Sometimes It Hurts To Live -- But Kass Anderton Simply Refuses To Give In To Her Health Problems
KASS ANDERTON was awarded the Governor's Trophy yesterday for overcoming her own disabilities to help others.
If, for whatever reason, you've been feeling sorry for yourself, consider this moment in Kass Anderton's life:
"I had just had heart surgery - all my ribs were broken, both shoulders were dislocated, I was paralyzed from the waist down and I was in a Houston hospital for six months all by myself. I did have occasion to ask, `Is this fair? Is this really fair?' "
The question had no sooner entered her mind than she buried it. She was, after all, still alive - against dramatic odds that have continued to stack up and repeatedly tempt the question: Is this fair?
Not only was Anderton born with Marfan's Syndrome, a genetic condition that produces abnormal height and lanky extremities and is believed to have affected Abraham Lincoln, but the disease has led to three heart surgeries.
During one, her legs were partially paralyzed. During another, she contracted the AIDS virus through blood transfusions. Since then, she has also been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she has two aneurysms that could kill her any time.
In 44 years of life, Anderton has suffered more than the combined pain of a small town, yet she doesn't think life's been unfair to her.
Graced with a unique and grand perspective, she uses her pain as a motivator, speaking out about AIDS and trying to prevent discrimination against those who have it. She has been heard. Yesterday, Anderton received Washington state's highest award, the Governor's Trophy, for the person with a disability who has advocated for others.
Leaning on her metal crutches, Anderton walked to the podium past hundreds of applauding people, most unaware that each step was something of a miracle because she had taught herself to walk again after heart surgery paralyzed her legs.
"Thank you," she said in a steady voice that belied the heaviness of her life, the voice that creates high and often false expectations of her own strength and will.
The day before the award was presented, Anderton sat in her tidy bungalow in Seattle's Wedgwood area, talking openly about her ravaged body and the life it has meant for her.
"My body has been a hell," she says, rubbing her long fingers over thin arms that ache at the elbows and wrists. She is as thin as Olive Oyl, bent into the corner of her sofa and looking out with large green eyes.
When she was young, Marfan's Syndrome made it impossible to be like other children. She was tall, gangly and in constant pain. She loved riding horses, but it was excruciating to her hips. She rode anyway, determined to fit in.
She thinks her first memory is of pain, and when she realized such suffering was unique to her, she felt an aloneness that never went away. She asked her mother, "Why?" Her mother replied, "It is God's punishment for sin."
She was stung by that verdict and its implied message of personal wrongdoing, but it forced her to "invent a new God."
This God had to accept her arguments, her blinding rage that life could be so hard.
"When I was 14 I was told I would be crippled by 20 and dead by 30. When I was 30, they saw enough deterioration that death was near - days, weeks. Then my aorta ruptured. I lay on the floor knowing this is it. When the surgery doors closed, it was like there was a sign on them that said, The End.
"I accepted death. I welcomed it. But I woke up three days later with the same body and the same pain. They patched the hole but didn't take the disease away. I had another spiritual crisis. What is God doing to me? He had walked me to the pearly gates and then slammed them shut on me."
She stops and a large silence fills her home. Sensing death, wanting it, and then being denied. How many people have traveled this path? She feels alone.
The Rev. David Jaeger is a Catholic priest who ministers to people with AIDS. He believes Anderton's loneliness has been eased by her candid relationship with God. "It's been a real engagement. She's not afraid to argue with God."
He adds: "Giving up on God is like giving up on yourself. For some reason, she hasn't given up on herself."
Jaeger admires Anderton's courage. He also senses her struggle. "Ask her," he says, "if she's glad to still be living."
She doesn't flinch at the question. "I think each day is a gift," she says. "I continue to grow and I am curious to watch my life unfold, to see what it holds."
"But," she adds in the same steady tone, "I look forward to death. My life has been so hard that I am exhausted of it. Life is difficult and a chore and a heartache."
Yet she is the picture of strength - a role model, pillar, towering survivor of tragedy. People expect that of her; she understands that, she accepts it and rejects it, too.
"I'm expected to be strong; it's my history as a survivor," she says. "But I want to be seen as an ordinary human being who is frightened and not always in touch with strength. I do have strength but only because I know weakness. Because I know terror."
It shows in her eyes but does not stop her.
"She's been struck with a number of death sentences," says Jerry Johnson, a friend and director of the Washington State Client Assistance Program. "Yet she gets up every day and her schedule is full. After taking thousands of pills each morning, she goes to these advisory programs to make the world a better place."
Indeed, Anderton is a member of the HIV/AIDS Planning Council, a 32-member, regional policy-making body. She also created a support group for women: Babes With AIDS.
In her homey kitchen, the table's centerpiece is a woven basket, lined with a blue cloth napkin and filled with bottles of pills that supplement her daily use of morphine.
Is this fair?
Anderton revisits the question. "Our nation is obsessed with `fairness' and `equality,' which are not conditions of human life," she says.
"The U.S. is an island of privilege. That is not the standard experience in the entire world today. There is war on every doorstep - the struggle with degradation and revolution and thugs, political strife - that is standard human experience. So I do not think what I'm going through is unfair, when I think of myself as a world citizen."
GOVERNOR'S AWARDS ----------------------------------- The Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment honored the following private- and public-sector employers with the Governor's Employer Award, for their efforts in hiring and promoting the employment of people with disabilities.
-- Small Private Company: Ross Dress for Less, store No. 94, in Silverdale.
-- Medium Private Company: S&W Management Company in Seattle.
-- Large Private Company: US Bank in Seattle.
-- Small Public employer: Coastal Community Action Program in Aberdeen.
-- Medium Public employer: City of Everett.
-- Large Public employer: Federal Aviation Administration.
The committee also honored Seattle Times staff reporter Ronald Fitten for his Nov. 4, 1993, article about Susan Morgan, titled "Fighting the Myths of Disability: Lack of Sight Doesn't Deter Jobs Specialist."
Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.