Eulogy for Katherine O’Brien
Given by Kevin O’Brien
June 22, 2021
Some of you may have known her as Kathy or Katherine. To her family, she was Doots.
To start off, I want to take a moment to thank Father Rich. When I called him to come see Kathy, he called me back immediately and came to see her hours later. He then came back to see her later in the same week. He provided her great comfort and we are most appreciative for that.
Thanks to Dr Gradishar and the team of nurses and doctors at Northwestern who showed such great compassion for Kathy.
I also want to recognize my siblings and in-laws for all their support for Doots, especially in recent months. Kathy’s desire was to stay in her apartment and be cared for by family and thankfully we were able to do that. (Although there were moments I thought she might outlast us) It was a team effort. In a letter Kathy wrote two months ago to her nephew Brendan, she said: “I feel bad for people who don’t know what it is like to have a close bond with a brother or sister” I spent a lot of time the past few months studying everything in Doot’s living room. This included a framed sign that said: “Family is Everything” and it was never more true than these past few months.
To all 16 of Doot’s nieces and nephews, her life was much richer with you being in it (Those were her words and not mine!). She had great times with all of you over the years. Of course she did allow that the five hour car ride from Decorah, Iowa with Brendan, Jack & Fiona after Christine and Jimmy’s wedding would not qualify as a great time, but called it “definitely memorable”. Some of you came from great distances to be with Doots including St Louis, Ohio, Iowa, Milwaukee etc. and all of you have helped with the planning of her services including input from a niece in Rome.. What a great reflection on all of you and speaking for my siblings, we are very grateful. Thank you for all the love you showed her over the years.(Jimmy: Kathy did request you learn to play some Joan Baez —maybe Where have all the flowers gone?)
There is a song that goes: “They say you can't take it with you, but I think that they're wrong because all I know is when I woke up this morning and something big was gone.”
“Love is a power greater than death, just like the songs and stories told and when they built you, Kathy, they broke the mold.”
Love is definitely a power greater than death and the love we have seen for Kathy in recent days is amazing—here are a few examples:
She was a wonderful friend to many. She was easy to talk to.
I loved her stories and her incredible love of travel & family.
When I thought of Kathy, my first thought was her strength and the second was her concern for others.
A truly remarkable advocate, amazing wit & accomplished person.
Katherine was a giant in the metastatic breast cancer community and probably the most brilliant writer I have ever met.
Katherine fought a hard battle with much fierceness—may she rest in peace.
Doot’s Christmas gifts were legendary in our family. It was always a “December to Remember” not because there was a Lexus with a bow on it waiting in the driveway for any of us, but because of the thoughtfulness that went into the gifts. She got gifts for everyone: her 16 nieces and nephews and her siblings and all her in-laws. She even got gifts for MY inlaws. I think you can trace this back to our Christmases growing up. Here is an excerpt from a story Doots wrote about Christmas when we were younger:
I remember our crowded kitchen as we jockeyed to claim our share of the traditional holiday spread: Tombstone pizzas, Jeno’s egg rolls and, our equivalent of the Cratchit family’s pudding singing in the copper: Lipton California Onion Dip chilling in the refrigerator with plenty of Jewel-brand ridged potato chips in a big bowl on the kitchen counter. (It should be noted Peter still makes this dip for family gatherings today)
Fast forward to today and Fiona Patrice O’Brien summed up Christmas with Aunt Doots pretty well:
One of my favorite things about Aunt Doots was her gift-giving prowess. Watching everyone open her gifts has always been my favorite part of the annual Christmas Eve celebration. She always got everyone the most creative things that somehow perfectly encapsulated who they are and reflected what they love in life. Her thoughtful gift-giving was emblematic of her love, attentiveness, and devotion to her family.
Her sense of humor remained strong until the end. One day I was helping her get dressed and perhaps it didn’t go quite as smoothly as she might have hoped. When we finished, she said: You’ll never make it as an Occupational Therapist. I reminded her that at one point in my life I was able to dress three babies—she smiled and said she had forgotten about that!
I remember one time several years ago, I was wearing long cargo shorts that came down to my knees and had ties at the bottom. In hindsight, I have to admit they looked a bit like knickers. When I was leaving, she said: Be sure and say hi to Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin for me!
Doots was a remarkable writer throughout her life. In high school, her “Father of the Year” essay won a local writing contest. The prizes included dinner at a local restaurant for the winning family. The contest organizers never could have imagined the winning father had seven children. My guess is they did not sponsor the contest the following year!
I don’t think she ever dreamed she would work in the trade publication industry. While this wasn’t an obvious place for her humor. She found a way to make it work. I remember a headline she wrote on an early publication: “A Tisket a Tasket, Lakewood has developed a brand new gasket!”
In September of 2020, one of her last writing projects was helping Brendan, Jack, & Fiona with their college essays. It was great to see the fire burn again. I believe her guidance on their writing helped all of them get into the University of Illinois.
In recent years, Kathy had taken on the role of family historian. She did a terrific job of collating a lot of our mother’s art work and putting together a family history sharing some of the art work. She found a lot of details about our mom’s artistic accomplishments we weren’t aware of. She also wrote a great remembrance of our family trip to Maine in 1975 for our grandparents 50th Wedding anniversary.
