Friends of family of poet and teacher Kathleen Flowers are remembering her this week. Kathleen — a kindergarten teacher at DeLaveaga Elementary School in Santa Cruz, and an accomplished published poet — died on Easter Sunday at the age of 44 of cancer.
I’ve had the deep privilege of talking to those close to Kathleen in the last couple of days, and I’ve come away amazed at the deep impact she had on this community. One of them called her “an enlightened being.” No one could want a better epitaph.
The following is the obituary that will be published in the Sentinel on Friday.
A teacher of passion, a poet at heart
Kathleen Flowers 1964-2009
By WALLACE BAINE
A good place to start talking about the life and passions of Kathleen Flowers is right there in her name.
She wasn’t born with it. She didn’t marry it.
She chose it.
The beloved kindergarten teacher and Santa Cruz poet, who died Sunday at the age of 44, was born Kathleen O’Hearn. As a young woman, she refashioned her surname as “Flowers” because, she wryly told a friend: “It’s both a noun and a verb.”
It’s just the kind of response – with its sense of metaphorical spirituality and a love of language – that you would expect from a woman who was both a devout Buddhist and an accomplished poet. Her death, after a years-long struggle with cancer, has left many of her friends and family groping for the nouns and verbs to describe her effect on their lives.
“Kathleen was one of the most alive and joyful people I’ve ever known,” said poet, teacher and editor Amber Coverdale Sumrall. “It was like being bathed in sunlight to be in her presence. And, believe me, I don’t use these kinds of terms lightly.”
“She was just extraordinary, warm, open-hearted, honest” said friend Jenny D’Angelo. “She was so dedicated to truth and beauty without being ponderous or righteous or holier-than-thou about it. She was absolutely fierce in claiming the joy in life.”
Flowers worked as a bi-lingual elementary-school teacher at Alianza School inWatsonville and Branciforte Elementary in Santa Cruz. For the past several years, she taught kindergarten at DeLaveaga Elementary School.
“Kathleen was a real presence in the classroom,” said David Freed, her principal at DeLaveaga, “very calm, very giving. I just loved being in her room.”
Flowers was one of the founders of a dual-immersion program called Dos Alas, teaching only in English to Spanish-speaking students, and only Spanish to English-speaking students.
Pamela Rivas, a parent of one of her students at DeLaveaga, said Flowers drew emotional sustenance from children. “She told us once on opening night, ‘The best job in the world is to be a kindergarten teacher.’”
Outside of teaching, Flowers was passionate about poetry, for years attending classes and workshops to improve her own writing. Amber Sumrall has for years run the annual “In Celebration of the Muse” women’s poetry reading event. She said that she first saw Flowers at the “Muse” reading more than 15 years ago.
“She told me that it was her greatest dream to read at the ‘Muse,’ said Sumrall. Soon enough, she was reading regularly at the event. And, in 2007, Flowers was awarded the first ever Chapbook Award at the “Muse,” a prize that allowed her to publish a chapbook of her poetry. “Call it Gladness” was published last year.
“She had a real sense of the sacred,” said Joe Stroud, one of the most prominent names in the Santa Cruz poetry community, who taught Flowers at Cabrillo College and in many workshops over the years. “Her work was celebratory, introspective, very much engaged in the natural world.”
Friends say she loved dance, travel, gardening. “She was a real foodie,” said friend Caitlin Johnston. “She loved to watch the Cooking Channel.”
But poetry and a love of language was primary in her passions. When she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer four years ago – shortly after her engagement to her husband Howard Feldstein, a well-known jazz programmer at KUSP – she used poetry as a means to sustain her spirit, say her friends.
Caitlin Johnston taught alongside Flowers at Alianza, and in fact went through the master’s of education program at UC Santa Cruz with her as well. She said that Flowers made the decision that, despite her bleak prognosis, she was not going to live her days in dread and fear. “Throughout that whole journey, she stayed true to herself. I know she had moments of profound fear. It was very, very difficult for her.”
“Her work became much more intense,” said Stroud. “In a curious way, it was more ecstatic. I don’t mean that in a frivolous way, but in an almost religious sense.”
“She was a woman consumed by poetry,” said Sumrall. “Towards the end, that’s what she wanted, poetry to consume. She wrestled with her death in poetry, and she worked very hard to expose her deeply buried wounds. She loved the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer – you know, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’ – well, I would apply that to Kathleen. She was full of grace.”
For years, she kept up an e-mail correspondence with Joe Stroud, sending him poems for his thoughts. “Her poems,” he said, “were moving toward some kind of acceptance of the larger picture of life. I visited her to read some poems about five or six weeks before she died, and I was struck by how luminous she was. She struggled. It wasn’t all sweetness and light with her. But there was something transcendent about her.”
Close friend Jane Freedman called Flowers “Thelma” to her “Louise.” “I was amazed at how she was constantly teaching others and yet learning at the same time. She wasn’t not afraid to live. And, in the end, she was not afraid to die.”
Kathleen is survived by her husband Howard Feldstein, mother Diane O’Hearn, father Michael O’Hearn, sister Michelle Ross, brother Brian O’Hearn, and her beloved nieces and nephew.