Kathy Brown remembers sitting at a meeting of her grief-support group. A woman in her 70s talked about losing her husband of 43 years, and, despite what seemed like having had a full life with him, she was still bitter and having dif- ficulty accepting his death.
“My husband died and I feel I’ve had something amputated,” Brown recalls the woman saying. “That’s exactly how felt,” Brown says as she sits at her dining room table in her State College home during a late-January day. “That’s the word — amputated, like an invisible limb was being ripped off. That’s how you feel when you lose a very good partner.”
Brown had lost her partner, her husband, Chris, in July 2012 in a skydiving accident a little more than a week before his 53rd birthday. He was skydiving in Mifflin County when his main shoot opened and became tangled, and his emergency shoot didn’t open.
Kathy and Chris had been together for 2 1⁄2 years, including seven months of marriage. Brown tried — and, in some ways, still is trying — to make sense of it all.
The older woman in the support group then said something that stuck with Brown even more. She said her husband had lived a complete life and, perhaps, she wasn’t done yet. She needed to complete her life.
Kathy says Chris would, on many occasions, say to her, “My life is complete now that you’re in it.”
“I didn’t echo his feelings,” Kathy, 51, says. “It’s probably because I needed to do something to complete my life. I’m stilling living, still looking for answers.”
One way she attempted to find answers and some reconciliation is by writing a book about another of Chris’s passions — impossible bottles, the art of placing ob- jects that seem too large to fit inside a glass bottle. Chris made around 350 of these bottles during his life, and he was in the process of writing a how-to book about this art form when he died.
Last year, Kathy completed Chris’s wish of writ- ing a book, and more. She wrote and published A Love Story of Impossible Bottles, and while the final part is a “how-to” on how to make impos- sible bottles, much of the book deals with parts of Chris’s and Kathy’s lives that are represented by specific bottles each made.
In the chapter “Miss You, Pap,” Kathy writes about the bottle Chris made to remember his grandfather, Pap. Among the objects Chris placed in a bottle were a small picture frame with Pap’s photo, three playing cards that represented the card game Thirty-One that he and his grandfather played, and a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Kathy, who was born and raised in China be- fore moving to America in 1986, did a bottle with objects that symbolized her journey to the United States. They included a small Statue of Liberty, a deck of cards with pictures of New York City, and a $1 million bill of play money representing “opportunities in this free land.”
She has put many of the bottles she created in a second-floor room of her home that is dedicated to Chris. Besides bottles, it has many things that Chris collected or that he was interested in during his life.
One of Kathy’s favorite bottles is the one she did for the Hardcore Mudd Run. A few months after Chris’s passing, members of his family and some of his friends wanted to participate in the Hardcore Mudd Run at Tussey Mountain. It was something that Chris had signed up to do.
It was while she stood in the rain for five or six hours and watched Chris’s son and daughter and some of his friends, as well as her daughter, Jackie, struggle through the eight-mile course that Kathy became inspired to not only create a bottle based on the run, but also write her book.
“Just seeing their spirit [as they ran the course], all of a sudden, in my mind, it came to me that I can build a bottle to commemorate this event,” she says. “Then the title, A Love Story of Impossible Bottles, came to me. Once I had this title, I felt excited. Now I know what I needed to do to write this book. It was more incentive, more motivation for me. ... It would talk about family and love. ... Once I got the title, everything fell into place.”
It took Kathy about 10 months to write the book. Since it’s been published she has received positive reaction from those who knew Chris as well as those who didn’t.
“I was amazed at her determination to honor my brother by completing his dream,” Chris’s sis- ter, Bert, says. “It’s more than I expected. ... This turned out to be a testament of their love.”
Kathy also received an e-mail from a man in Australia who had read the book. He wanted to make a bottle for his mother, who was dying from breast cancer. Kathy followed up with the man recently, and he had completed the bottle and it impressed his mother.
“I feel better that I can touch more people’s hearts ... I can accept Chris’s death more,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever completely gain a total peace but, each time something positive happens, I feel more accepting of his death.”
Chris and Kathy met in 1997. Both worked at Penn State doing IT work for the school — Chris worked as the IT director at the graduate school; Kathy is currently an IT manager at Information Technology Services at Penn State. When they met, both were married, so they had a strictly professional relationship. They started to date in early 2010 when they had found out each was single.
The two married in December 2011. Kathy says her life was perfect for the seven months they were married, which is why it’s been difficult to accept Chris’s death. She says she even questioned her faith in God.
“I thought I was trying to live my life right,” she says. “My first marriage failed. For nine years I was dedicated to my work and kids. I did not bring any turmoil to my life so my kids could have a secure and stable life. Finally, the time is right for Chris to come into my life. We’re both happy. We’re going to grow old together. Why take that away from me? What’s the purpose there? That was the feeling I carried for a long time.” She’s beginning to see a purpose through the book and her ability to create impossible bottles. For the bottle commemorating the Hardcore Mudd Run, which took her two months to finish, she was struggling with it when she says she felt Chris’s presence. She finally figured out how to do what she wanted to do — she stacked two decks of cards on top of each other and built a wooden platform around it to “illustrate a particularly difficult obstacle the team had to overcome.” The bottle has photos of the team members appearing as if they are going over the wall, and a photo of the team after they finished the run holding a life-size cardboard image of Chris.
Kathy wrote in the book, “The bottle became my new favorite because it represented Chris, family, and overcoming challenges.” Chris’s mother, Joy, says she is so grateful Chris found Kathy, and after reading the book, she would “hope people think twice about their marriage. So many don’t last. What those kids had in seven months, some people never have in a lifetime.”
When asked to describe Chris to someone who had never met him, Kathy says he was a very quiet person who didn’t say much, unless he had something important to say. But if you gave him a microphone on stage, he could talk for a long time. And he was always looking for “unique” things in life — like impossible bottles and skydiving.
She says he liked his “boy stuff” and was a “macho-man type” but also was very sensitive and soft-spoken — and he loved to show his affection for his wife. Three days before Chris’s death, he and Kathy sat outside Medlar Field at Lubrano Park to watch the July 4th fireworks. Chris whispered in Kathy’s ear, “I still can’t believe I am married to you and I love you so much.” On the morning of his death, Chris called from the airfield. Kathy was to meet him there later in the day. He ended the call saying, “One more thing honey — I love you very much!”
“So that always plays in my head,” Kathy says. “I can still be angry at him. I joke to some people to this day that I’m still mad at him and why did he go skydiving? But I remind myself of his love for me.”
And she’s also reminded of how much she learned from Chris during their time together — and even since his passing.
“You don’t want to be down, stuck in a time of sadness all the time,” she says. “You want to keep going and bring more positive to this world. All the things he left behind motivate me to try and do more.”
As for what Chris would think of her book, Kathy says, “I can see his face and big smile, and his saying, ‘You did it, baby!’ ”