Kathryn Schulz, LOST & FOUND

Kathryn Schulz, LOST & FOUND

Zibby is joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kathryn Schulz to talk about her memoir, Lost & Found, which looks at the wide-ranging experiences of loss and discovery. Kathryn shares her thoughts on what makes a good death and whether that moniker is fair to those grieving, as well as what she wishes her father lived to see. The two also discuss what it was like for Kathryn to win the Pulitzer, the lessons she learned from watching her parents’ relationship, and why she wanted to analyze what we mean by each of the words lost, and, and found.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kathryn. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Lost & Found: A Memoir.

Kathryn Schulz: Thank you so much for having me on the program.

Zibby: FYI, this was one of the titles that I was going to call my memoir, Bookends, which is coming out. I was like, I want to call it Lost & Found. It was taken by you.

Kathryn: That is so funny. I gather you can’t copyright a title, so feel free to use it also. Although, yours sounds lovely. I wouldn’t change it.

Zibby: No, no, no. It’s great. It is a great title, so there you go, as is the cover and everything. Your reflections on the concepts of loss and being found and your last section, And, were very thought-provoking and interesting. You are, oh, my gosh, just such an introspective — I feel like I learned so much. You brought in so much knowledge in addition to your own personal experience. Why don’t you tell listeners, if they don’t already know, what Lost & Found is about?

Kathryn: Sure, I would be happy to. Truth in advertising, we were discussing the title, and the title actually tells you quite a lot about how the book works. It’s in three parts. The first part is Lost. The second part is Found. The third part, the kind of strange part at the end, is And. The Lost part is anchored in the story of the death of my father and my grief afterward, but it’s actually a much larger exploration of this very strange category of loss. I got interested in why it is that we talk about losing our loved ones but also our car keys and our cell phones and our elections and our faith and our minds. We just put an enormous number of things, very, very different things, into the same category. I was interested in exploring that larger idea of loss, again, with the story of my grief over my dad at the heart of that. Then the Found section is the perfect mirror image of that. It’s an exploration of the equally weird category of discovery that somehow contains the missing sock that we finally find after seven wash cycles but also dinosaur fossils and vaccines for global pandemics and faith and the love of our lives. That section of the book is, in fact, anchored in a love story. It’s about meeting and falling in love with my partner. Then the final section of the book, that And section at the end, came about because I had the experience of finding my partner and losing my father in pretty quick succession. It’s partly about that, about the way that in grown-up life we would all love to just be falling in love or, for that matter, to just be grieving someone we loved and not have to do anything else. Inevitably, we’re doing many, many things at once and feeling many things at once. It is about that kind of “and” quality of life and about connection, including not just the connections between love and grief and joy and sorrow, but also the connections among all of us.

Zibby: That was a beautiful description. It’s true. Loss, it would be so convenient if you could literally just do what they did in the olden days and lock yourself away and deal with it, but that is not the case at all. You don’t have a second. Emails continue to come in. Everything keeps going at its warp speed. It’s almost hard to process.

Kathryn: I think that’s right. It’s a strange thing. Even with a difficult emotion — in a way, this makes a lot of sense — we want to be left alone with it. We want to just be able to sit there inside it. I think that impulse makes a lot of sense. It’s deeply connected to just how very much we loved the person that we lost when we’re grieving. I think on balance, it’s probably a good thing that life doesn’t operate that way, that something else is always happening. Something else demands our attention. We don’t get to just sit there in our grief.

Zibby: That’s true.

Kathryn: We have to pay attention to our toddler or our partner or our job or whatever it may be.

Zibby: We have this whole thing called Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve because nothing stops. The tantrums don’t stop. Nothing stops, but you’re right, the distraction can be a blessing as well. You made a really interesting point in the beginning in the Lost section when you — I’m so sorry for the loss of your father. You talked about how it doesn’t matter how old they are. We’re all just assuming as long as they get to a certain age, fine. We’ll all be fine with it. Of course, that’s not true. When you lose someone you love at any age, it’s always just beyond sad. There’s no excuse for it. Then you have to think about, if everybody’s just walking around waiting to die, how do you make sense of walking through life and having an ordinary day?