In college, Kathy was an English major and not very interested in science. On the first exam in Introduction to Astronomy, one of the questions was: Describe Newton’s Rings. Kathy had no idea on this one, so she went with: What he left behind in the bathtub after taking a bath! The professor gave her 50% credit for creativity! Being an English major gave her an opportunity to do what she did best: write.
In college, she only had one B. This was a staggering achievement given her academic performance in high school where she was constantly doing what our dad called: the Sunday night scramble, trying to get her work done at the last minute. She was selected to the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, one of the oldest and most prestigious honor societies in the United States. In April, her niece Fiona Patrice O’Brien was selected to Phi Beta Kappa and Doots passed on her key to her. This was just one example of her kindness. Whenever we went out of town, Doots would bring in the mail and feed the fish while we were gone. Before we returned, much to the children’s delight, she would hide Klondike ice cream bars in the freezer and stock the pantry with snacks. There are so many examples of her generosity and kindness I could share.
Kathy’s work life over the years was interesting to say the least. Growing up, she begrudgingly delivered newspapers. Being a loving brother, I managed to line her up with two Sunday paper routes for the Sun Times and the Tribune. (For the younger generation, this is before you got all your information on your Iphone) Given that the papers were heavy and especially in the winter, challenging to deliver, she did not see this as an altruistic act on my part!
She eventually moved on to McDonald’s. As you might have guessed, it turns out she was not Management Training material! When my kids were younger, I enjoyed telling them the story of how she flooded the McDonald’s playroom. Apparently she was reading a magazine while filling a bucket to mop the floor and forgot about the water! I remember her writing about the polyester uniforms in the 80’s and having to wear a Coolie hat to promote Shanghai McNuggets! I have a feeling we won’t see Shanghai McNuggets make a comeback anytime soon!
Coming out of college in the 1987 Stock Market Crash, she took a job working at Kroch’s & Brentanno’s bookstore. We joked that it was like hiring a drunk to work in a liquor store given her enjoyment of reading. She made many friends there and really enjoyed it.
From here, she moved on to a publisher of magazines focused on electronic products manufacturers. She honed her writing skills here and embraced the environment. Each year, instead of a summer outing, the company would have a Hog-A-Que. They would roast a pig right on the suburban company grounds. Instead of contracting this out to a caterer, one of the executives would spend several days prior to the event digging a pit to roast the pig! This seemed like something right out of the Office tv show! Eventually the tradition went away after the exec had back surgery and could no longer dig the roasting pit.
While I don’t think it was due to the Hog-A-Que being canceled, but Doots moved on to American Printer. It was here that she found her voice as a Managing Editor. She spent 14 years at American Printer and gained respect in the printing industry around the world. While it was an industry she was not familiar with, she quickly got up to speed. This job opened the door for her to become a world traveler by attending trade shows in countries that included Israel, China, Japan, Greece, Germany, Belgium, UK, etc. She would later travel to Iceland and Cuba as well. For someone who had been on a plane only once by the time she finished college, this was a remarkable turn of events I don’t think any of us could have predicted.
Doots had a great love for reading. Her niece, Marie O’Brien recalls her introducing her to the book The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. I remember this always being one of her favorites. The book was originally published in 1881.
Of course there was a downside to her love of reading. She was often reading for fun when she should have been doing her homework etc. I can still hear our mother saying: “I better not catch you reading!” I think today you would love to catch your kids reading! She often found books from our childhood that she shared with her nieces and nephews.
Kathy hated breast cancer. The reason I know that: she wrote a blog for a long time appropriately titled: I hate breast cancer. After retiring, her focus was putting her writing skills to work on being an advocate for Stage 4 MBC patients. She was devoted and she was good at it. She had over 4000 followers on Twitter (I think I have 3!) and I have heard from scores of people over the past few days who praised her work in the MBC community. She regularly attended conferences around the country to help the cause. She was very active as an advocate and a board member with the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network www.mbcn.org .
Doot’s niece Elaine Cleary captured her spirit quite well:
She said: Aunt Doots refused to accept the injustice of her diagnosis or to behave the way people think cancer patients ought to behave. Instead, she became a fierce advocate for fellow patients and fought tirelessly to end the legacy of breast cancer in our family.(Our mother died 38 years ago from breast cancer at the age of 54) Even in her final days, she remained resilient and true to herself, never missing an opportunity to assert her wit and personality. I am grateful to have had her as my aunt.”
Kathy’s doctor at Northwestern, Bill Gradishar in a Twitter post following her passing had high praise for her: Doctor Gradishar said: She was one of a kind….a force in the advocacy world, unrelenting in her pursuit of better therapies and outcomes for all patients. Her sense of humor was never diminished even as the disease progressed. She was a proud sibling who always enjoyed telling stories of growing up.
In closing, I want to share a couple quotes from Doots from her letter to her nephew Brendan from eight weeks ago:
Doots wrote: When I was in high school, I had a bookmark featuring a quote from Pope John XXIII: See everything, overlook a great deal and improve a little. This remains good advice today.
In the letter: Doots also told Brendan about a friend’s motto: “DON’T POSTPONE JOY” What this means is that sometimes we can get so fixated on what MIGHT happen, that we miss out on what IS happening
In a nod towards not postponing joy, at some point today, I encourage you to celebrate her: raise a glass (preferably Miller Lite) to the sky and raise it to Kathy/Katherine/Doots. God bless you Kathy. May we be forever in your debt.