That summer–2014–Caitlin was newly listed for transplant and had settled in to wait. She couldn’t leave Boston because she had only a four-hour window if “the call” came.
Four hours to get herself to Pittsburgh.
So there were no more trips to Andy’s place on the Maine coast. No more Vineyard. Sometimes we went home to Ashland to swim in the pool, but always with packed bags and extra oxygen tanks, ready to scramble and pray that one of the few medical jets available to us would be able to come.
That summer, she especially missed Jess, who had, as long-planned, left a lucrative job in finance to try and make a meaningful life for herself in Kenya.
Kenya is a place that has called to Jess’s soul her whole life. I’ll let her tell the next part:
Jess: “The thousands of miles between us felt more expansive than ever and I was desperate to be in constant communication with her. I started sharing the stories of the kids that I was spending my time with at the Children’s Home that we had started.
Simba was one of them. In Swahili, Simba means lion. Although he had never celebrated a birthday, he was a self-proclaimed ten year old with dewy brown eyes. I connected the two as pen pals and they sent handwritten letters back and forth to one another. They shared an affinity for tiny winged creatures and their correspondence often included an illustration or two.“
Recently, I searched through Caitlin’s phone for some photos I just knew had to be on it.
Jess: “On June 20th, 2014, Caitlin emailed me: ‘Can’t WAIT for Simba’s letter to arrive. Thinking about him and all your little kids a lot. And you smiling at them. It hurts my heart.'”
The next summer–2015–Jess visited Caitlin in Pittsburgh, where we had relocated, and where she was still waiting. Watching them together, I couldn’t help but muse on the physical contrast between them. Jess was training to do a marathon and literally glowed with health. Then autumn came.
Jess: “We were 31 and 32 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She knew more about medicine than most and she researched everything. I sent her all of my labs, my side effects, my questions. She was a well-curated vault of medical knowledge. She would have been an incredible doctor. I sent her screenshot after screenshot when a new drug was added to my regiment or I was deciding to taper off of something. She would talk me through each concern.
We talked about everything but when we were both sick, our conversations took on a new level of depth. We talked about death and about reincarnation; we talked about our purpose and spiritual inferiority.
On the evening of her 33rd birthday, we talked for hours and hours. I had just had another surgery and was tethered to my bed. She feared that her purpose here on this earth was to teach lessons to others. “No. No,” I said because I needed her here with me.
The idea that she was here only to teach other’s things was too much to bear.”
Now it is nearly three years later. Jess has spent the past 33 months coping with cancer, unexpected healing issues (13 surgeries), and the unbearable loss of her closest friend. With her oncology team’s okay, she has gone back to Kenya as often as possible, where she has been in the process of procuring land and builders for a non-profit she has established: THE LEO PROJECT in honor of Caitlin O’Hara.
Caitlin had planned to do a lot of things post-transplant, like her CF friends who were and are living full lives after their successful surgeries. At the top of her list was visiting Kenya with Jess. Meeting Simba. Instead, she seems to have been right—-that she was here, at least in part, to teach lessons to others. I’ve heard from people around the globe who have been moved and changed by her story, and by her fire & wisdom.
Now, the Kenyan children that Jess loves so much are going to know Caitlin, too. Just in a different way than we all hoped.
“You think all this is important,
but all that really matters is loving people and being kind. —Caitlin O’Hara