Kathryn: That’s exactly right. Part of what was interesting to me about my dad’s death and part of what I really wanted to write about was that it was in no ways extraordinary in the sense that it happened to all of us and it happened to my father at a relatively normal stage of life. He was seventy-four years old. It was in no ways a tragedy. We’re surrounded by tragic deaths. You and I are speaking after the truly tragic deaths at an elementary school in Texas. Children dying is a tragedy. Someone being cut down young of a disease or an accident or act of violence is a tragedy. Someone dying in relative old age after an incredibly rich and interesting and good life surrounded by their loved ones and hopefully not in much pain and relatively at peace, that was my father’s death. That is not a tragedy. That is almost as close as we can get to the idea of a good death. Part of what was interesting to me is it is still extremely not good. You’re right, there’s no age, there’s no circumstances under which it is absolves you of grieving. That’s not to say I’m not grateful for my father living as long as he did. It’s not to say I’m not grateful for the kinds of peace that attended his death in various ways. Do I wish my father had lived to be ninety-four instead of seventy-four? Of course. I think even people who lose their parents and loved ones at ninety-four long for more. That’s the nature of love. You want it to go on and on and on. One of the real challenges of life is you have to square that with the fact that, actually, nothing and no one goes on and on and on forever.

Zibby: This is a little bit depressing, but it’s true. I think about this stuff all the time. Not depressing. It is fact. It is true. My grandmother passed away at ninety-seven. I still think about her. I still miss her. It doesn’t matter. Nothing can make it better when somebody who should be on this earth is no longer on this earth. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it no matter what the age. Even though we’re trained for so long to expect it later, truly, it’s no more palatable than any earlier.

Kathryn: I think that’s right. Many, many, many things can make a death worse and more difficult, but very few things can make it altogether that much better beyond a certain basic point of gratitude.

Zibby: I had this delusional moment a little while ago when there was just so much grief and loss and everything. I was like, I wonder if there’s a way to get rid of grief. If you could just let people know over and over again to expect it — maybe the grief is the shock and absence of someone. Could you prepare a child, say, enough that you could spare them the heartbreak of grief? Of course, I realized that that would be almost impossible. Even if I tried my hardest, you can’t protect against all the many ways that the death itself is traumatic and terrible, which happens sometimes — anyway, so I gave up.

Kathryn: I don’t think it’s foolish to ask the question. A great many very serious religious traditions have tried to do exactly as you say, to remind people — religious and philosophical traditions — to try to make the inevitability of death and loss so omnipresent and so considered and so mundane that people will be able to live more peacefully and joyful within them. That’s the idea of nonattachment, the notion that we bring about a lot of our own pain by refusing to acknowledge the transience of all things. These are very serious and very interesting ideas. We can only be who we are. I’m not everyone who’s ever lived. I’m not a Buddhist monk. I believe people who have achieved this kind of incredible peace and enlightenment around mortality. I know people. I have people in my daily life who are far less troubled by the idea of death, especially a good death as my father’s was, than I am. I personally seem to not be wired for the peaceful version.

Zibby: It’s hard to get rid of that sense of longing. That’s really what it is. It’s the longing and the missing. I’m glad that my theory is now a philosophical tradition. I feel very validated in what I thought was a crazy thought.

Kathryn: No, not at all. Talk to the stoics. Talk to the Buddhists. They’re in your camp. They believe it is possible to not make ourselves miserable over this kind of thing.

Zibby: It’s really my kids. I want to know my kids are okay and that they won’t miss me. I wish I could figure out a way that they’ll be fine. It’s okay. If I could read just one really poignant scene in your book — wait, hold on, now I need my glasses. This is so pathetic. Getting older is just not fun. Here we go. This is about your father. You said, “Even so, for a while longer, he endured. I mean, his him-ness, his Isaac-ness, that inexplicable, assertive bit of self in each of us. A week after, he had ceased to speak, having ignored every request made of him by a constant stream of medical professionals. Mr. Schultz, can you wiggle your toes? Mr. Schultz, can you squeeze my hand? My father chose to respond to one final command. Mr. Schultz, we learned to our amusement, could still stick out his tongue, but his sweetest volunteer movement which he retained almost to the end was the ability to kiss my mother. Whenever she leaned in close to brush his lips, he puckered up and returned the same brief, adoring gesture I had seen all my days.” Oh, my god, I’m going to cry. “In front of my sister and me at least, it was my parents’ hello and goodbye, their ‘Sweet dreams’ and ‘I’m only teasing,’ their ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘You’re beautiful’ and ‘I love you,’ the basic punctuation mark of their common language, the sign and seal of fifty years of happiness.” Oh, my gosh, just this image of him still kissing when he has lost all of his basic faculties, I’m emotional. Tell me how you feel even hearing it again.

