FAREWELL TO A FELLOW TRAVELER
by RJ Furth (January 2012)
My dear friend Kathy Varani passed away suddenly last week, felled by a massive, fatal brain aneurysm. Her daughters asked me to access her Yahoo account in order to inform people. When I finally entered Kathy’s Yahoo account I was stunned to find that she had 956 contacts. 956? Actually, after eliminating duplications and some business addresses, I whittled the list down to about 900. I spent a few days sending out a brief email that notified the recipient of her passing, though I had no idea who was on the receiving end. The number of responses that quickly flowed into my inbox was staggering. I’ve heard from Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. I’ve heard from Koreans, Egyptians, Lebanese and from over two dozen different states. I’ve received emails from great grandmothers, young students, teachers and professionals of all types. Kathy has received blessings from Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims and quite a few old hippies and hipsters. I’ve known Kathy for forty years, yet I had no idea how many people she touched in so many countries.
I am proud to say that I am the person most responsible for Kathy becoming a seasoned traveler and citizen of the world. (Her lovely daughters may not be so grateful. Kathy took them to live in Japan and Egypt when they were young, though more on that later.) We had met briefly in Evergreen, Colorado, in 1971. I was a young punk and she was married, soon to be the mother of two girls. We met up a few years later when she was getting a divorce and became friends. I left Evergreen in 1974 to teach in Melbourne, Australia, but I wrote often and we stayed in touch. When I returned to Colorado in late 1976 (after a year traveling in Asia) we spent some time together. In 1978 (if memory serves me correctly) I did a road trip with Kathy and her two daughters to Washington state, during which we often talked about what it was like to travel and live overseas. I married Sandy Sage in 1981 and we left shortly after our wedding to teach in Malaysia, followed by a five-month trip home through Asia and Europe. Again, I wrote often to Kathy.
Shortly after our return to Colorado in early 1984, Kathy earned her ESL (English as a Second Language) certificate and left for Japan to teach English. After two years she returned to Colorado, then left with her daughters for Alexandria, Egypt, a city that that touched her heart like no other. Kathy loved the food, the people, the culture, the history. (Her daughters also seemed to like ‘Alex’ when they found that expat teenagers weren’t carded, so they could dance and drink at clubs in the big hotels.) Kathy taught twice in Alexandria, and her love for the city drove her to write a memoir about one of those years in Alex. She put her heart into writing the novel and worked with a number of editors and writing coaches over the years to polish it. In fact, Kathy loved writing and kept journals for many years.
Whereas most tourists return from Egypt with souvenirs of the Pyramids, Kathy returned with an Egyptian husband, Essam. They lived in Evergreen for a while, and when the marriage fell apart Kathy returned to her beloved Alex. Sandy and I were teaching again Malaysia and I surprised to receive a letter from Kathy informing me that she was again returning to Colorado with an Egyptian husband, this one thirty years younger. That marriage didn’t last long, but Kathy remained close with Sherif. She accepted one more job overseas in Saudi Arabia, and only because of financial considerations. Kathy never liked living in Saudi, chafing against the male-dominated society and its oppressive rules, yet as in Egypt, Kathy made lasting friends. These fellow teachers, who remain friends today, were the best thing about her time there.
Kathy struggled upon her return to Colorado, lost as to what to do. She no longer wanted to teach, although she excelled at helping others learn how to express themselves in English. Eventually, she took a job tutoring foreign students at Colorado School of Mines. As fortuitously, Kathy landed a job as scorer for the TOEFL exam: Test of English as a Foreign Language. Run by ETS in Princeton, New Jersey, the TOEFL exam is required for foreign students who wish to attend university in the United States. Kathy was able to score exams from her home in Evergreen, her favorite spot on the planet. She could wake up and see the Rocky Mountains from her bed, then sit at her computer and gaze out at deer and elk, while watching her cat Cookiedarweesh frolic on the mountainside. Kathy became a scoring leader (helping other scorers who couldn’t decide on how to grade a particular test), which is how she came to know hundreds of her 900 contacts. I’ve read dozens of emails from people who never actually met Kathy, yet talked passionately about her sense of humor, how she put them at ease and helped them to gain confidence about their scoring. Her fellow graders became a network of friends that stretched across the nation
I also changed the message on Kathy’s home answering machine in order to inform callers of her passing. I gave my home phone number in case they had questions. The first call came from a Korean student at Colorado School of Mines. Kenny related how he had struggled with writing English until Kathy started to tutor him. A few days before Kathy’s death Kenny received an A on a paper in which the professor praised him for his progress. Kenny was calling to thank Kathy for her help. That was Kathy Varani. She was married―and divorced―three times, and had many relationships with men over the years. Her failure to find the right man troubled her until the end, but if she stumbled in her relationship with men, she soared above the clouds when it came to friendship. She was a superstar when it came to friends, a gifted genius. That explains the 900 contacts on Yahoo and the calls from across the country, and the many people who came to the hospital to say farewell. (Including Fred Varani, her first husband, and Sherif, #3. She remained close with both and especially cherished her friendship with Fred.) Kathy’s friends were young and old, male and female, American and foreign, gay and straight, rich and poor.
She will live on in the many people who will receive (and have already received) her organs, and in the hearts of her hundreds of friends. The small-town girl from northern Minnesota became a world citizen who enriched the lives of many people. Kathy will be missed, but never forgotten.