This weekend, Cait and I went camping with some friends at Butano State Park. It was my first time camping since the Kamp Klutz experience, and my first as an adult. I had spent a fair amount of time these last few weeks talking with the Chicago doc about going back into nature, the thought of which generally freaked me out (Cait picked a site free of bears, which helped considerably). In the end, I was surprised by how ordinary the experience was; mostly, I worried that, not having camped before, I would mis-set the tent poles or collect water from the wrong place. Here, again, I pretty much deferred to Cait, who did most of the heavy lifting. Driving back to the city, we went over my pro/con list of the general camping experience, which went something like, pro: making fire, going for a long hike, eating s'mores, sleeping in a tent, and con: sleeping on the ground, peeing in the middle of the night, mud. Which means, I think, that we’ll go camping again.
This weekend, there was a fair amount of incidental gallows humor about bears, dying in the woods, wrong turns, lions, tigers, etc., which makes sense. Hiking and camping are activities that take place in the messy exact intersection of human encroachment and natural habitats. The bear is definitely a kind of talisman for California, and I’m not just cribbing the Chicago doc when I say that it makes sense that, historically, Californians have made their peace with bears through the manipulation of symbols. Negotiating the social/public spaces around bears and bear conversations isn’t any more unusual than the social/public space around camping and, for that matter, nature. I don’t know if it’s therapy, or time, or being loved by Cait and so having someone right there as I do these things again, but areas in life that felt sort of roped-off after Katie’s death feel open again. Sometimes I feel guilty about enjoying those things, but I don’t feel afraid.
Recently, I’ve noticed that I tell stories from my life with Katie in the first-person singular (“when I lived in Miami” or, “I got these cats five years ago in Chicago”). I don’t do this to omit Katie from my life, but rather because being widowed seems such a huge trump card to drop into the middle of an anecdote. Saying instead, “When my wife who died tragically and I were living in Miami, I ate a lot of Cuban food” or “My wife who I was dating at the time but is now dead got these cats five years ago from a co-worker brought them home” seems messy, while saying “My first wife” seems to invite speculation or further discussion that, eventually, leads to more awkward phrasing and explaining. Being widowed in such unusual circumstances, I think, only sort of magnifies this effect, and I don't feel like it's my place to insist that information onto other people. Still, I feel weird about not mentioning Katie in those moments. Recently, a socially-lubricated graduate student started giving me advice about being marriage, and a friend stepped in to change the subject. My general reaction was to feel bad for the friend--he was trying so hard to turn things around--until, sure enough, the subject changed.
Last month, KMF gave out this year’s Katie Evans Memorial Scholarships to two graduate students. Among more than 250 applicants, we found two exceptional candidates who will do good work. That we were able to give out two larger, national scholarships versus last year’s more modest, FIU-only scholarship bodes well for the future. I’m proud of how KMF is growing, and that so many smart, caring people are working really hard to make it a success. It’s also pretty great that so many people, nationwide, working in public health now associate Katie’s name with a great opportunity to pursue their own ambitions and dreams across the globe. Calling this year’s two recipients was a wonderful, if bittersweet experience; Anamarie had warned me that it might be so (she’d called all of the finalists to confirm their eligibility). I was especially touched by how one of the recipients spoke extensively about how Katie’s story inspired her, that she felt a connection to Katie when reading about her on the KMF website.
Things in my life seem to be settling into new and positive patterns. I don’t know what it means to want KMF to be the primary channel of how I publicly honor Katie’s presence in my life, anymore than I know how to manage hiking, camping, negotiating conversations about bears or marriage, or deciding the right way to talk about aspects of our life together. So much seems to depend on action and doing things conscientiously, rather than trying to work them out in advance. Baseball season begins next week, and with it commences much prognostication that seems to favor my beloved Cubs. I have no idea how the season will actually work out, though I think we stand a good chance. I like that old baseball adage: every team wins 54 and loses 54, so it’s the other 54 games you have to worry about.