Some bridges are especially far. Of all the people I met, Beverly Bergman's may have been the longest. She was 35, a year out of an abusive marriage and supporting her 15-year-old son, Matthew; a new boyfriend informed her he'd tested positive for HIV. When she learned she had it too, she did not tell a soul: not her parents, not a friend, not her son. Not her shrink. This was 1987; AIDS paranoia was strong and sometimes vicious. There was talk of rounding up patients and shipping them off to camps. If word got out, she knew she risked an even more dangerous isolation. Even with other patients, she was separate; support groups were mostly composed of gay men. It's hard to imagine a more joyless place: starkly alone, with a son to raise and what was then virtually a death sentence. "My advice to you is to go home and make out a will," the doctor who delivered the news had said. What she did instead was become a painter.
"I don't know why I didn't think I should just get a job and get a medical plan in place," she says. "But I knew I only had a certain amount of time left, and this is how I wanted to use it."
For 13 years, she'd run a lingerie store with her husband; now she worked graphic design jobs in the afternoon and threw herself into her courses at the Art Students League. In the beginning, she did not show flamboyant promise. "The first three paintings I brought home were of three very different people, and my son said, 'Gee, Mom, are they all related?'" But as she channeled her grief, fury, and hope, she began to produce work that was extraordinary in its intensity, its nuance.
Nine years after the 1987 diagnosis, she had her first solo show and sold a third of the paintings. A year later, she was put on a triple cocktail of HIV drugs. When, six weeks after that, her viral load came back "undetectable," she finally told Matthew.
Her career as a painter is going strong. Her health is holding steady, and she's in a robust relationship after ten chaste years in which she just assumed she'd never be with another man. From the other side of the bridge, she says, "I know there are no sure things. Having gone through this gives me a sense of freedom. What's the point of living a half life because you're scared of doing something else? People are so afraid of the unknown, but I've been schooled in the unknown a bunch of times."
As Bergman tells me her story, I think, as I have with each person, "If she could only have known it would turn out okay!" But that's the kicker with second chances—you don't. They're nonnegotiable leaps of faith. Margaret Kustermann, for instance, took an enormous one when she decided to become an actor. In her 50s. After years of being a Chicago teacher but secretly dreaming about this other life she'd yearned for since she was a kid.
Hardly anyone becomes a full-time actor—at least not at that age, not without impressive credits, not at a less-than-perfect weight. Kustermann had always fought her weight, but as she signed up for workshops and worked toward a master's in theater, she thought, What the hell. Took yoga, saw a nutritionist, but didn't agonize. Parts started to come in. She quit teaching. I've done my job here, she realized. "What I haven't done is give myself a chance."
The roles came faster: in Antigone, No Place Like Home, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, at hip places like Lyric Opera, Steppenwolf, Smash Theatre. Most recently, she's been appearing in a one-woman show at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. She's claimed a part of herself that was always rightfully hers. "It's the happiest time of my life," she says. The years fell away as she came full circle. Now here she is, up onstage, a girl with a bright shining pearl.
"Katherine Russell Rich died on April 3, 2012, at age 56, after an almost 25-year (yes, that’s what we said) battle with cancer. While death, no matter how expected, is always a shock, to those of us who knew Kathy for the better part of three decades, the news feels especially unbelievable. Kathy was often on her way to or from one treatment or another—though she rarely talked about it—but she ALWAYS came back to have another lunch, teach another course, write another book, make another friend. Her intelligence, her fierceness, her just-the-right-amount-of-kooky sensibility shows through in her writing, and will inspire us always."
— Sara Nelson
How to Find Your Second Chance
We Hear You!