When life gives you lemons ... sell coffee
April 9, 2021
On Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, at 5:20 p.m., Kathie Kemi, resident of Esko and Cloquet since age 8, was told she had a mass on her pancreas. As the stranger/doctor looked into her eyes and spoke the words, in the small consultation room where she sat, the walls of the room didn't crumble. The earth didn't shake. No lightning bolt flashed and her life didn't flicker by like a clicking highlight reel.
"I just felt normal." Kathie insists. "Well, maybe not normal, but numb. I mean, I wasn't thrilled about it, but I guess I wasn't hysterical, either. I was just there. Hearing a person talking. Words out of a mouth."
Bruce, Kathie's husband of 45 years, died in 2015 after living gracefully, courageously, sometimes angrily, always frustratingly, with multiple sclerosis, for 29 years of what should have been the best years of his life.
"I know what bad news sounds like," Kathie said. "I mean, you still gotta live, don't ya? That's what Bruce did. What's the other option?"
Next to Kathie that afternoon was her eldest daughter, Kelly Thill, of Cloquet. Her other daughter, Kym Jolstad, waited for word from her home in Minnetonka. Like their mother, with varying degrees of shock, denial, pain, terror, brokenheartedness, exhaustion and pissed-off-ed-ness, Kelly and Kym went to bed that night with the same options countless multitudes of human beings have faced through similar scenarios the world over, throughout the millennia.
John, 16:33: In this life, there will be trouble.
Or, paraphrased: Expect bad news; it's part of the deal.
The inevitable universality of bad news is poignantly juxtaposed with the infinite variety with which human beings respond to it. While the phases of human grief and the transition through them are well understood in a general way, the acute manner in which those phases manifest in individuals in their minute-to-minute lives is as distinct as a fingerprint.
The manifestation of Kathie's response to the bad news was simple, visceral. She told her two daughters, so they could tell their husbands and sons:
"We got this."
For her daughters, the response was largely intuitive:
Kelly, a natural caregiver, nurse-hearted from her earliest memories, immediately adopted the role of personal, psycho-emotional advocate and health care logistician.
"I live close and have decades of experience providing hands-on care for my dad as he progressed through the stages of his illness. Might sound strange, but I'm good at this."
As they left the hospital that day, Kelly told her mom:
"I'm taking care of you."
For Kym, entrepreneurially spirited and blessed/cursed with more energy than a common hummingbird, the response was a whirling combination of businesslike practicality and righteous anger.
"I immediately started looking into pancreatic cancer and was surprised and, frankly, angry that there was so little awareness of it at the consumer level."
Kym went on because Kym goes on:
"I mean, I found scholarly articles and medical journal entries and so on, and the Alex Trebek and RBG [Jeopardy! host Alex Trebec and Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recently died of pancreatic cancer, resulting in a topical spike in awareness of the disease] cases at least brought the term "pancreatic cancer" into the colloquial lexicon, but, still, there was very little out there the way there is about breast cancer and lung cancer and heart disease.
Right now, when most people hear the term pancreatic cancer they immediately think death sentence. Well, that was true of breast cancer and lung cancer at one point, too."
Kym shakes her head when she talks about it.
"This is bull ... , I thought. I'm doing something."
Five months later, exactly 21 Thursdays after that August Thursday in the doctor's office, Jan. 9, 2020, Kathie was feeling OK. Not awesome, but OK. Chemo had started with the requisite suffering and Kelly was in full-throttle nursing and advocacy mode.
One hundred forty nine miles down Interstate 35, Kym, while walking her dog on a snow-blowy Minnetonka morning, sipping absently at her coffee, channeled her inner Winnie the Pooh.
"Think-Think-Think ..." she thought. "Think-think-think."
And thought. And sipped. Thinking.
"Coffee!" she said, stopping herself in her tracks. "I'm selling frickin' coffee!"
Enterprise takes off
On February 13, five Thursdays later, the Kathie's Coffee enterprise was registered with the Secretary of State of Minnesota as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization.
Things got real.
Seven Thursdays later, April 2, PanCAN (Pancreatic Cancer Action Network) approved the label for Kathie's Coffee, a critical milestone, the ultimate point of the effort being to support the cause and build awareness around the disease.
One week later, Thursday, April 9, 2020 - 33 Thursdays after that first day in the hospital, watching the words come out of the doctor's mouth, the first packages of Kathie's Coffee were delivered to friends and family.
Kathie hadn't a clue.
Classic clueless Mom.
Kathie's first knowledge of the entire campaign arrived one day earlier when Kelly, after having received an overnight shipment of "Kathie's Coffee" from her now-maniacal sister, brought a bag of the stuff over along with a note from Kym. While daughters spilled their plot - Kelly in the kitchen with her mom, Kym via Facetime from Minnetonka - Kathie sipped her namesake and nodded, ever so approvingly.
"Coffee is a big deal for me," Kathie explained. "When I was working, coffee breaks were an actual break and it took time to brew when you had people over for coffee, so it was a time to actually sit down, talk, share and form community ... And this stuff Kym came up with - it's just plain great."
Others apparently agree. At this writing, Kathie's Coffee is being sold in 21 states. In the Twin Cities metro area, it can be found at MinnyRow Market in Hopkins, Minnesota Makers in Excelsior and Robbinsdale, and at Homespun at Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka and Minneapolis.
Locally, at Bearaboo Coffee Escape in Cloquet, Kathie's Coffee is a featured brew every Wednesday and Sunday and 12-oz. bags (ground or whole bean) are available there as well as at B&B Market.
Quantifiably speaking, to date, $6,000 has been raised for PanCAN.
Qualitatively, the awareness raised within the gravitational pull of the Kathie's Coffee orbit is all but immeasurable. Perhaps greatest among these known unknowables is the tightening of the already knot-knitted love and support between, among and spread out from the Kathie's Coffee triumvirate of Kathie, Kelly and Kym.
"I'm so much more than proud," Kathie said of her daughters. "It is such a gift to watch them shine and give of themselves in building a community for a cause so much greater than just me ... it's difficult to explain, but it's beautiful."
The sisters have their own perspectives. For
Kelly, it's a matter of expression.
"Physically caring for Mom, as it was with Dad, is my way of contributing in a practical way to her everyday well-being. And it's the best way I have of expressing my love for her. It's what I can do, instead of just thinking something or feeling something."
"As for me," Kym said, her constant smile momentarily replaced with the stony look of the marathoner she is, at the 23rd mile of an uphill race, "I'll be doing this forever. This is now my cause."
Editor's note: In the interest of transparency, it should be noted that writer Parnell Thill is Kelly Thill's brother-in-law.