PHOTO by Rebecca D’Angelo PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by Doug Dobey
by Charles McGuigan
Kaity Kasper died on October 23, five days after celebrating her fortieth birthday. She was many things—both conventional and unconventional—to many people. Her style of dress and the persona she cast could have an edginess to it. But she was also a lawyer, a brilliant woman, who had the ability to study things in minute detail. That ability to focus, and to learn as much as possible about a subject, guided her on a spiritual journey. Along that route she survived cancer twice, beating all odds, confounding her doctors. And Kaity also spoke directly to God, and He to her.
For a few years, Kaity Kasper was a permanent fixture at Stir Crazy Café in Bellevue. A notebook, a laptop, several books, pages dogeared or marked with Post-its, surrounded her like friends or associates at the table she sat before. And more often than not, someone would join her and they would talk for hours. But as soon as that person left, Kaity would get back to her reading and her writing and her quest for answers.
She had an inimitable style. Some days she dressed in yoga pants and a tank top, other days layered skirts and dresses. Her eyes were a golden brown, often concealed behind dark-rimmed glasses, and her right arm was a work of art, and her left arm a relatively blank canvas awaiting the careful stippling and pricking of a tattoo artist’s needles.
Of her right, highly decorated, arm, Kaity told me, “I joke about this arm as being a scratch pad of my life.”
One tattoo featured the billowing petals of ranunculus and cherry blossoms, three birds, and a New Testament quote. “Ranunculus has always been my favorite flower, and cherry blossoms symbolize the beauty and fragility of human life,” Kaity said.
She rubbed her right shoulder, and by so doing, touched the head of an owl. “The owl is for the wisdom that we gain from the experiences in our life,” she said, and then moved her hand down to her lower biceps. “The dove represents the Holy Spirt,” she said. “I feel the Holy Spirit guides me in my decisions in the way that I try to lead and live my life.”
Below that was a hummingbird. “He is there for love and laughter and lightness,” Kaity said. And then she read a passage written on her arm. “It’s half of a quote from Jesus,” she said. “The full quote is ‘You do not realize now what I’m doing, but later you’ll understand.’ It’s about those times we don’t know what it is God is doing through us, but when we look backward later, we understand.”
Finally, she pointed to a tattoo with three simple words—“I love you”—in the shallow ditch of her arm where ulna and humerus meet. “That’s where the infusion site was for my chemo.” she said.
Seventeen years ago, Kaity was diagnosed with cancer, and fortunately her former husband Evan, a medical student at the time, was working in the lab of Dr. Gordon Ginder, the director of Massie Cancer Center and a leading specialist on lymphomas.
“Dr. Ginder has been my oncologist for the last fourteen years,” Kaity said two years ago. “And I fully credit him with saving my life that go around. He made sure I had the best care possible. I spent the better part of that year doing chemo and radiation therapy under Dr. Ginder’s supervision. It was stage 2B Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The diagnosis was at the end of March, and I finished the radiation the day before Thanksgiving.”
The cure was utterly complete. “It was scary,” she said. “But I don’t think I ever thought death was on the table with that one.”
Kaity, who already had a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University Maryland and a master’s from Virginia Commonwealth University under her belt, decided during the treatment to get a degree in law from University of Richmond. Which is exactly what she did.
Once she passed the bar, Kaity went to work for Hancock Daniel, Johnson and Nagle, the firm where she worked the rest of her professional life.
Since she was a child, Kaity had a keen sense of the Divine. She was raised Catholic in East Berlin, Connecticut, though her parents weren’t particularly devout. “I don’t remember going to church as a family very often,” Kaity said. “But I do remember there was this small church you could walk to from our house and I remember taking myself there and I couldn’t really figure out why. At an oddly young age I would go to the self-help section of the library and get these books out by rabbis and I would lay in the backyard and underline them in pencil. I was probably twelve or thirteen when I started doing this. I was just interested in what they were saying and what they were talking about. It always felt to me like God was doing something here.”
Kaity later attended parochial school, and the entire student body would file into the adjacent church for first Friday Mass. “I would always pray while I was there that God would call me to be a nun,” she said. “I would say, ‘God, that’s what I want to do, please call me to be a nun.’ I remember being so disappointed, and thinking something was so wrong with me because God didn’t want me to be a nun and I couldn’t figure it out. But I’ve always had, from a very young age, some connection to that, and an unwavering knowing He was there for me.”
