Blessed All Saints and All Souls. I take great joy in the Solemnity, followed by a day of remembrance and intercession for the dead.
I’ve been thinking this week of a young woman who died this year, a Tucson native who hosted the airbnb in which I stayed while discerning whether to move here, and who in retrospect was in large part WHY I moved here.
I chose the airbnb from the photos: a cheery whitewashed stucoo bungalow with peacock blue trim. A glider on the front stoop. Colorful native flowers and cacti.
And when I arrived, I knew at once that here was a space infused with love. In the fridge, a pint of half and half and a pound of Peets Coffee. There were condiments, snacks, a ton of teas, a lemon squeezer, cool cleaning products. There were sunscreen, vintage glass coasters with old-timey scenes of saguaros in the sunset, a washer-dryer, a comfy chaise longue, metal jalousie blinds in the extra bedroom, a built-in breakfast nook with a bowl of Lindt chocolates.
Halfway through the week I found a fresh loaf of Barrio Bakery bread on my stoop.
I ended up staying three times, a week each in October and December, 2020, and then the month of April, 2021, after I’d decided to move and was looking for a place to permanently rent.
Kirsten lived in a smaller place out back. She was tall, blonde, beautiful, full of grace. She welcomed me, made sure I had absolutely everything I needed, and then made herself scarce.
But the place was so wondrous I wanted to know more about her and one day I asked if she had a few minutes to chat. She ended up telling me a bit of her story. Born and bred in Tucson, had lived in Brooklyn for a while, had come back and with very little money had bought this house with the guesthouse in back, rehabbed it with the help of friends, begun renting it as an airbnb.
She’d worked in the nonproit sector all her life.
She’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer that had spread to her lungs. She was treating it as best she could the way I remember it with a bit of Western medicine and a bit homeopathically. She’d also suffered since childhood with more or less severe psoriasis. Up close I could see that her arms were covered with red patches and it’s a testament to her interior and exterior beauty that it also affected her face and the wound if you will somehow only made her more beautiful.
She made a joke of it. She said she’d tried every ointment and salve known to man but it just in the end masked it and made it worse. So she simply made do. She didn’t use the word suffer but obviously at some point she had simply accepted that this was part of her human condition and had realized there was no way out or around.
So she suffered it, without self-pity, and my sense is would not have even mentioned it except that the affliction was so visibly obvious. The guesthouse where she lived had no air conditioning so in the sometimes 110-degree Tucson summer heat, she limped along (again, my phrase, not hers) with a swamp cooler.
She had every hope of recovering and her goal once she did recover was to open a kind of clearing house/center where people diagnosed with cancer or other dire illnesses could receive help in what she’d discovered to be the labyrinthine and basically incomprehensible healthcare and insurance systems. And where people could receive moral support, compassion, a caring ear.
Somehow in the midst of all that she had fashioned and was maintaining this fantastic, warm, intelligently thought-out airbnb bungalow. There were games and puzzles for kids, kid-sized chairs and a table tucked into a corner, extra pillows, duvets and towels, shelves of books about the flora, fauna, history, and culture of the Southwest.
Kirsten made a deep impression on me. She radiated a strange and rare kind of light. I’d never met anyone who was carrying such a heavy psychic, social, physical and spiritual load with such incredible grace, such a total lack of drama or self-pity. And who the whole time was thinking of others, how she could pass on what she was learning so those similarly-situated wouldn’t have to suffer the additional burden of figuring out how to treat their illness and how to pay for it.
After I’d made the decision to move, and some dear friends drove the UHaul, I put one of the couples up at Kirsten’s place, so sure was I that they’d love it as much as I did. Knowing that she was ill and not wanting to intrude, we nonetheless invited her to a little pizza party gathering we had one Friday night and she walked over and stayed with us for an hour or two which I’m sure was an effort.
She was so special I wanted them to meet her (and vice versa of course). I had told them a bit about her and we didn’t speak of her illness that night, just chatted about Tucson and the local culture and how much we all loved and appreciated her space. But she made such a deep impression on my six friends that they all, unbidden, asked about her in the months to come.
Kirsten gave me a housewarming gift: a pottery cup imprinted with saguaros.
I told her that the door to my new place was open to her, any time, entirely at her convenience. She thanked me warmly, said she’d love to come but wasn’t sure with her strength on the wane. I wasn’t a real friend, of which I am certain she had scores. So though I never saw her again, I thought of her often.
Somehow late last year I came across a GoFundMe page that her brother had started for her.
That’s how I learned, a couple of months ago, that Kirsten died on June 2 of this year, a few months short of her fiftieth birthday.
So she’s been much on my mind as The Day of the Dead approached. It’s a strange fact that people don’t quite acquire their full stature until they do die. And I realized recently, two and a half years down the line, that if not for Kirsten, for her charming, spirit-filled place, her crazy generosity, her welcome, her essence, and most of all the way she carried her suffering, I might never have moved here at all.
How unaware we are, much of the time, of how deeply we are influenced by others. And of how, unbeknownst to ourselves, we are influencing them…
The other day I went to noon Mass at St. Augustine’s and afterward walked the 25 minutes or so to Kirsten’s old place down near 22nd in Armory Park. There was a For Sale sign out front with a note attached “Do Not Disturb Occupants.” The trellises flanking the front that would have been covered trumpet vine were empty. The yard seemed sparse and bare. The thousand loving, thoughtful touches that go into making a house a home were largely absent.
I stood out front for a minute, and made the Sign of the Cross and said a Hail Mary and thanked her. And then I walked back to St. Augustine’s thinking of how everything passes. Kirsten had had her short, glorious reign on earth, and at that particular spot on earth. By the world’s standards, already it was almost as if none of it had ever happened.
Already it was almost as if she had never poured her heart, suffering, body and soul into this magical airbnb.
SO. BUT. Does it not matter, the love and labor in the first place?
YES!!!! It matters absolutely. Maybe in the deepest sense that is what Catholicism says. It matters, every last neutron. It matters absolutely.
So today I honor Kirsten Bert, whose life touched mine ever so briefly, but on my part ever so deeply.
I will treasure, always, my third-class relic as a reminder of how to conduct my life here in Tucson, and wherever else I may be.
Let’s remember all those today whose mostly unseen lives have sustained, shaped, and nurtured ours.
Eternal rest grant unto Kirsten, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace. Amen.