The day my partner and I first arrived on Bainbridge in our rental home, Katy B. sent her husband Dan B. across the street to our house with a plate of freshly prepared fried oysters she had made. It was July 3, and Dan explained the music in the neighborhood was the brass band practicing for the July 4th parade in Winslow. With the oysters and the music, we felt like it was our own welcoming party.
Being neighbors and kindred spirits, Katy and Dan quickly felt like extended family. We were younger and probably somewhere in between good friends and surrogate kids for them, as their older son was homesteading in Alaska and their younger son was just off to college. We talked at the mailboxes everyday and took care of each other’s animals when we went out of town. Having lived on Bainbridge “forever,” they schooled us in the ways of Island life, but never with the condescension and territoriality that some other people we knew exhibited. Thank goodness, for example, they told us how to pronounce geoduck.
A few years later, Katy was diagnosed with breast cancer at 50. She went through a mastechtomy, chemotherapy, group cancer counseling, and finally radiation. Katy was private and prone to depression. The counseling made her feel more depressed, and worries about money were mounting. Before her diagnosis, she and Dan had recently launched a kitchen remodeling business out of their house, and it was hard for Dan to run things alone.
They never had much, but they had plenty. I loved that their house was still decorated in 1970s thick shag carpeting and dark wood panels. They were “old Islanders,” with no pretension of or interest in keeping up with the Joneses. Katy loved her garden and hummingbirds, and both of them adored their cat, named Cat. He was nearly 20 pounds and close to that in age, yet he chased home our terrified golden retriever whenever she ventured across the street to happily greet Dan or Katy.
I loved feeding Cat when they went away, even though he was one of the rare felines I am hideously allergic to. I broke out in hives when I touched him, and my eyes would seal shut. Yet he was such a fiend for affection and so charming I always let him sit on my lap and gave him the rub down he knew he deserved.
The radiation had left a literal hole in Katy’s chest that seemed not to be healing. Katy was falling into a figurative hole of despair. In the meantime, a heavy winter snow revealed that the sinking roof of our rental house was riddled with rotting beams and, as the contractor put it, “held together in some places by paint.”
We had to move immediately. And while we were in the throes of reconfiguring our life and continuing to run our writing business, something horrendous happened. Katy picked up a loaded gun they kept in the house and shot herself in the hole in her chest. Her son and Dan were home, and when they ran to her she was already saying she regretted it and wanted to live. An ambulance rushed her to the emergency helicopter, but on the way to Seattle Katy died. The EMTs told Dan afterward that she was asking them to save her life.
We tried to support Dan. In time we encouraged him to move forward, but he was alone, lost, and succumbing to despair. To numb the guilt, anger, loneliness, and grief, he was drinking constantly. About a year after Katy died, one day he passed out drunk, hit his head, and died of a brain hemorrhage.
It’s been a long time, and I rarely speak of these events to anyone. When I think of them, I like to turn my mind to a story Katy told me. She was gardening, and Cat was sitting nearby. He yawned, and a hummingbird, apparently attracted by his red tongue, flew into his mouth. Katy was too far away to do anything but watch. Cat blinked in disbelief, and before he registered that his lifelong dream had come true, the bird flew off.
I like to think of Katy relishing that story—Cat’s frozen shock, the bird’s escape. I like to think of her—and Dan—as hummingbirds who got away.
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Photo courtesy of Coconino National Forest.How a Gun in the House Killed My First Friends on Bainbridge Island,