Preview: Even while she was dying, Kate chose to keep living. She was someone who, to use one of her favorite little phrases, got “kicked in the teeth by life” over and over again, and yet somehow continued to rise again, stronger and wiser, kinder and more compassionate, and more purpose-driven than ever before. And something about being near Kate, simply her presence, inspired greatness in others. * Also, please consider DONATING to the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Memorial Fund at the University of Virginia HERE. Donations will be used to place a bench with Kate’s name outside of the Navy/Marine Corps ROTC building on campus, and hold a ceremony for her in 2023.
My eulogy to Kate, 7 May 2022.
Nearly exactly a year ago, on April 25th 2021, Kate flew from VA to NC on a beautiful spring day. I picked her up at the airport, we ate Mexican food and drank margaritas. We talked about our kiddos, work, and life like normal. I took her to a local yoga retreat the next day. We walked the trails in my neighborhood, we reminisced, we rested. We knew she was dying of course, but wow did she keep living in the meantime; she chose to keep living.
I don’t know how to do this. To describe an amazing woman in 15min or less. And frankly, you all don’t need me to remind you about how incredible Kate was, but I’m so thankful I get the chance to share a few things about her today. I’m grateful for all of you, her family and friends, who are here today, and those who wanted to be here but couldn’t be. It will allow us to do this very hard thing TOGETHER. Kate always so deeply valued the connections she had with others, so I trust that as we gather, it is but one small way we continue to carry out her legacy. I hope she feels all our hearts rise up to hold her.
So now for a few stories about this incredible woman…
- Sick or not, Kate lived life to the fullest; and she loved a good party. As our mutual friend Carolyn said, if Kate were alive and saw all these people here, she’d want to have a big party. I totally agree 🙂 If it was pre-cancer, Kate would throw half her hair up in a claw clip and don big hoop earrings, and dance with everyone. If it was post-cancer, she’d throw on a colorful wig and bright lipstick, and dance with everyone. She was the light in the room.
- Kate was an excellent napper. I don’t know if you know many people who can just take a really rejuvenating nap, like the moment they decide to lie down, they fall asleep and when they wake up, they wake up refreshed. I don’t know many people like that, but Kate was one of those people. And like anything, when she decided, when she chose to do it, she was going to do it well.
- Kate had the most outrageous, loud and terrifying if you weren’t ready for it, sneeze. I always found it hilarious.
Kate was fun, fierce, kind, and smart; she was somehow both regal and quirky. We knew Kate as a teacher, a friend, and a mother.
When I first met Kate in 1999 at the University of Virginia, we were fast friends through Air Force ROTC (yup, she was Air Force first, a fact she doesn’t share with many 😉 …we both switched to Marine Corps ROTC in the following years). She always was one of those people that everybody wanted to be around and even if she just met you, she was warm, she listened, she saw you. (That’s something so many of you have told me, that you felt seen when you were with her). She was kind to everyone, and I learned a ton from her. Whether she was formally in a teaching role or not, she was always teaching others. She was an aerobics and spinning instructor at UVA and I used to go to a couple of her classes a week for years; she inspired me to become a yoga and spinning instructor as well. And one of the things one of my mentors always told me was that the mark of a good teacher is one who inspires others to teach. Kate did that. Not just for me, but for the 1000s of students she’s had in various formats, many of whom have gone on to become fitness instructors, researchers, authors, and professors themselves, many of whom are in this room now.
What really stands out to me is how we all felt Kate not only taught, but inspired, and led by example. How many of our successes in life are ones we credit to Kate’s influence, to her attention, wisdom, support, feedback, and insight. So it was no surprise that after she got out of the Marine Corps, she pursued a level of education that empowered her to continue teaching and leading at various levels.
And although she was a teacher, she was also just such a friend to so many. One of the core components she emphasized in her work were these three empirically validated pillars of resilience building. (C’mon folks, I’m her “work wife,” you knew I was going to talk about resilience here today 🙂 ). They are: 1. self care 2. social support and 3. spiritual practices. All 3 of those are vital, but for Kate, the linchpin where she so fully walked her talk, and what impacted the other two areas of resilience building for her, was that social support, the social cohesion and connection where she recognized that friends and family were not just these nice to haves or numbers on Facebook or Instagram but true friends and true sense of community and support to one another. In her own words, “Social support is known to improve wellness and longevity.”
