. She had decided to seek a doctorate in biostatistics, and had been accepted at Boston University and Yale—and had decided to stay in Boston, a place she loved, filled with people she loved. Life couldn’t be better.

A veteran of many family road trips, Katie decided to take her graduation present—a 1999 Honda Accord—across the country for her first solo cross-country drive. She used UUs at Home and friends for accommodations along the way, driving from DC to Boston, and then to San Francisco, Oregon, and finally to Salt Lake City for the 2009 UUA General Assembly. Always a transforming experience, at GA, she told a former minister that in addition to seeking her PhD, she had decided to seek UU ministry, as well. After GA, no longer solo-traveling, Katie and her good friend Heather began the trek back to Boston, via Yellowstone National Park, armed with camping gear.

In late June, Karen flew to Vancouver for the annual Western Economics Association meetings, and I headed west in my car. The plan was for us to begin the long trek east, revisiting the Canadian Rockies, which we’d visited several times before.

On June 29th, on my way west, I met up with Katie and Heather in Yellowstone, and we spent the day hiking and seeing the wonderful stinky hot springs and geysers. At the end of the day, we hugged, and parted company. They were going to spend two nights in Yellowstone, and then head south to Denver to spend a little time with Heather’s uncle. I headed west towards Vancouver.

That was the last time I saw Katie.

I continued west and made it into Vancouver the afternoon of July 2nd. At around 4 that afternoon, in the Vancouver area, I had my first and only panic attack. I didn’t know why until weeks later.

At the hotel in Vancouver, Karen returned from her last seminar, we went to dinner (I have no idea where), and we prepared for our trip eastward. I went to bed worried, however, because I hadn’t heard from Katie since mid-afternoon when she’d tweeted that she’d just gotten to Colorado.

At 3 am, there was pounding on our hotel room door. It didn’t wake me up, for some reason, but Karen woke up, and went to the door. She then woke me up and said that the police wanted to speak with both of us. A Vancouver city police officer and an RCMP broke the news to us that there had been a car crash, and that Katie had been killed on impact. Her friend Heather was injured, but had survived, and had told the Colorado State Police where we were.

I immediately informed family and close friends, and put the word out on Facebook. By noon on July 3rd, just about everybody we knew, knew and shared our shock and grief. Weeks later, when I finally saw the accident report and the time of the car crash, I recalled my panic attack on the afternoon of July 2nd, and realized that it had occurred at the same time. I still get shivers when I recall that. This was the first time in my life that I thought that perhaps our essence doesn’t get extinguished when our bodies die.

And, rather than a joyful trip east through Banff National Park, we began the slow, sad journey to Fort Collins, Colorado to arrange for Katie’s cremation. When we reentered the U.S. north of Seattle, our cell phones began to ring. I think we must’ve spoken with a dozen different UU ministers that first day. Along the way, a plan began to take shape. In addition to planning Katie’s Virginia memorial service, we decided to create a way to keep Katie’s amazing energy alive, through the Katie Tyson Fund for Youth and Young Adult Ministries. Through it, others like Katie who wanted to go further in UUism, would have the means to afford it. More on this later.

When we got to Fort Collins, our minister had arranged with a fellow UU minister to meet with us and help us in our visits to the coroner and mortician. That minister specializes in grief counseling, and her own son had died in his 20s. She was exactly what we needed.

In Fort Collins, we also went to see Heather and her family, who had flown in from Boston. Heather was as grief stricken as we were, but we were very grateful that she had survived the crash. One of several silver linings in this narration is that Heather survived, recovered, and later entered seminary and graduated. I went to her ordination as a UU minister on May 4, 2014. Hers was the first of three of Katie’s friends’ ordinations I’ve attended so far since Katie died. I’m looking forward to many more because another silver lining is that when Katie died, I inherited many of her friends, with whom I’ve remained in contact. They help fill the great void left by Katie’s death, and help keep her spirit alive.