Kaity had converted to Judaism, the faith of her former husband, and stuck with it for a year after their divorce. Then she tried returning the religion of her birth, but that didn’t work. “I felt stalled and I felt like God kept saying to me, ‘There’s something else that has to break out here, and you’re not going to find it in this cathedral,’” she remembered. “And so I ended up exploring some other churches throughout Richmond during that time, and that was really when things got a little bit more serious for me.”
About seven years ago now, Kaity learned what yoga is really about from instructor Dana Walters. “Through her I really started to discover the ways that yoga can change not just our physical body, but our spiritual and emotional bodies,” Kaity said. “Once I got there, it became really apparent to me that the connection I had been looking for was going to come directly from God.”
Back in March of 2016, Kaity was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“It came completely out of the blue as ovarian cancer is wont to do,” she said. “I had a partial hysterectomy. They were able to keep my uterus, but I lost both ovaries, my fallopian tubes, my appendix, seven lymph nodes, the tumors I had developed, and a ton of fluid that had built up over about a month.”
She was enrolled in a clinical trial down at Massie Cancer Center, where she had done years of volunteer work. It was a grueling chemotherapy, one week on, one week off, a total of six rounds, and each bout left Kaity annihilated.
The prognosis for her kind of ovarian cancer was not good.
When she returned to her home in Bellevue, she assumed a number of her close friends would be there for her. But that was not to be the case.
“God created this situation where I was forced to be alone with him in this,” Kaity said. “God could not have done the work that he needed and wanted to do with me in this space, if I was not alone.”
During those dark nights of the soul—and there were many of them—Kaity learned something that most of us will never begin to understand. “Regardless of what other people may do, God is never going to abandon me,” she told me. “God gave me just enough support so that I always had food, I always had someone to talk to if I really needed, I always had the thing that I needed provided for me, but what I needed was the experience of realizing that I won’t abandon myself, and God won’t abandon me, and that’s actually enough. You can get through the worst kind of crap, if you know those two things.”
For many cancer patients, doctors administer a CA 125 test to monitor the patient’s blood to ensure cancer has not recurred. The normal range in healthy patients is 5 to 20; Kaity’s CA 125 was 208. Through the course of the chemotherapy, though, those levels dropped to between 198 and 134, but they fluctuated within that range after each chemo treatment. One doctor recommended that Kaity receive chemotherapy for the rest of her life as long as her body could endure it. This same physician told her the cancer was incurable.
But Kaity heard another voice, one that she had begun to recognize, and it was a real voice.
“I heard God’s voice, clear as day, say ‘Do not do any more chemotherapy, that’s not what you need,’” Kaity said. “I am someone who hears a voice that’s not mine when it’s God communicating with me. God to me is a man. It’s a slightly deeper voice than how I hear my own voice, and it comes from a different place. When I hear my own thoughts, they come from the brain. When I hear something that’s coming from God, it’s coming from my core.”
So she opted out of chemotherapy. And she prayed to God that her numbers drop by at least five points. A month after she stopped treatment, Kaity’s numbers had dropped from 198 to 68.
Soon thereafter, Kaity embarked on a journey of discovery with the hope of bringing back secrets that would help others heal themselves. It was as if God had plucked her for this purpose. “I think what He wants me to do is to bring this stuff back and through writing and speaking and working with people one-on-one to help people learn how we can walk in faith in such a way that allows us to tap into the voice of the Holy Spirit, Creator, Universe, Source, whatever you want to call it,” she said.
Two of Kaity’s closest friends—Claire McGowan and Mary-Catherine Berry—are sitting at my dining room table, which is draped in a cloth emblazoned with hundreds of Calaveras a la Dia de Muertos. There are skulls and jack-o-lanterns, witches and mummies, decapitated heads and evil birds, scattered throughout the house, which was decked out for the season three days before Halloween.
Like many people, Mary-Catherine and Claire met Kaity at Stir Crazy, and they immediately became friends.
“It was like a wild and a passionate love affair,” Mary-Catherine said. “That’s what I’ve told Micah, my husband.” She smiled when she said this, and then, as if in explanation, added: “There was a certain rawness about Kaity, something I’ve always wanted in a friend, where you can just say, ‘You hurt my feelings.’ That’s probably the last time you’ll ever have to talk about it again. It’s unconditional. And I’ve never had a relationship like that except in my marriage.”
Claire nodded along, smiling herself. “Kaity had this hard ass, rock and roll side to her,” she said. “And then she has these beautiful feathers, and great skirts and dresses. And she was a lawyer. And she loved dogs. She was real and edgy and sometimes she was cranky. She owned every different aspect of her life. I just adored her for it.”