Kathryn: It’s actually very moving to hear you read it. I appreciate your emotional openness in being moved yourself by reading it out loud. I am brought back to the incredibleness of that experience and the beauty of it. It is true. By then, my father had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks. He had not been able to speak for a week for no reason any of us understood. He was a little bit in freefall in terms of all of his various organ systems starting to fail him. Yet my mother’s presence just jolted alive in him, some very deep and fundamental and long-standing impulse of love and tenderness and connection. It’s true what I say. One of the last things he was able to do was return her kiss. It was just so beautiful. A lot about grief is not beautiful. A lot about dying is not beautiful, but a few things are. The capacity of that love to endure that way and to make itself manifest all the way to the end was very, very beautiful to me.

Zibby: I’m so grateful that you wrote it. In a way, it gives a lot of hope that despite things that factually don’t even make sense, that affection and love and feeling and all of that can break through. I’m glad you got to see that. I’m glad you had that as a model of a relationship, especially as you then share with us about your own relationship starting and how that goes. I feel like there are two schools of thought. One is, my parents were so happy. I can’t have something as great. Why try? Another is, my parents were miserable. I’m determined to have a happy relationship. How do you feel the model of having very happy parents has affected you?

Kathryn: Oh, I just feel incredibly fortunate. I think that the behavior we grow up around is incredibly influential. I’m obviously not the only person to think this. I think that of all the kinds of privilege and good fortune that we talk about today — I’m lucky. I’m mindful I’m the recipient of most of those, frankly. I think one of the great privileges you can grow up with is the privilege to grow up in a happy family. I saw my parents not, of course, just on my dad’s deathbed, but all of my days loving each other and being tender to each other and taking care of each other, which isn’t to say they didn’t fight or have difficult moments or have differences. They were very different people in some ways. They adored each other. They did not hide that adoration. To be honest, I think even the hard moments, even watching them fight or disagree or navigate the ways that they were very, very different over years and decades taught me everything I could possibly need to know to build a happy relationship myself. It gave me something to aspire to.

Beyond aspiration, I think some of it, it’s given. It’s wired into you. It’s your sense, starting from your earliest days, of what love looks like and what it feels like and what it is. I think that’s an incredible gift to give to children. I am so grateful for that here in my own marriage. It’s interesting. I hope that neither my partner nor I encounter a deathbed for preferably another eight or nine hundred years. It is so easy for me to believe that the last impulse in my body and my brain and my heart would be to return her kiss. I just feel like the kind of solace and comfort and connection and sharing that happens in a relationship — I know in my full, healthy, current capacities that all I ever want to do is go to bed curled up against her at night and wake up and see her first thing in the morning. Somehow, that feels like a mundane, daily truth, but also a deep, existential one. Of course, she would be where I would turn at every beginning and ending, not just of the days. I can understand my parents’ love. I’m grateful for it because in some very concrete ways, I feel like it enabled mine.

Zibby: Man, this is a tissue fest for me here.

Kathryn: Sorry about that.

Zibby: No, it’s poignant and beautiful in such a nice way. It really is. Switching gears, as they say, for a moment, you are the winner of Pulitzer Prize, staff writer for The New Yorker. What was it like to win the Pulitzer Prize? That is such a big deal. Can you tell me about that experience a little bit?

Kathryn: Yeah, I’d be happy to. You’ll appreciate — in the context of the conversation, one of the overarching and enduring feelings about it is I’m unbelievably glad it happened when my dad was will alive. My dad just adored and doted on his children in the most wonderful possible way. My dad would’ve adored and doted on us, my sister and me, even if, far from ever winning a prize, he had been bailing us out of jail once a month. He loved us. He loved us unconditionally and wanted nothing more than for us to be happy and to live meaningful lives. It was a great pleasure for me. I can’t overstate the extent to which the pleasure of winning that was the pleasure of getting to call my parents and tell them. It was really thrilling. I will not lie about that. I was at home at work on a piece on some random Sunday night. My cell phone rang. I picked it up and looked at it. It said “David Remnick’s Cell Phone.” When David Remnick is calling you on his cell phone, either you’re extremely behind on a piece, which is not uncommon for me, or something interesting is happening. It was really, really thrilling. My partner and I lived down in Maryland. This is before our baby was born, so we had the luxury of being able to just get in the car right away and head up to New York. She was thrilled and incredibly sweet about it and convened a bunch of friends up there. It was an absolute thrill, of course, an absolute honor. I’m really mindful of the incredible work my colleagues — I don’t just mean at The New Yorker, obviously. My colleagues in the broadest sense, my fellow journalists, just produce so much amazing work every year. It’s quite hard to feel like something as capricious as a prize is ever truly earned, but I’m certainly very honored.

