June 4, 2013
I met Kevin and Jackie in 1982. That was the year I entered the Peace Corps in the Republic of Kiribati. If my memory serves me correctly and its not tainted by so many other memories of Kevin, particularly during those Peace Corps years, I first saw him in a hotel lobby in Washington, DC, surrounded by other volunteers. I think he was telling a story. We were traveling to the Moton Conference Center in Virginia for a week of pre-departure orientation.
People naturally gravitated to Kevin. His stories would reveal aspects of his life that most of us feel compelled to hide. By the time he had reached his early teen years he had been in and out of dozens of foster homes. He had robbed homes, stolen a car, led police on a high-speed chase, landed in jail, went AWOL from the military and then, almost as quickly as you can snap your finger, he righted his course. He met Jackie, his partner of 40 years, when she was 21. When I met him in 1982 he was 39 years old. His beard and temples had already turned gray. As a 22 year-old straight out of college I thought of Kevin as “old”. But he never seemed to age beyond that initial meeting. I seemed to always be catching up. He was always 39 and I was always on my way there. That is, until the last picture I saw of him – a digital picture Jackie showed me of him on her computer. His hair had turned completely white. But astonishingly, his facial features still appeared 39 years old to me. Kevin always cast some sort of a spell over me. This was another one of them.
He was a poet, a spiritual sage. Certainly not an Everyman. He taught me that change is always possible, no matter how others judge us on our past.
During the first three months of our Peace Corps service our small group of nine volunteers lived with host families in the small village of Tebanga on the island of Abemama in the Gilbert chain of islands in the Central Pacific. I spent more time with Kevin and Jackie than any other members of our group. When our training finished they left for the northern island of Butaritari; I stayed on Abemama, but moved down the road to the smaller village of Kariatebike. These islands are small, remote and separated by hundreds of miles of ocean. But despite the distance, we saw each other about every three to four months on the capitol island of Tarawa where our group gathered for some R&R from the isolation of outer island life. At the end of two years the three of us hadn’t yet had enough of Peace Corps. We renewed our service for another two years, but this time in the Solomon Islands, an adjacent island country to the south and west near Papua New Guinea. We were neighbors now. We lived on opposite sides of the small capitol, Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal.
By 1986 Jackie had become pregnant. She gave birth to a girl. They named her Sarah. In the early 1990’s I was on a business trip in the San Jose, California, area where they were living at the time. Sarah was four or five years old and in the midst of all the glory and magic that those years bring. That was the last time I’d see Kevin and Sarah. As we so foolishly say, “the years intervened”. I was married by 1989, we had a child by 1992, I divorced years later, became immersed in career and single parenting and distant relationships on the other coast became, well, distant. As I recall, we exchanged phone calls periodically, but eventually the years imposed themselves between those calls. I believe it was in the early 2000’s, when one or the other of us reconnected, that I learned of Sarah’s death. She was only a teenager. I can’t recall my reaction at hearing this news, but I know now in looking back at Steve during those years that I couldn’t have possibly known Kevin and Jackie’s suffering. I don’t think I truly came to understand it until my recent visit with Jackie just a day ago in Sedro Wooley, Washington.
On my ride from Tahoe to San Francisco I decided I’d call them and let them know I was planning on being in Washington State in about a week. I was so excited to see them! Jackie picked up the phone. I told her how excited I was, and asked how she was doing. She told me she was doing better. Kevin died in January. I cried most of the next few hours as I rode into San Francisco. At first my tears were all about the loss of one of the dearest, most influential friends of my life. Then my tears transformed into regret at all the shoulda’s and coulda’s over those years between the last time I saw Kevin and this moment of deep sorrow. How did 31 years seep through my fingers so quickly? Where had the years gone? Hadn’t I just said goodbye to Kevin and Jackie in the Solomon Islands and San Jose? I thought back to all the times I said to myself, “I’ll call Kevin and Jackie tomorrow,” and I never did. Or the number of times I was on the west coast and could have detoured to visit them in Washington and never did.
Now I sat with Jackie and her cat Harvey in Sedro Wooley. I arrived in the late morning and we sat and talked until I went to bed past 10 PM. I was alone with Jackie and her grief – the grief that comes with losing a child and a husband of 40 years. We also reminisced and laughed. There’d be short periods of silence. For me they were more periods of reflection on the gift of our friendship than on any lack of something to say. Jackie would interject periodically with some quotes from Kevin. She offered at one point, “Kevin said we retired early and then we had to go to work. That’s how he thought of our Peace Corps experience.” Or she’d say, “In his last few weeks he’d have these lucid moments. And boy would he be in form!” With that, my mind would take me back through the many times I observed Kevin “in form”. I recall I’d sit there in awe at his intelligence, his insights, and yes, the way he could make you feel completely uncomfortable by stating the simple truth about someone or something. He was always the one who could state what needed to be stated at times – no fronts, no disguises, nothing hidden.
My own grief also kept me company during my visit. It’s been traveling with me this past week. No matter how much I try to move beyond it, it won’t allow me. Hard as I may try, knowing my grief is but a shadow of what Jackie knows, it won’t let me go. I find respite at times. Crossing the Cascade’s yesterday I felt Kevin in my presence. Did I feel his hand on my heart telling me it’s okay? I want to believe I did. Northwest Washington is where he spent his life when he wasn’t overseas. I learned from Jackie that he used to spend hours collecting agates on the beaches around Deception Pass on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. That’s where I camped on Sunday. I hadn’t known that before I decided to camp there. I walked out to the beach from my campsite. When I emerged from the thick forest I knew I had stepped out into a magical place. I want to believe that Kevin guided me there.
I’d like to share some pictures of Deception Pass, Harvey (Jackie’s frisky four-legged companion), and the Cascade mountains I rode across after leaving Sedro Wooley. I believe Kevin’s presence is in all of them. But before I do I leave you with this: Don’t leave behind a bunch of “shoulda coulda’s” in your life. Do them now! Go out and tell the people you love, “I love you!” If they don’t live close by, pick up the phone. Allow your heart to explode with love. That’s what we’re here for on this earth – to love.
First, a poem from Kevin:
If I were an eagle
And happened to see you below,
Too heavy to get off the ground,
Way too much of a load.
That’s all I’d think of you –
If I were an eagle
Harvey the frisky cat
A poppy in Jackie’s garden
Stretching out beyond
vision’s end –
My eyes couldn’t hold
against such Light –
And there, before me,
was a creature that I did
Cast upon the snow.
All content Copyrighted © Stephen Tavella
All poems by Kevin Kemper are Copyrighted © and may not be used without express permission from Jackie Kemper