21 July 1936–22 May 2013
When a loved one dies, the only thing that has gone is her body. So long as she is remembered, her spirit remains.
Kay Baiz touched many lives, so I suspect her spirit will be around for a long time. I’d like to give it a boost, though, and share some of her stories.
We met when I was a wet-behind-the-ears coordinator of volunteers at a public aquarium, and Kay was a retired nurse looking for something to do. She was the sort of volunteer that coordinators dream of, the one who says “Sure, I’ll do it” when you need someone in a pinch, and then ends up taking over. We had two shifts of volunteers, seven days per week, and Kay was soon the captain of the toughest shift of all, Sunday morning. Weekdays were generally staffed by retirees, who had the free time and could be counted on to show up every week like clockwork, for years on end. But weekends were mostly staffed by younger working folks, whose jobs, interests, and lives were mobile, and who often had to leave after a few months or a year. Weekend shifts were always needing new volunteers, and new volunteers needed to be trained. Kay trained more people than I can count, and was the backbone of Sunday morning for 14 years.
And then she was fired.
Now, when you’re giving your time and expertise for free, it’s nearly impossible to be fired. But Kay managed.
Here’s the thing you have to know about Kay. She was outspoken. She said exactly what she thought, often loudly and with colorful words. Some of the paid staff were not appreciative when Kay informed them of how she thought things ought to be run, but her heart was always in the right place. And unlike some people who only say what they think when it’s negative, Kay said what she thought when it was positive, too. She was as quick with a compliment as she was with a finger-wagging.
She was also a caretaker. Retiring from nursing meant she needed to find new patients to take care of, and she found them everywhere, people and animals alike. She was a fierce and tireless defender of anyone who needed a friend.
Fourteen years after Kay began volunteering, the aquarium installed a new exhibit featuring various creepy crawlies, including snakes. Kay hated snakes. And one of the snakes in this new exhibit was a huge anaconda, several feet long. It gave her such a case of the heebie jeebies that she didn’t even like walking down the hallway where the anaconda was housed. But it was part of the exhibit, so she learned about it and was prepared to stand near it and talk about it with visitors, because she was a pro.
It was during these times that she noticed something about the anaconda’s exhibit: It also had fish in it, and the fish were biting the anaconda, who had nowhere to go to escape them. Kay could see the bite marks on its skin. Well, that did it. Her protective instincts came roaring up, and she rushed to the anaconda’s defense. Stalking into the volunteer break area, she picked up what she thought was a dry-erase pen (it wasn’t), and wrote a note on the white board that the animal husbandry staff used to post exhibit information for the volunteers. “It is INHUMANE treatment of the anaconda to have to suffer the bites of the fish in her tank!” she wrote.
The aquarists found this insulting, and complained to the volunteer coordinator. I’m not sure exactly what happened after that, but clearly it was a case of towering mismanagement, because instead of smoothing feathers and acting as a liaison between the volunteer and the animal husbandry staff, the coordinator fired Kay. (I have the letter of termination, and it’s an embarrassment to the aquarium.) After 14 years of exemplary service, Kay was kicked out because she defended a snake, of all things — the one animal she could not stand.
I think that story says everything about Kay. She was the most giving and loving person on earth, and could not bear to stand by in silence if she thought someone, or something, was being mistreated or needed help. Not even a giant snake.
She also refused to stand by when she felt she was being mistreated, which brings me to another story. Years ago, Kay went on a housecleaning tear and filled a box with books to sell. She took them to the local used bookstore, sold them to the owner, and went home feeling quite accomplished. But a week or so later, when she went to get one of her cooking reference books, she realized with horror that it had somehow ended up in that box. This was a large and expensive reference book, and she most certainly had not meant to sell it. She immediately called the bookstore owner, explained what had happened, and asked to meet him so that she could return the money he’d paid her, and he could return the book.
The owner refused. “All sales are final,” he said, and then informed her that if she wanted to buy the book back from him, she could do so at the current shelf price.
You can imagine how well that was received. Kay was incensed at this treatment, and resolved that hell would freeze over before she’d pay full price to buy back the book she hadn’t meant to sell. So she enlisted the help of a friend, put on a long coat, and went to the bookstore. While the friend spoke with the owner to distract him, Kay shoplifted her book right off the shelf, tucked it in her coat, and walked out with it. It was her first and only experience with thievery.
I have always loved the image of Kay, no doubt dressed to the nines as she always was, looking like a sweet old lady (she was probably 65 at the time) as she stole back her book in defiance. If she didn’t have a thing about snakes, I’d have proposed that she adopt the old Gadsden flag as her own. It certainly applied to her:
…except in her case, the flag should say DON’T TREAD ON ME (OR ANYONE UNDER MY PROTECTION).
The list of animals and people who benefitted from Kay’s protection, advice, ministrations, and medical advocacy is nearly unending. She touched so many lives, be they two-legged, four-legged, or no-legged. If you got in trouble due to your own bad decision-making, she’d give you a good dose of tough love and tell you to straighten out — but she’d also pitch in and help you straighten out. Her words were never empty.
Kay had cervical cancer decades ago, back when that diagnosis was practically a death sentence. It was also in the early days of radiation therapy, when doses were much, much more powerful than they are today. She beat the cancer, but the radiation therapy cooked her entire pelvic region, including her internal organs. She spent the rest of her life dealing with damaged and failing organs, and I know she was often in great pain. But she never felt sorry for herself. She would loudly express her annoyance with the inconveniences her body caused her, and hated when it prevented her from doing something she wanted to do. But where some would carry their lifelong medical issues as a banner saying “I deserve sympathy,” Kay focused her sympathy on others whom she felt needed it more. She had no patience for her own infirmities; they just got in her way.
It’s ironic that of the many physical issues which could have killed her, it was a second, silent cancer that got her in the end. She had a cough at the beginning of the year which never got better, but she was focused on the more immediate issue of a bladder operation and several infections, so she didn’t get the cough checked out until April. It turned out to be lung cancer, which had already spread to her liver. It was inoperable and moving fast.
In typical Kay fashion, she went out on her own terms. She refused treatment, because she wanted her final days to be spent peacefully at home, not rushing back and forth for therapy treatments that would have made her sick and miserable. She got her affairs in order, talked to the people she wanted to talk to, made sure her two rescue dogs had a good home, and planned her own memorial. Of course it would be a party. Here’s what she wrote me:
I have decided to have a “pinch party,” my term. I have a marvelous oblong crystal dish/vase, and will use a silver gravy ladle with something fun to put ashes in, and people can help themselves and do what they want with them or not — think that sounds fun. And also want everyone to tipple my favorite drink of Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila straight, which I haven’t been able to have for 25 years, to cheer me on. And they can come nude as far as I am concerned.
And that is Kay all over.
It was only five and a half weeks between her diagnosis and her death. I am still shocked at how quickly it happened, and sad that I didn’t get the chance to speak with her more. I phoned her last week and had planned to call again this week, but…we ran out of time.
Kay, my wonderful friend, I will definitely tipple to cheer you on. We may not have agreed on religion, but I know one thing for sure: If there is a God and a heaven, then you went directly to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. And the first thing you did upon arrival was give him a piece of your mind on how poorly things are run down here.
I know you told it to ‘em straight, Kay. You always did.