Seed money for the fund came through contributions from Karen & me and donations from Katie’s two memorial services at her two churches—Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in Virginia and Arlington Street Church in Boston. Additional funding from special collections at other UU churches and the insurance settlement check gave the fund additional boosts. But, a big boost next came at the next year’s General Assembly meeting, which was in June, 2010 in Minneapolis. A collection during the Saturday plenary session meant that the fund was now large enough for permanent endowment. Now, a fully-endowed and still growing fund, the KT Fund is a permanent memorial to the love and dedication Katie brought to UUism.

Karen’s mission was to eventually grow the fund to a million dollars, and I have no doubt that her vision and energy would have gotten it there (and it will definitely get there, but not yet). However, Karen would never see it happen.

Suffering from digestive issues for the previous five or ten years, Karen’s health problems reached a climax in early 2012. She had worsened through December, 2015, and after several mis-diagnoses, Karen was diagnosed with colon cancer in February. It had metastasized and had already spread to her lungs, liver, stomach, and brain. It was completely unrelated to her previous breast cancer, from which she had recovered completely. After surgery to remove her large intestine and a couple of weeks in the hospital, Karen was released into my care and home visits from a wound care nurse. The plan was to let enough healing take place so she would be strong enough to undergo chemo. Our plan was survival, despite the 6% survival rate.

From February through the first week of May, I went into full-time caregiver mode. The wound nurse came three times a week to change the dressing, and the surgery was healing. A physical therapist came multiple times per week, and Karen was making progress in the healing and recovery process. In the first week of May, Karen was finally able to make it up the stairs. Our hopes soared.

On Wednesday, May 2nd, Karen went for her first chemo. Veterans of chemo from her breast cancer, we thought everything went fine. By the next day, however, Karen was feeling awful, but the symptoms were consistent with normal chemo side effects. Over the weekend, however, Karen continued to feel worse and worse, and by Monday morning (May 7th), it was clear that something was horribly wrong.

We went to Kaiser, where tests showed that Karen’s kidneys had shut down. Now, too weak to walk, Karen was taken by ambulance to Virginia Hospital Center, where they discovered that her small intestine had ruptured, and she was in septic shock. After an emergency surgery to repair the leak as best they could, they put her into an induced coma to control the pain. Antibiotics were tried, to no avail. Karen never awoke, and she died at about noon two days later, on May 9th, surrounded by her two brothers, her sister, my sister, my minister, and me.

My best friend of nearly 40 years and my wife of almost 38 years was gone. Life as I knew it was over. It had actually been over since February, but, hope and denial kept us from realizing it.

I’m a labor economist and technology writer. While I was in caregiver mode, I canceled a book contract and my other work slowed considerably. After Karen died, I tried to work for another year, but I just couldn’t muster the concentration. I also canceled a second book contract. My heart wasn’t in it.

But, thanks to our investments and a good financial advisor I found after Karen died, I didn’t really need to keep working. And, one day it hit me—life was too short to spend the rest of mine doing something I didn’t love doing. Yes, the work I was doing at the time (trying to create jobs for people with disabilities) was important and worthwhile work. But, it wasn’t where my heart was.

I decided that to the extent possible, I would do only things I loved doing. If they resulted in income, that income would be reinvested in the Katie Tyson Fund as well as other things I believe in. The most meaningful part of what I do now is songwriting and using my songs as a vehicle for spreading the word about UUism, telling UUs around the U.S. about the Katie Tyson Fund, and working towards Karen’s dream of seeing it top a million dollars.

Somebody once called my songs mini-sermons because of the custom-fit they seem to have with the rest of the services where I sing. I like that characterization. So, I take my 3-minute sermons to UU churches around the U.S., often writing new songs to fit services when I don’t yet have an exact match in my growing binder of songs. When my songs match the service—it’s not an accident.

The rest of my time, I spend hiking, traveling, taking photographs (and sharing them on my blog and on Facebook and Twitter), making new friends, practicing random acts of philanthropy where a few dollars can make a difference, and trying to elicit groans with my puns on Facebook. So, if you ever wondered “what’s the deal with this Herb Tyson character?”, now you know. If you never wondered… well, you didn’t read this, so… never mind.


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