She Was Here, Until She Wasn’t

Whoever expects the dentist will be funny? You’re on your back in that clovey-smelling room, fingers clenched, tense, on edge, bright light in your face awaiting the moment when that chrome toothpick starts going rih-rih-rih in the most vulnerable crevasses of your teeth, and the dentist says something like, “Hey, isn’t today the best day of your life to this point?” and then starts laughing at her own corny joke, not just a laugh, but a deep hyuk-hyuk-hyuk, and you laugh, and the hygienist laughs, not so much at the joke itself but at the dentist’s uncontrolled and infectious laughter.

I hooked up with Dr. Kate Brokaw about six years ago, quite by chance. You knew she was walking down the hall because you could hear people laughing as she went by, so that by the time she got to your cubicle, all she had to do was talk and you’d laugh.

And she was a pretty good dentist to boot. In her mid-thirties, she found a couple of things our prior dentist had missed. She recommended a root canal one time, declining to do it herself even though she felt capable, sending me to an endodontist instead so the procedure would be done as well as it could. “She sure keeps this place loose,” I said to the receptionist, who replied she didn’t know what they’d do without her.

Then there was the time Dr. Brokaw asked if I was doing anything fun over the weekend while poking through my molars and bicuspids. No, I said, did she? “My boyfriend and I are going to the Garth Brooks concert,” she said, “and I better get a ring out of it.”

She did, becoming Kate McDowell. She left the office and bought her own practice in Boulder, and I was happy for her.

A few days ago, she was killed, the victim of a murder-suicide by her husband. She was just forty, and as I read the news clip, I kept hoping it was someone else, a different Kate McDowell, that it was all a big mistake. It wasn’t.

Anyone who’s lost someone close, especially a young person, knows the feeling of stunned shock and cosmic betrayal. Dr. Brokaw (I never got used to McDowell) was about the same age as my own kids, and when I read of her murder, I had much the same feelings I experienced years ago, when my nephew, another bright star and about her age, was killed by a drunk driver. You go through all the Kuebler-Ross stages, but the one you can’t get past–and never, ever will–is the feeling of measureless injustice. There is no answer, and never will be, to “why.”

Looking for answers leads to the what-if’s. Authorities cited domestic violence but haven’t revealed the cause of death, though I’m assuming a gun was involved. One thing about gun ownership is that someone with a gun is more likely to do something he (or she) wouldn’t otherwise do when conflict erupts. Moreover, domestic violence events are seldom one-offs, and more than half the women killed in 2017 died at the hands of a partner or family member. What if Colorado had a Red Flag Law? Would her death have been prevented?

And then, the explosive anger. What kind of anger erupted for a guy to end her life and think it was some kind of answer? In my lifetime, it has seemed that many men are put off by certain women. Smart, well-educated women. Funny women. Financially-successful women. Dr. Brokaw was all of these and more, but was the guy so threatened and vulnerable in his own mind that he crossed the line from merely put off to obscene rage? Was a flight to anger for him a thing?

Might a friend or relative noticed something wasn’t all copacetic and somehow intervened? Again, a what-if. Looking for answers where there may not be any.

Maybe there’s a larger question of a rise in anger throughout society. Indignant rage proliferates on cable news, for example, and every day, the newspaper has a series of stories on someone getting pissed off outside a bar or whatever and shooting someone else. About eight months ago, some guy in Westminster got pissed off in a road rage incident and shot a mother and her 11-year-old son in a shopping center parking lot, killing the boy. I could go on and on with similar stories, but it seems as though anger has become the strongest cultural force in our society.

Maybe no firearm was involved in this tragedy, but that doesn’t undo the fact that someone tried to solve a problem by killing someone. Rage, rage, the dying of the light, wrote Dylan Thomas.

So anyway, where am I going with this? I don’t know. I wish I did.