The phone rang shortly after 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and the news was brief. Kay Cossette, a 94-year-old friend, had died in her sleep during the night.
Kay had suffered a stroke four years earlier, so the news was not unexpected. Yet I was surprisingly unsettled by the finality of her death. I spent the next few hours recalling hilarious times we had spent together and the enormous impact Kay had on my life.
I met Kay shortly after I moved to Alameda, California in the early ‘80s. She and I attended Twin Towers United Methodist Church, and when the pastor called for volunteers to host Sunday’s coffee hour, Kay and I responded. We teamed up for what would be the first of many delightful activities.
At the time, Kay was in her late seventies and was 30 or more years my senior. But in terms of outlook, Kay was easily 30 years my junior. Her first unsolicited observation about my life was that it was all work and no play. As a single parent of two, I had neglected my own needs and forgotten how to play.
When Kay learned that my closest relatives were 2,000 miles away, she adopted me. Making me over became her personal rehab project. Kay invited me to join a monthly bridge group, attend Oakland A’s baseball games (where, to our delight, we were regularly carded when we bought hot dogs and beers), experiment with golf and play tennis, my current passion. When I was bedridden following surgery, Kay brought me chicken soup. To while away the hours during my recovery, she climbed onto my bed, where we played her favorite card games, cribbage and Skip-bo.
I thanked Kay for bringing me back to life by taking her to dinner at the fanciest restaurant I could find—one in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco overlooking the Bay on her 75th birthday. Her birthday present was a 4-foot white stuffed gorilla that I crammed into an oversized black garbage bag topped off with a big yellow bow.
Surrounded by gleaming chandeliers, white linen, muted music, an impressive assortment of wine glasses and silverware and an attentive waiter, Kay opened her present. Kay immediately named the gorilla Alice, tied the yellow bow around Alice’s neck and seated her at our table. When the waiter took our order, Kay insisted Alice order first.
We shared conversation, food and drink with Alice that night, much to the amusement of neighboring patrons and the staff. We had too much fun with Alice to care about the odd looks we received. From that point on, Alice occupied a prominent seat in the middle of the sofa in Kay’s living room.
Until her stroke at age 90, Kay swam for an hour each day in her backyard pool, whatever the weather. She also captained her bowling team and loved to hike. Kay was active in community affairs and constantly took people, like me, under her wing. I’m certain that many of her adoptees attended her memorial service because they loved her as I did. But no matter how many people Kay befriended, she made each of us feel special.
I’m grateful for teachers, mentors and role models like Kay who make a powerful difference in the lives of everyone they meet. Kay helped me recover my sense of play, and her unconventional style confirmed my suspicion that we can be dynamic, involved, engaged and constructively influential, whatever our age. Our bodies may get older, but we can stay forever young at heart.
I miss Kay’s raucous laughter and treasure the memories of times we spent together. Most of all, though, I feel honored by Kay’s presence in my life. Kay taught me a great deal and presciently prepared me for a role I had no idea I would play in the future—fitness advocate. Standing on her shoulders, I’ll seek to repay Kay by making a difference in the lives of those around me. And like Kay, I intend to age disgracefully by having one heck of a good time.
"Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself." Chinese Proverb