It’s not easy making friends with those who have a fatal illness. They tend to die on you, just as you’re getting to know them. My dear friend Kathy Swanson passed away recently after a two-year battle with ALS. I’ve made many friends since being diagnosed, and I wish I had the time to write about them all. But I feel compelled to tell you about Kathy. She was a kindred spirit, and her friendship, however brief, has made a lasting impact on my life.
I met Kathy at the MDA ALS support group, and we gravitated towards each other quickly. She had an incredible smile that always made me think of spring. Appropriate, since she also loved gardening. She was intelligent and insightful, with a depth of spirit I found a little intimidating at first. She was a dreamer, but she also had a dark side. She was a realist with a morbid sense of humor. So of course I liked her immediately.
Kathy loved yoga, and we agreed that it’s a perfect metaphor for life, requiring a delicate balance of breath, flexibility, and mindfulness. She also loved poetry, where she found a rich palette of ideas and inspiration to make sense of her own life. We both enjoyed writing. Kathy once told me she had “ALS blog envy”, but clearly she was the better writer, as evident by the prose I borrowed from her in a post last year. (The Lazy Thief)
Even before ALS, Kathy was used to fighting an uphill battle. She worked for the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety for nearly 30 years, and was its director since 1998. She dreamed of the day when no one would die needlessly in an automobile accident. A lofty goal indeed, but Kathy was more than willing to get down in the dirt and dig. She had a knack for bringing people together to solve problems. Ultimately, she helped reduce traffic fatalities by half over the course of her career, an incredible achievement.
Kathy and her husband Earl loved to travel, and we often compared notes on the arduousness of getting around with ALS. We liked to poke fun at the irony of a traffic safety director being worried about the right time to stop driving. We appreciated the implicit understanding of our shared predicament. I will miss Kathy’s unique combination of passion, pragmatism, and wit. I will miss her friendship and support as I continue my journey. But after her lifetime of caring for the safety of passengers on the road, I take comfort in knowing she is now home safe too.