Kathryn Belle Long always loved Tallahassee, the city where she was born and raised, its rolling hills and its towering trees draped in Spanish moss like garland. One day, sitting on her bed in her childhood bedroom off Mahan Drive, she was inspired. Long cradled her guitar and began strumming chords.
Dogwood petals on the wind
To my true love I will send
Sweet breath that holds the spring
Breathes the morning.
Where my lover sings a song
In the hills where I was born
And it whispers through the dawn
The ballad is a love song to the city she adores.
It’s the city where she first fell in love with music and performed for audiences who adored the folksy sound created by Belle and the Band, her bandmates. It’s where she nurtured her melodic voice that won a regional Emmy.
Tallahassee is also the city where she drew her last breath. Long died Tuesday, May 23, after a 6-month battle with brain cancer. She was 42.
Difficult news before the holidays
On Nov. 14, while working as the performing arts teacher at Swift Creek Middle School, Long’s left arm began feeling numb. An acute pain would come and go.
Long sensed something was amiss and she sought the school nurse, who advised she go to the emergency room. No substitutes were readily available so she finished out the rest of the day.
“The kids had just left the room and I was picking up my bag and going to sit down and I stumbled a little bit and kind of fell,” Long recalled, in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat in mid-April. “Apparently I was having a seizure, and I didn’t know it.”
She was rendered aid on-site and soon the paramedics arrived and advised she go to the hospital, while at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, Long said she had several seizures, none of which caused her body to jerk out of control. Rather. Whenever someone tried to communicate with her, she said, “I’d just be gone.”
Long never remembered the seizures. Prior to recent events, she had no history of them.
By the next morning, doctors performed a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, and found a large mass the size of an orange on the right frontal lobe of her brain. She was given an option to operate that week to remove as much as the surgeon could get out.
“He said there’s also a chance you might not make it through the surgery,” said Long, referring to the doctor. “I said OK, ‘Well, I’m going to need some time because I need to tell like my family and my friends how much I love them.”
Instead, after more thought, Long decided she needed more time and a second opinion. In less than a week, Long traveled to the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville to seek advisement from a brain cancer specialist. There, Long learned she had astrocytoma, an inoperable brain cancer that formed a tumor invading normal brain tissues.
The stunning news came a day before Thanksgiving. For the next few weeks and into the new year, Long was weak.
‘Maybe I can beat this’
Seizures persisted for Long and much of December and January were wiped from her memory. Her seizure medication needed to be adjusted.
In January alone, while undergoing chemotherapy, Long said she’d have several seizures daily.
A friend took a month off work to be with her. Later, Long was told how bad off she’d become and couldn’t walk short distances without falling over. By January’s end, Long’s meds were adjusted and she was lucid again. It was a huge gift.
“I would be talking to someone and standing up and then I would be on the floor,” Long said. “It was like it was just very odd. I wouldn’t know I was falling. I wouldn’t remember the fall or anything.”
Seeing her this way was hard, especially for her family and those who loved and knew her best. By February, Long, the youngest of her three siblings, began feeling like her old self.
“I felt like I had a little bit of life back in me. And that was kind of the moment I was like, maybe I can beat this,” said Long, her voice filled with hope and optimism.
At that moment, she didn’t want to know her prognosis. She only wanted to know what was needed to get better. While talking, Long said she’s at peace with her condition, not knowing then she’d pass away in roughly a month.
“I’m at the point now where I don’t think that this was put in my life to kill me,” she said. “I think it was put in my life to teach me.”
Local push to make Long’s song an official anthem
In her last days, she gained a deeper understanding of life, people and God’s love. Long, who grew up in a Baptist church, wasn’t overly religious but she believed in a higher power.
Whatever time she had left, Long wanted to be with those she loved and do what she loved — sing.
Her gift of song inspired a grassroots campaign to see her ode to Tallahassee become the official song for the city’s bicentennial celebration next year. A petition gained dozens of signatures after Ron Sachs, founder and chairman of public relations firm Sachs Media, was the chief force behind creating an online buzz about it.
Bicentennial planning:City of Tallahassee retreat looking ahead to 2020 plan and beyond
He’s convinced her song is the song.
It spoke to him, considering he’s lived in the capital city since the early 1990s and chose to raise three daughters in a city he’s grown to love and call home.
“When I heard the song, and knowing that next year is our bicentennial, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we adopted this song as one of its anthems if not the anthem’,” Sachs said.
Once he met Long and her boyfriend and bandmate, Mickey Abraham, he loved the song that much more. Sachs admired the idea of this Tallahassee native who studied performing arts in New York, became a Disney performer and returned home to teach children and still perform throughout the city, state and country.
“To me, if this young woman had lived to be 100, this song is part of her legacy. This is a love song to our community,” Sachs said.
There are no immediate plans to name the song as an anthem for Tallahassee’s bicentennial celebration. Anniversary coordinators are planning to create a playlist of songs featuring Tallahassee, including Long’s song, to be shared with the public in the future once plans are further along.
One last song
Long didn’t live to see her city turn 200 years old. But, two weeks ago, she gave music lovers one last gift — her voice — during an hourlong set with Abraham at the Suwanee Music Festival.
She’d been looking forward to singing. She felt strong enough to give it her all. By all accounts, she did.
“She’s so loved by the community for sure,” Abraham said.
In two weeks, the tumor had grown. Mentally, Abraham said she was deteriorating quite fast and began vomiting within the last week. After a couple of days with no progress, they went to the emergency room at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.
Then she was still speaking, just not as lucid. She watched 20-second Tik Tok videos dozens of times before a friend switched the video for her. Long soon took a turn for the worse.
“She just started having seizures in the hospital. And now today, no brain function is left,” said Abraham, in an interview with the Democrat on Tuesday afternoon.
That afternoon, he returned to Long’s home for the first time in days, just to make sure everything was in order before returning to be back at her side one more time.
Being back in her space, anchored by memories of their time together, family and friends popping in for visits and their love of music, he broke down. By all accounts, Abraham said, “she was kicking this thing’s butt.”
He’s still in disbelief that Long, the healthiest person he knew, the same woman who ate organic foods and exercised faithfully, was seemingly fine six months ago. But, in time, he’ll find comfort in knowing they made beautiful music and a beautiful life together.
He just wishes he could see her step on stage and sing, just once more.
Contact Reporter TaMaryn Waters at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @TaMarynWaters on Twitter.