Kate took her researcher’s mind to task when she got sick. Not only to protect herself and hopefully add days to her life for the sake of Matthew and Shane, Doug and Kate, Matt Liz and Joyce, her flocks friends, but to later, also contribute to cancer research and advocacy. As she also said, “Loneliness kills.” So she worked very hard to stay connected, so she could be here as long as possible.
I saw her very deliberately build that already rich aspect of her life most prominently after she got her diagnosis. Kate already deeply valued her tribe but it was beautiful to witness how much further she went with that after her diagnosis. She, Shane, and Matthew, moved from SC to VA to be nextdoor to Matt and Lynn, and to so many folks who wanted to love and support her and her family. It was so vital to her being able to tolerate the sometimes excruciating treatment regimen she had to go through to continue to lengthen her life, month by month, week by week. Day by day. And even as she navigated those extremely challenging waters, she rejuvenated old friendships, she even cultivated new ones, she continued to teach, and she mentored and supported others, as well as opened herself up to receiving support from her community and her friends. Kate and Shane were so blessed with neighbors who quickly became friends and family, who she knew would one day be raising Matthew in her stead alongside Shane.
Speaking of Matthew 🙂 …Kate’s biggest transformative experience aside from the refining fires of being raised a military brat, becoming a Marine, and earning her PhD, was becoming a mother. In motherhood, she began to integrate social support and spiritual practices in a whole new way.
In the fall of 2013, we were together at the Omega Institute in NY when she found out she was pregnant, and the other piece of the resilience puzzle clicked into place for her. She shared with me how much of a spiritual revelation that felt like for her in those first days of knowing. That she prayed and meditated and heard the name Matthew, and she knew she knew that Matthew would be her son. Because of that, she rededicated an aspect of her life to faith and spiritual practice, and reinvigorated her resilience building. She always had Matthew in mind and on heart from the moment his life began. And to see her, as she did with anything, launch herself forward in true dedication to that, for the sake of even at that point, her not yet born son, was so beautiful.
In 2015, she sent me the first draft of her book Brave Strong True. Matthew was nearly a year old, and I highlighted and drew hearts around this segment of Kate’s book: “Alone in a quiet nursery each night, I pray the same words over my infant son. I know I am lucky to be there holding him – my life almost didn’t take this course. I ask God to watch over him, and to help me show him each day how proud we are of who he is already. We will try to raise him to be a person who values service to country and to community, and we remind him often to be brave, strong, true. Right now my earnest words just make him giggle. One of his favorite things to do is look quizzically at me like I’m crazy. He’ll understand later. I always end this quiet moment in our favorite second-hand rocking chair by thanking God for the beautiful gift that is my present tense – I never envisioned the joy that is life with my little family. I ask Him to help us to be lights with our actions alone.”
Kate WAS a light. The world is not as bright without her in it. Kate was someone who I already knew to be a brave, strong, and true person, a wise, kind, and patient person. Someone who, to use one of her favorite little phrases, got “kicked in the teeth by life” in many ways over and over and over again, and yet somehow continued to rise again, stronger and wiser, kinder and more compassionate, and more purpose-driven than ever before.
And so as she became a mother, her work still pressed on. She didn’t skip a beat. We called each other our “work wives.” Thankfully our husbands were not offended! 😉 We traveled coast to coast, we spoke, we taught and we had fun and did purpose-driven work together and whole-heartedly supported each other in our individual endeavors. And when she got the diagnosis in January of 2018, once more, she almost didn’t even skip a beat to continue serving.
In February of 2020, Kate and I got together in Richmond, Virginia to write our final book together, Stopping Military Suicides. She had a sense of things at that time, even two years ago that this would likely be her last book. And we printed and laid out nearly everything that she and I had written individually and collectively over the past 10 years and we organized and rewrote and organized and rewrote and wrote the book that was published later that year. And then that March, March 5th, we got together in DC and we co-presented at an event for women veterans; we just had a ball. She chose to keep living. She was the only person I’ve ever been able to co-present with like. Public speaking was another one of her MANY gifts, and a gift within that gift was what she’s done for so many of us – she’s helped us feel at ease within ourselves, she lifted us up and made us a better version of ourselves; I always spoke better with her than I did on my own. So many of you have told me such similar stories! That when you worked with her, you became a better writer or researcher; that when you hung out with her, you became a better parent, partner, friend, or student. Something about being near her, simply her presence, inspired greatness in others.
