Monday, August 16, 2010

No one believed. They listened at his heart...

My stepfather has been dead 8 hours now. This was not supposed to happen. He was vigorous, a daily walker, still carrying on a busy consulting schedule at age 78. His Outlook inbox was full of e-mails that said "See you in Washington on the 16th." He flew there and was met by a colleague, who began to drive him to a conference he never made; his remains will be flown back the day after tomorrow.

He had quit smoking decades ago to relieve the strain on his heart, from the nicotine, overwork, and general stress. About 7 years ago, his heart raced for hours one night at sickening speeds that would have killed many; the doctor said there was permanent damage, but we couldn't feel the reality of it. In our eyes, he was supposed to live to 85, 90, or beyond.

For Karst to die was like Warren Buffet suddenly finding that his credit card would not cover lunch at Bennigan's. Karst was competent, organized, and effective, all contingencies covered. Where is the restore disk, the reset button, the error message that says this was an invalid transaction? They're not working.

His oldest brother is still living, at 88. His mother was ambulatory and lucid until two months before her death at age 100. His father died at 89, an age that seemed a little premature to everyone. Some people work themselves to death; Karst's clan tended to make careers that lasted as long as other people's entire life spans.

Few things took him by surprise, as this did. He was once dragged into testifying on behalf of his federal agency to a hostile Congressional committee on a few minutes' notice when his boss chickened out; he handled it with aplomb, which surprised no one. Had he suspected that the terminal event was upon him, he would have taken steps to plan things better. Is there a protocol for calling a total stranger, a woman of 77 a thousand miles away and informing her that as of five minutes ago, she is a widow? I have no doubt that the ER doctor in Maryland was as polite as he could be when he called Mom this afternoon. How does one prepare to make or receive such a call?

Last night, Karst was opening a bottle of Bordeaux to enjoy with Mom. This morning, she kissed him goodbye and perhaps stroked his head, which he shaved completely bald, while sporting a sea captain's bushy beard.

This evening, the Transplant Council of Washington called Mom asking to harvest skin from Karst's remains for transplants for burn victims. The three Memphis brothers, Mom's kids, agreed; everyone's cell phone or Blackberry then came out to track down our stepsister in Connecticut and her brother in Maryland to get their OK. My stepbrother, not one to mince words, said "Vampires" but agreed. Karst would have thought it worthwhile.

As Frost's poem says, "And they, since they were not the one dead, went about their affairs."

Business will not wait. Donor tissue must be harvested within 24 hours. Karst would have understood. His own father, Jacob Besteman, whose parents had emigrated here at the turn of the last century from Friesland, saw his first business fail on a Friday and started another the following Monday morning. He had to; he was supporting his elderly parents in the days before Social Security and helping keep ruined neighbors afloat in the depths of the Depression. There was no time to mope.

Jacob was of stern Dutch Calvinist stock. His own father had stopped attending one Dutch church when they changed from singing metrical Psalms to hymns composed by men; he found it "worldly." When my mother, in her late 40s, visited the Besteman clan in Grand Rapids for the first time and casually got up from the table after supper, Karst's hand quietly but firmly pulled her back down to her seat. You did not leave the table until Jacob had read aloud a chapter from the Bible and said a prayer. His children, by now in their 50s, sat quietly for this daily ritual.

For his youngest child, Karst, born March 26, 1932, Jacob envisioned a ministerial calling and sent him to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, for pre-seminary studies. Earlier, with his older brothers, Karst had worked in the family produce business and helped with their other business of raising and showing quarter horses. At age 15, he drove trailers of horses over 200 miles to Indianapolis to show in the Indiana State Fair. In an elevator in Indianapolis's grand hotel, he met actor Charles Laughton who was there to show the trotting horses he and his wife, Elsa Lanchester, raised for a hobby.

Karst, whose name is the Dutch word for "Christian," went to Calvin College and paid close attention to his religious studies, as to an interesting problem requiring serious attention. He had a strong and abiding faith, but his heart was not in pastoral work. Eventually, he went home and confessed as much to his father, who said "Then you might as well put on work boots and dig ditches."

Karst knew he was better than that. He earned a Master's in social work and entered the Public Health Service. In his 30s, he traveled to the backwoods and interviewed characters out of Deliverance to find the whereabouts of their friends who had been treated for addiction in a government program years before; the government wanted to do a followup study. The backwoodsmen were suspicious and hostile; they did not want to tell him where their friends were, but they hadn't reckoned on Karst's tenacity. He persisted and learned from them what he needed to know.