Zibby: That’s so nice. There is something to that. If you won something so important but couldn’t share it with people closest to you in your life, would it matter? I guess I would take the Pulitzer Prize, but you know what I mean. Part of it is the sharing of success. I was talking to my husband about that. He lost his mother to COVID. It’s been almost two years. My grandmother, who I mentioned who I was extremely close to who ninety-seven, she was my biggest advocate for writing, always asking me if I was writing. I’ve been trying to sell this book for so long. I just got the final copy. I was like, “Ugh, she was so close. She waited until she was ninety-seven, and I still couldn’t pull this thing off in time. I’m so sad that she just missed it. She would’ve been more excited for me than anyone on the planet.” My husband was like, “That’s how I feel with my mom.” He’s a producer. He has this movie. He’s like, “That’s how I feel about my mom. How could she not be seeing it?” Our only conciliation to each other was sort of like, well, they still know. On some level, we feel like they’re with us and that they know and that they are happy. There is something to sharing the victory with those who came before us and who are our biggest fans. I’m so happy your dad was there.

Kathryn: Obviously for me, the most acute form of that has nothing to do with professional success of any kind. It’s that my father did not get to meet my daughter. She, of course, will never get to meet him. There’s nothing to be done about it. It is what it is. I know that she would’ve brought him so much joy. He would’ve brought her so much joy. He loved babies. I know she would’ve just adored him. I often yearn, literally, for even just one picture, one moment together that I could point to for her and say, that’s you with your grandpa.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Kathryn: It’s okay. We talk a lot about who he was.

Zibby: I know, but I’m still sorry. I’m still sad for all of you that you don’t get to have that. Do you feel, on some level, like he’s still here in some way? Do you believe in that at all or that he’s watching over, that the people who have passed, that there’s something more than science can explain?

Kathryn: I certainly think there’s something more than science can explain in the sense that — I am a huge believer in science. I admire scientists. I also think we’re at the beginning of a very, very long road of making sense of ourselves and the earth and cosmos. By no means do I think everything already has a clear explanation. One of the wonderful things to me about life is that it’s full of mysteries. I wish I could say that I believed that my father was, in some sense, enduring as who he was and watching over my life and watching over my daughter’s life. It’s such a beautiful idea. I do, on some level, envy people who truly feel that. I think it’s a gift. I think it’s a way you feel or a way you don’t feel. I don’t feel that way. I’m prepared all the time to be humbled by everything we don’t know and humbled, as I said, by the grand mysteries of existence. I can’t say that I feel that I know that my dad, in some form, still exists and knows what’s going on in my life.

Zibby: I know your examination of all of this is in the book. You wrestle with some of these topics. What are you working on now? What could possibly come after?

Kathryn: Well, you know, moms don’t have to fill in the blank. What am I working on? Mostly, I’m still just trying to be a part of the grand adventure of this book coming out into the world and talking to folks like you and your listeners and really enjoying hearing readers of this book, which has been a real pleasure of publishing. I’ve heard a lot of other people’s grief stories and a lot of other people’s love stories. That’s been really delightful. Most of my attention is still on that. I am back at the magazine trying to eke out some pieces when I can. Mostly, I’m still focused on the book right now.

Zibby: That is just fine. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Kathryn: It’s such a broad question.

Zibby: I know. Sorry. Take it any direction you want.

Kathryn: No, it’s totally fine. Advice exists at every scale of the job and of the craft. I would say that if you feel you have something you want to write and it feels urgent to you and interesting to you and like something that can hold your attention for long enough to actually get the job done, which can be a very, very long time, then you’re probably right. You should trust that feeling. Beyond that, there are so many things to be said about how to write well and how to build communities of writers and how to find editors and how to get your work done. All of that is incredibly important, but none of it is as important as simply sitting down in the chair and doing the writing. Nothing can happen and nothing matters in terms of a literary community or the publication process or refining something you have written, nothing can happen until you sit down and, to the best of your abilities, commit your thoughts to the page. Mostly, my advice is just that old-school advice of, sit down in the chair.

Zibby: It’s good advice for a reason. Kathryn, thank you. Thank you for sharing your experience in the book and over this conversation. Thank you for writing with such beauty that even reading it for the second time brought tears to my eyes and giving me hope, hope that love is our most fundamental human thing that we all share and how important love is. I know that sounds hokey, but I mean it. Thank you.

Kathryn: You don’t have to apologize for it sounding hokey to me. I very much believe in it. That’s the core of the book. I’m glad you feel that way as well.

Zibby: Thank you so much.

Kathryn: Thanks for having me on. It’s lovely to talk.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Kathryn Schulz, LOST & FOUND

LOST & FOUND by Kathryn Schulz

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