Katherine Russell Rich 1955-2012

by Tulasi-Priya on Friday 6 April 2012

Katherine Russell Rich, author of the memoirs Dreaming in Hindi, and Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer and Back, died on April 3rd after an incredible 24-year battle with Stage IV breast cancer. I found out from Leah Hager Cohen’s blog. KRR had been told after the first recurrence that she had, at most, two years to live. In an essay for the New York Times, she wrote that every year, on the fifteenth of January, she would post a message to a breast cancer survivors’ discussion board, “saying, essentially, I’m still here.

She was obviously a woman of great vitality and patience; any American who could live in India for a year would have to be. Although I didn’t know her personally, Dreaming in Hindi so entertained and inspired me, that we can’t hear from her again feels like a real loss.  In the Times essay she also writes about how she would encourage the women at the cancer discussion board:

On the Web site, I tell the women how deeply I believe there’s no such thing as false hope: all hope is valid, even for people like us, even when hope would no longer appear to be sensible.

Life itself isn’t sensible, I say. No one can say with ultimate authority what will happen — with cancer, with a job that appears shaky, with all reversed fortunes — so you may as well seize all glimmers that appear.

I write to them (to myself) that of course this is tough: the waiting to see if the shadows are multiplying, the physical pain, the bouts with terrible blackness.

“But there can be joy in this life, too,” I say, “and that’s so important to remember. This disease does not invalidate us. This past year, I’ve had the joy of falling in love with my sister’s kids, who live states away and whom I hadn’t had the chance to know. I’ve had a second book come out, one I worked on for eight years, about going to live in India with Stage 4 cancer. I’ve had so many moments of joy this year, but when I’m in blackness, I forget about those.” Then I ask them to write and tell me about theirs, and lights begin to flash.

The other night I watched Kung Fu Hustle with my husband. I loved the eye-candy of hyper-speed martial arts and CGI effects. But strangely, what I took away from the film was the idea of the value of ordinariness. To be ordinary is such a blessing, says the ferocious Landlady, having no desire to employ her considerable gift for mayhem, but forced to fight for her life and her home. It was hard for me to understand that longing at first, since I’ve always either aspired to be extraordinary, or believed myself to be so, tenuously, defensively. But such an aspiration minimizes the blessing that is life, whether ordinary or otherwise. If I can’t see it, it’s because I’m not paying attention. Cancer, if nothing else, gets you to pay attention. When my husband went through chemo for testicular cancer a few years back, that crystalline awareness was mine. But then he went into remission, thank God, while time inexorably worked its narcotic effect. I can still remember the keen sense of aliveness that pressed its edge against all my waking hours, but I can’t summon it to my aid when I feel that life is less than it could be. Or maybe I just avoid doing so. Again, it’s a matter of attention. From KRR’s Times essay:

When I was told I had a year or two, I didn’t want anything one might expect: no blow-out trip to the Galápagos, no perfect meal at Alain Ducasse, no defiant red Maserati. All I wanted was ordinary life back, for ordinary life, it became utterly clear, is more valuable than anything else.

Paying attention to the life that we have now is a painstaking job, but it’s worth the effort. I’d rather not wait for the threat of imminent death to force the issue. But what am I saying? What KRR says about seemingly imminent death is also true about life: we can transit from one state to the other in no time, in spite of all indications to the contrary. Most of us are simply dreaming that it won’t. When will I wake up?

Are you sleeping? What would wake you up?



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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

SparksInShadow April 9, 2012 at 10:24 am

I can’t always summon the effort to pay attention either, but memories of my mother’s fight with cancer make me say little thank yous sometimes when people without such memories wouldn’t have gratitude in mind.

It feels good to say a public thank you here for all the glorious, mundane things I can still do. Thank you for reminding me of them in this moment.


Averil April 9, 2012 at 11:49 am

That video clip was fabulous. I love the tee-shirt at the end.

I’m not sleeping. I’m too impatient for that, and actually I’ve always been grateful for my ordinariness. Steady as she goes, and a circle of loving people around me. Everything else I can get by imagining.


anna April 10, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I think that might be a trick question. I think I’m awake, but maybe it’s just a dream. How does one know for sure? Maybe if I moved to India or tangled with junkies or flirted with strangers I’d know. Perhaps we need life to be a series of slaps and pinches to tweak our awareness.
I am sorry to hear about KRR.
I tagged you on my most recent blog, btw.


Downith April 16, 2012 at 6:25 am

A friend of my husband’s died of breast cancer in February, weeks after being diagnosed.

Yes, ordinary life is valuable. Thanks for the reminder.


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