He was always absorbed in his work. Leaving his office at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky one evening when he had achieved the rank of Admiral, his mind was so much on his work that he drove right past the lowering of the flag, breaking a cardinal rule of military etiquette. An indignant MP chased him down and sputtered, "Sir, I'll have you know that at Ft. Campbell, we respect the colors!" Karst thanked him and apologized. For the rank and recognition he achieved, he had less ego than anyone I've ever known.

He had married a childhood friend, Esther, and they raised two kids, Karst David and Elizabeth. Esther often had to be both parents because of the demands of Karst's own work. His growing expertise in drug treatment and his efficiency at work earned him recognition and brought him to the attention of powerful and influential people. The names he knew were the people you read about in Newsweek. Karst himself was never on the cover of Time and didn't care. He cared that the Reagan Administration, in his view, was pursuing a shortsighted policy with regard to the spread of cocaine in our society and told them so, in the Oval Office itself. It was a long time before he was invited back.

But he was too valuable for his services to be dispensed with, and he had the confidence of people like C. Everett Koop and the ear of people who could make a difference. His opinions were sought and valued. One of his brothers, camping with his family in the Canadian wilderness to "get away from it all," turned on a battery-operated TV in his tent one night. The first thing he saw was Karst being interviewed on TV about drug policy!

Esther was stricken with cancer in her early 40s and was cruelly taken from her family, leaving a husband who wished he could have spent more time at home and two teenaged kids. Karst tried to mend fences at home and also threw himself even more vigorously into his work.

Around 1981, he was named the Director of the New York Regional Office of Health and Human Services. Getting to his desk very early each morning as his work ethic demanded, he was intrigued at the 48-year-old woman who was invariably at her own desk at 6 a.m. He learned that she too had been widowed, two years before. My mother did not care for Karst at first but then saw the worth of his character. She bought two tickets to a Broadway show and asked him out. He said, "I am breaking two of my own rules--first, never to date someone from the office, and second, never to date a woman who asks me out." Against his earlier instincts, he continued to see her and always found her fascinating. They were married March 17, 1984, at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, in their early 50s, still only just young enough that both sets of elderly parents were present at the wedding. Karst stood up to make a speech: "It's not often that people in our circumstances find anotber chance at love. We've left our youth behind..."

Mom interjected, "Speak for yourself!"

That kind of humorous badinage was typical of them. Mom would get agitated about something, and Karst would interrupt with something witty or just a hearty laugh. His laugh, his friendly smile, and a firm handshake were always among his trademarks.

To blend in with our family, one had to accept the sometimes rather pointed humor. Waiting outside a Broadway theatre showing Annie to meet Karst for the first time and not knowing what he looked like, my brothers and their wives said to each other, "Well, how bad can he be? At least he won't be fat and bald." Minutes later, when Karst, at a portly period in his life and with a head bald as a cueball, walked up with Mom, all of them were almost falling down laughing.

We kidded him but always respected him. His reading and knowledge were formidable. Some people have everything; Karst seemed to know everything. There were very few topics you could bring up to which he could not add an intelligent comment.

At 50, he decided that government service had grown stale and looked for new challenges. He worked for non-profit foundations that promoted drug abuse education and maintained his contacts with National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse. He applied for the directorship of one foundation and they wouldn't give it to him because he had no M.D. next to his name. They then hired an M.D. with little organizational sense and then had to hire Karst to actually run the place! Still later, Karst ran two drug rehab clinics in downtown Washington, D.C., the only ones of their type I have ever heard of, in which the addicts were expected to pay a small fee for each treatment session. It sounded crazy and I'm sure didn't even cover costs, but that wasn't the point; by asking something of the addicts themselves, it helped give them back their self respect.

He left that position a few years ago, when he and Mom moved to Memphis from Washington, D.C. but still continued to telecommute via computer, while making occasional trips back to Washington for conferences. He also read avidly, went on daily walks with Mom, became active in their neighborhood association, swam in their pool, and even discovered one quieter, more contemplative hobby: standing in their livingroom overlooking the Mississippi River, he would look out through his field glasses at the barges and tugboats; he had bought a registry that listed every tugboat and marked them as they passed. Whether spending a quiet evening at home with Mom, listening to music or watching the sunset, or entertaining family in their livingroom that is the size of an office building lobby, he was content.

His roots were in Grand Rapids, but he will be buried in Memphis's historic Elmwood Cemetery, founded in 1852, the resting place of governors and generals, the sort of people who valued Karst and whose exercise of power he understood, though he was never overawed by it. Unyielding as the granite monuments at Elmwood, he had a quiet strength that could not be daunted or broken. His final appointment came much earlier than we wanted or expected and like the slow and powerful barges that he liked to watch, left us gazing after the trailing wake.


© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Joe said...

A beautifully written testimony of a great man.