And a week later, COVID “hit” and I was terrified that that time in DC was going to be the last time I would see her. Thank God, it was not. Kate kept living. Oh and she had such a great summer last year. 🙂 Kate and Shane’s vow renewal was lovely, and Matthew was adorable in his matching suit. It was also a rainy day, but the team adapted to move the outdoor ceremony inside. I was with her as she got hair and make up done, donned her simple and gorgeous white wedding dress, and took pictures galore. Kate didn’t skip a beat and the smile never left her face despite the reshuffle that had to take place. Kate knew: the rain is temporary, but you don’t get these days back. We have to celebrate while we’re here, and love each other well like Kate always did.
A couple weeks later, we spent a week together at the beach. At 3 years old it was my daughter’s first big mommy and me trip, and she was ecstatic to see Auntie Kate and Carolyn, and to play “parkour” with Matthew. 🙂 Mostly she wanted to hang with Matthew. Kate had some challenges that came up that week, but she never complained. Kate kept living. As much as she knew she was dying, she kept living.
Our admiration for Kate runs deep. Her love of family, her deep and abiding sense of love and loyalty to her parents and siblings, her appreciation of friends, her evolution of faith, her passion for purpose-driven work and advocacy, her dedication to motherhood, her optimism. She was diplomatic when others were not. Patient when others were not. As a teacher and a friend and a mother, as a servant spirit in so many ways, she pressed on and there’s a million more stories I want to tell and wish I could tell. So that is one of my calls to action to all of you – keep telling stories about Kate, keep talking about her, keep her name alive, keep her work alive. Carry her with you. Laugh and cry and shake your fist at God for the unjustness of this if you need to…but don’t let the mix of pain and joy, the sorrow and the pride, the tears and the laughs make you be afraid to talk about her and remember her and honor her and to continue to support her legacy in all the ways that you can. Keep talking about Kate.
I’ll share one final story and it’s from something she said to me just three weeks before she passed. I called Kate, as I almost always did almost every day while I was out on a walk with my dog, and I asked her how her day was. A silly question to ask someone who was in pain as she was at that point, like hey How’s your day been? but I did. And she said, “you know, it was a good day. I went to yoga and had tea with a friend, and I chose to have a good day. So I did.” “I chose to have a good day” and so it was that simple for her; she made it so.
MINDSET MATTERS. She wrote this, said this, lived it: Mindset matters. So if nothing else, let this be a reminder, an emphasis, a pleading with each of you to choose to have a good day. Because the world is less bright without Kate in it, so if not for you, then to honor Kate, bring more light into this world by choosing to serve and choosing to have a good day, and honor that bright optimism that she carried with her not because life was easy, but because life was hard and she was resilient; she knew we could all rise stronger after stress, trauma, challenge, and change, as she did. That even when she was struggling, she lent a hand, a listening ear, or a wise eye.
You see, hardships and stressors can fracture us, or focus us; they can isolate and conceal, or connect; and they can plunge us into meaninglessness, or prompt us to find purpose.
We have a CHOICE. Kate so often reminded me, in the words of Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” Then as Kate added, “Beautiful people are made.” So may you choose to make your life beautiful. And as she chose in every way that she could to make it a good day, I hope you can, too.
Carry her with you; she’s with us always.
I love you, Kate; may you feel our hearts rise up to hold you now and forever more.
*I delivered this eulogy for my best friend of 23 years, Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas, on Saturday 7 May in Washington DC. We met at UVA in 1999 while both on the Protocol Staff for Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, then we lifeguarded together at Henderson Hall the summer of 2000, were college roommates 2000-2001, and again 2005-2006, running partners, co-conspirators for a range of shenanigans, co-authors, co-presenters, c0-owners of a wellness business for a handful of years, confidants, peas in a pod, peanut butter and jelly, and soul sisters. She passed away on 5 April 2022 due to cancers caused by exposure to toxic materials during her deployment to Iraq as a Marine Corps Military Police Officer. This Memorial Day I honor her memory as well as those memories of my dear friend, Ryan Hansen, and TBS buddies Andy Budenz, Jared Landaker, and Greg McSween, all United States Marine Corps officers.
* Consider DONATING to the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Memorial Fund at the University of Virginia HERE. Donations will be used to place a bench with Kate’s name outside of the Navy/Marine Corps ROTC building on campus, and hold a small ceremony for her in 2023.
*Kate’s and my books can all be found on Amazon
*Resource – I’ve found this EFT tapping very helpful recently.