I want to tell you about my sister Kathy.
She died last week. It was sudden, quite unexpected, she went from an ambulance called Sunday night to my saying goodbye to her over the phone Thursday. Cancer.
She was born in 1969, the youngest of we 8 kids. She was Down Syndrome, and in 1969 – years before terms like “mainstreaming” and “special needs” entered our cultural lexicon – to share your home with a Down Syndrome sister was fairly rare, or at least not discussed in polite company.
It was an interesting time, 1969. The world was changing pretty rapidly, the hippie movement was collapsing under its own weight and Vietnam’s Tet Offensive was, stated simply, more than what was expected.
And the Kienlen family had a new child at home, a girl.
Kathy, Kathleen Marie more formally, was home. One of the nuns in the nearby convent had some experience dealing with (what we now call) special needs children and came by to provide both therapy and to give us things to do to help Kathy get accustomed to the world.
We did, little exercises, games.
She went on, kept growing in the way of all cared for middle-class children and soon was off to school. There, and this is interesting, she really got into the written word.
And yeah, sure, we all like stories and all that (you’re the type who reads newspaper columns after all) but she really got into it.
She liked to write and she loved to read (and was not-bad at crossword puzzles). I called home one time and we were chatting when they put Kathy on, and she wanted to talk about poetry. Oh, not just any old “moon/spoon” stuff, but fairly sophisticated poetry. She wanted to talk about Emily Dickinson – one of the classic America poets – and just find out what I knew about her.
So yes, she and I shared an affection for poetry.
And sure you could read it this far and think “Oh, well, isn’t that nice. His late sister enjoyed poetry,” and you wouldn’t be wrong, but it goes past that.
She graduated from school and got a job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. At one time that had been a monstrous bustling place, but in the era of a winding-down Cold War it was a shadow of its former self.
But it did have one installation there, a computer system, that was too big to move and to important to abandon. It had something to do with tracking where in the world sailors were, I think.
Kathy, after some trial and error, got the hang of commuting to the Navy Yard and worked there for 32 years until she retired, doing so just a few years ago.
And to be clear, it was real work. Keeping track of Navy Personnel generates a lot of paperwork, which has to be taken to the correct desk, and has to be destroyed, shredded, when it’s done. She did that.
I’ve been fond of pointing out that in such regard, in career, Kathy did better than I did, heck, then a lot of people. She retired with her pension just a few years ago, home to books, word puzzles and soap operas, in an apartment she shared with Mom.
And yeah, we could end it there: Loving family, Down Syndrome, school, good job, books, poetry, retirement, not bad.
But we can’t end it there. You don’t know the really telling thing about her yet.
See, the one thing about her, the one thing really striking, was how much she liked people. And she liked people in that way that she liked people because they were people, she was a people, and she used to drink up life stories like water.
Oh the stories! The people she worked with, and shared her life with them and they with her as you do with long-term co-workers. (I’m sure I’ll see some at the funeral this Saturday.) And it didn’t end there: People she knew, knew from around, knew after being introduced in various social settings.
And I mean knew as in “knew all about.” I’ve heard stories, lately, of people who hadn’t seen here in a year, and she’d remember their name, what the last thing was they talked about and even comment if a hair style had changed.
Here’s, in this scant space of newspaper column I’m trying to express: I’ve met a lot of people, made a lot of friends, just a lot of people, just a lot of friends, tons, tons and tons. I like it like that. (Along with poetry, fondness for people was something Kathy and I shared – although she had a better memory, apparently.)
“All walks of life,” you know that saying? I’ve gotten to know people from all walks of life.
But, and here’s what I really want you to know: I’ve never met anyone like my sister, Kathleen Marie Kienlen.
I will miss her.
Alex Kienlen is editor of the Van Buren County Democrat.