Kathleen Helen Heemstra Verhulst, or Kathy, was one of the most Spirit-filled, fun and funny women I’ve ever known. Her life was not easy, and she carried deep psychological wounds. Today I want to share a part of Kathy’s story with you.
Kathy had malignant melanoma while she was carrying her first child. It was on her face, and this was the late 60’s when the techniques and tools were much less precise than today. They saved Kathy’s life – and her baby daughter’s – but she spent the rest of her life visibly scarred from the surgeon’s deep cuts. Ten years later she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy. Less than 15 years later, breast cancer again, and then metastatic bone cancer. To cope with the pain, perhaps, during this time she ‘went away’ and only electroshock therapy could bring her back. Kathy died in 1995.
Kathy’s cancers struck at the heart of what a woman is told matters most. Her physical appearance was altered in the most shocking ways. Kathy made the choice each day to go out into the world where people would stare at her, uncomfortable with how she looked. One woman, no doubt intending to be kind, said that Kathy’s husband was a good man because hers would have left her. Children, who say what pops into their heads, called her things like ‘Miss Piggy’.
But, none of this is who Kathy truly was.
Kathy was the young woman who, in her late 20’s, answered God’s call to move from the Midwest to Harlem, New York. Not just work there, but live in the heart of Harlem, in the 1960’s, serving in a church reaching into that troubled community.
Kathy was the woman who moved with her newly ordained pastor husband, from a place of culture and conveniences, to Nobleford, Alberta, a town of 400 where there were party-lines and not everyone spoke English. Later moves would be just as varied and stretching – Toronto, Calgary, Long Island.
Kathy loved Jesus. She spent her life serving Him. She got up early to sit with her Bible and journal. She was a part of her husband’s ministry at every step.
Kathy had a beautiful voice and loved to sing. She would put Handel’s Messiah on the record player and dust and vacuum while joining in the Hallelujah Chorus. She sang solos in churches and helped lead VBS songs accompanied by her husband on the autoharp.
Kathy had a heart for those on the outside. She was drawn to people who were troubled, who were friendless, who didn’t quite fit in. She was wary of those who were ‘too sweet’ or seemed to have it altogether. She liked people who were slightly prickly, who marched to their own drummers. She was intolerant of intolerance, and knew that was ironic.
Kathy didn’t take herself too seriously, and wouldn’t let others either. She enjoyed being silly. Standing on a picnic table dancing with little kids, making up songs while cooking or picking up trash on mountain hikes (‘Every little litter bit helps!’), getting excited when Mr. Snuffleupagus was finally revealed to the adults on Sesame Street, ‘calling out’ her husband when he got too deep.
Perhaps because her scars were so visible, Kathy didn’t try to hide her emotions; when she was upset, the tears came, when she was happy, she laughed loudly.
Kathy was not perfect, and had many troubled days. Like the rest of us, Kathy did the best she could, loving others and loving Jesus through her own brokenness and pain. Kathy was an example of living beyond and through the bad stuff. Living a life mixed with profound joy and deep sorrow. Kathy was a child of God, dearly loved by Him.
And, as you’ve no doubt already guessed, Kathleen Helen Heemstra Verhulst was my mom. I so dearly wish she was here to talk with as I wrestle with my own scars, with my next call, with being myself. Thank you, Mom, for living your life and giving me mine. I love you and miss you.