Kimberly passed away peacefully

17 Jul

Kimberly Marie Kathan Pijanowski, a mother, teacher, scholar, and yogi, died on Thursday, July 17th, 2014 at 9:04 pm surrounded by friends and family. It is often a custom to announce the passing of someone who dies from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) by saying that today, “she won her battle with ALS” but Kim won her battle with ALS long before her last breath. She chose to banish fear and embrace each moment of her life as sacred. She opened her heart and continued to forge new and deeper friendships throughout her illness. She doggedly sought ways to improve towards becoming the person she aspired to be. In short, she rejected the notion that she should be defined as someone who was dying and instead embraced the life of someone who was living with a terminal disease.

Kim always found a way to take the ordinary opportunities in her life and shape them into an extraordinary experience…

People often study hard; Kim almost always got the highest grade in the class.

People go on vacations; Kim took a year off to hike national parks and ski out west.

People vote; Kim quit her job and helped Hillary Clinton get elected.

People visit Washington DC; Kim went to the White House Christmas party.

People learn how their government works; Kim was paid by the United States Congress to learn how the government works through a prestigious Madison Fellowship.

People take a yoga class; Kim lived at the Kripalu Yoga Center to learn how to teach yoga.

People are not afraid to look silly dancing at weddings; Kim did an imitation of the Elaine dance from Seinfeld that would bring the house down with laughter.

In many ways Kim did the same things other people did, she was just able to do them with more enthusiasm and less fear than most.

Kim’s legacy includes a bright, precocious son with a love of healthy food, a keen sense of adventure and Kim’s eyes, hundreds of students who were inspired to work harder and reach deep into their communities to make a difference, countless friends who carry her light in their hearts, and a loving family that raised her, supported her, and played with her all of her life, including her dear brother with whom Kim shared a bond unbounded by time or space.

She lived passionately, shared her light freely, danced wildly, cared deeply, worked intensely, and played with her heart wide open to all the possibilities that her life offered her.

A celebration of Kim’s life will be held at Vesper Point on Mount Sequoyah at 9am on Sunday, July 20th.


Update on Kim

15 Jul

Kim is currently resting comfortably. Today she was awake and responsive for most of the day – much more so than she has been since arriving at hospice. We used this surge of energy to share pictures, songs, poems, letters, emails and Facebook comments that have been pouring in from all over the country (and even across the pond). 

She has been, and continues to be, surrounded by people who love her and we are all so proud of her for the dignity and grace she is bringing to this moment. To all of you who shared your memories, danced in her honor, offered quick notes of encouragement, prayed, or offered a moment in quiet contemplation of Kim – we, on behalf of Kim, thank you.

As you train your thoughts on what Kim is experiencing right now I would like to turn your attention to her own words mere days after receiving her diagnosis of ALS:

 I am recognizing fear for what it is – an imagination of my mind which is not as real as the very deep stillness, peace and love that is the foundation of our existence and is abundantly available to us in every moment if we are aware enough to see it and feel it – and I am aware enough. To be blunt, if you are afraid for me, then you are not offering the fullest support for my experience. So, what can you do to help?  Refuse to fear for me and my family.  If you pray, please pray that I will l be given the grace to refuse the existence of fear in every moment.  I can promise you that my experience of that grace is visceral and very real.  If you do not pray, then just discipline your thoughts.  This is just as powerful.  Do not imagine any horrors for me.  Imagine and see and believe in the AMAZING gift that is being given to me. 


13 Jul

1595 days ago Kim showed me the uncontrollable twitch on her left hand. She told me that there were symptoms before then – that in retrospect she may have experienced her ALS for even as long as a year already by the time she she showed me the twitch – but for me, it was when it all started. She was missing keystrokes when she typed, dropping coffee mugs, tripping slightly as her foot dragged just a little bit on the floor. We knew there was a problem but we did not see the storm clouds ahead. 1595 days of ALS is like trying to comprehend how much money is a trillion dollars. Cognitively we know what the word means and we can do the math but it is very hard to truly understand it. Describing 1595 days of ALS is beyond any words I could muster so I won’t even try to explain it.

There are not many days left now. Over the past month Kim experienced a steep decline in her ability to breathe and her overall health reached the point where we are no longer able to give her the medical support she needs to be comfortable at home. We transferred her to a hospice home and today Kim is comfortably resting and surrounded by people who love her. She is not communicating much anymore but in the last week that she was talking she kept prompting me to tell people stories about her life. I talked about how she took a year off of work to camp and hike out west, being kissed by Ben Affleck (after he introduced her as his wife), attending the White House Christmas party, working for Hillary Clinton, meeting Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy and members of the Supreme Court. So I spoke for her and she beamed at watching someone hear about her adventures for the first time. Many of you reading this now have been a part of at least one of her stories already and some of you are a part of the story she is living right now,

A long time ago, long before we ever could have imagined we would end up living in Arkansas, Kim and I were talking about the future. I had an opportunity to be a Provost at a large urban community college and Kim was trying to figure out her next career move. Kim began to talk about a life with meaning, a life that made a difference. She told me she did not know how to do that but she wanted a, “big, big life!” — but that is not what I heard so I looked at her with a quizzical smirk and repeated back, “You want a big pig life?”

Living the Big Pig Life became our code phrase for finding meaning in our jobs and in our community. I chose an academic life and a year later I got an offer to work at the University of Arkansas – which as some of you may know, means that every day I am surrounded by symbols like these:

So Kim, who always believed in the power of signs, took this as an indication that something powerful would happen here, and it did. But the real story I want to tell is how in this college town of Big Pigs we discovered so many loving and supportive people. The meaningful life is not measured in what we accomplish or how we are recognized – it is defined by how we touch other people. How we love and our loved by others is the Big Pig life and I have felt that personally and saw that happen for Kim every day by friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, caregivers, and near strangers.

The last substantive conversation I had with Kim was about gratitude. She turned her heart towards the people in her life before she embarked on her last journey with this body. She wanted everyone to know how much she appreciated them. How much she appreciated her life.

Thank you.