Changing Aging Blog

Jim Klobuchar - The Life of Katharine Wilkes
Date: Aug 10th, 2010 11:57am

Author:

Eric Schubert

Jim Klobuchar shares a wonderful remembrance of his step-daughter Katharine Wilkes:

There never had been a mystery about her separate lives. She was a woman of 35, dramatically beautiful and gifted when she was in control of the life urged on her by her doctors, counselors and those who loved her.
There were times when she accepted their wisdom and stayed faithful to the stabilizing prescriptions that were available to her.

When she did she could light up a room with her buoyancy or the deft but harmless satire of her readings, many of which she wrote herself. They didn’t come hard to her, nor did the roles she played in amateur theater, which could easily have blossomed into the professional stage. Her lineage included one America’s pre-eminent theatric families. She could play the piano,strings or reed instruments. She almost certainly could have sold as a painter. She once drew the face of a tiger, first with spare, line sketches that hinted at its strength and then in gripping color that announced the tiger’s maturity, a sequence of images that stopped viewers in their tracks.

But when she would desert the prescriptions, she yielded to the dark and impatient stirrings within her, what medical people today call bipolar disorder and has often been called manic depression. She drifted into a nebulous and chaotic world that would sometimes put her in touch with strange voices and relationships that were pure fantasy.

Her mother, a Minneapolis businesswoman, was her safety net and her hero. But sometimes her mother became her ogre because no one knew her and loved her as much. There were screaming matches in the hospital where her mother took her for care and the medical regimes that would bring her back to the humanity and the safety she regained when she was herself. When she was free of the reckless make-believe, she was a star. She won high grades in her college courses and popularity with fellow workers in an architectural company where her superiors prized her work.

The body of this woman who struggled so long with her torment was found in the Mississippi River In Minneapolis some weeks ago, not far from where she lived alone in her third floor near the Guthrie Theater, where she had friends. She was wearing a bathing suit when she was found and she had been a powerful swimmer, which seemed at odds with a presumption of suicide. So there was no such presumption.

Two weeks later nearly a hundred people who knew her, knew her mother or were related, gathered as witnesses to her life. To her mother’s astonishment they came from as far away as Australia. They came from California, Washington, Arizona and more. If they couldn’t come they called or sent letters, from Florida to France. They spoke and wrote with attitudes that ranged from thanksgiving to hilarity for having been part of her life.

A man from China who had immigrated to America years ago told of meeting her shortly after he had come to Minneapolis, friendless and frankly scared. His tentative efforts to find a community hit a wall. He’d never felt so much an outsider in his life. “She was the first person I met who gave me acceptance,” he said. “We became friends.” It didn’t have to be anything more. “It was a start of a new life for me,” he said. “That was her nature.”

For more than an hour the testimonials streamed from people whose lives had been elevated or altered in some positive and unforgettable way by this young woman who was so often troubled, sometimes absent in an undefined world; but then healthy enough again to answer a call at midnight from somebody who needed nothing more than to talk.

“And she always came,” one of them said.

This was a woman whose lifelong commitment-- at whatever level of health she achieved-- was to the cause of the disadvantaged and the faceless, people ground down and dehumanized by power, whether in Africa, Asia or the America in which she lived.

This was the Katharine they remembered, and their testimony was so strong, warm and earnest that it gave her mother a portrait of her daughter that will outlast the pain.

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