For the better part of a year, this trio, made up of Kaity, Mary-Catherine and Claire, would meet weekly for a walk through the neighborhood.
“We had a text thread among the three of us for walks at 4:30,” Claire said.
“Every Tuesday we would do it,” Mary-Catherine added. “Super short walks, two blocks, two blocks, two blocks and two blocks.”
Mary-Catherine remembers what Kaity said during one of those walks when Claire, who had broken her foot, was absent.
“I like how open and honest you are about how freaking hard motherhood is, and that it’s not your end-all, be-all,” Kaity said.
Later, Mary-Catherine’s son, Jonah, took Kaity’s hand, and wandered off with her.
“Hey Kaity Kaspaw, do you like coffee?” he asked.
“Yes, I do,” said Kaity.
“I know this great little coffee shop around the corner. Let’s get you a coffee.”
Stir Crazy was already closed, and Jonah had no money anyhow.
“Jonah loved her,” Mary-Catherine said. “He connected with her immediately. He still prays for her because I haven’t told him that she’s died. ‘Dear Gawd,’ he says. ‘Please heal Kaity Kaspaw. Thanks for everything, Jonah.’”
This past summer, Kaity decided to do something she had been planning to do for quite some time. “She wanted to open an Ayurveda (a system of medicine with its roots in the Indian subcontinent) clinic,” said Mary-Catherine. “So she was like, ‘I’m going to do this in Charlottesville.’ She ended up with the most gorgeous apartment on the planet in Charlottesville, and then she had her very own shop.”
But it was never to be.
The day after she moved to Charlottesville, Kaity’s right leg began to swell.
“A week goes by and she can’t move her leg anymore,” Mary-Catherine said. “And then another friend of hers from Richmond said, ‘You’ve got to see the oncologist, the cancer is back.’ Kaity didn’t want to know that the cancer was back. Kaity was terrified of dying, and she said over and over and over again, ‘I don’t want to die.’”
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” Claire said. “She didn’t even get to fulfill the dream she had, the thing she wanted to do. I mean she had everything set up.”
One day as she was driving, Kaity heard the voice of God. As plain as day, she heard these words: “Don’t do chemo.”
Kaity wanted to try other protocols, though nothing seemed to work. “She couldn’t level out,” said Mary-Catherine. “The swelling got worse and worse and worse. They took eight liters of fluid out of her stomach every seven days.”
By then, Kaity had moved to Ohio where she lived with friends on a farm. She had taken her dog, Hope, with her, and she took multivitamins, followed a very regimented diet, and fully expected to recover. There was also coffee shop out there that Kaity frequented.
“And that’s when the vomiting started,” Mary-Catherine said. “She couldn’t keep anything down; she would vomit for twenty-four hours every day. And then she couldn’t walk at all. She vomited every time she moved.”
Ultimately, she moved herself to Boston where her stepmom and stepdad lived. She finally started chemotherapy.
“She didn’t take well to the chemo,” according to Mary-Catherine. “By then, the cancer had spread to all of her organs. She went to hospice on a Saturday morning, and died early Tuesday AM.”
The day before, Kaity’s brother, Tyler, had called Mary-Catherine. “He had called me at work on Monday and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know she’s no longer with us, but her body’s still here,’” Mary-Catherine recalled.
Mary-Catherine picked up her cellphone as we sat at the table, remembering Kaity Kasper. Shf began scrolling through messages from Kaity, a diary of what was happening in those last days of her life.
Mary-Catherine began to read. “She said, ‘Tell everybody at the coffee shop, that I’m doing great.’ And then she says, ‘This will end, right?’ And I say, ‘Oh yes, and in the better of two ways. You and I will porch sit together with wine, and this will fade away into a distant memory. This is not your new forever. This is a right now, and a sh**ty one, too.”
One of the last messages she received from Kaity, read, “Sorry things are nuts here. I love you. Let’s talk this weekend for sure.”
It was sent four days before Kaity gave up the ghost.
“This has really shaken me,” said Claire. “It should be a reminder that we have no guarantees in our life.”
Claire and Mary-Catherine are planning to set up a scholarship fund simply called The Kasper Fund, to award monies to those who wish to study Ayurveda. And sometime this spring or summer there will be a memorial service to celebrate the life of Kaity Kasper.
“I believe there are doorways we are supposed to pass through,” Mary-Catherine Berry said. “Sometimes, when I’m driving in my minivan, Kaity’s sitting next to me. I just stare at her. I haven’t talked to her yet.”
“I’ve been talking to her,” Claire McGowan said.