A Life: Kristi Kistler, 1946 - 2013; 'She Was the Go-To Person for Everyone'
Lebanon — Two years after her husband Charlie Drake died at age 60, Kristi Kistler last August was preparing their house on Hardy Hill for sale and consolidating her possessions for a move to smaller quarters in Wilder.
In the midst of her labors, Kistler learned that her stepson-in-law Joel Thill would be coming to New England on a business trip, and immediately made room at the inn.
The way she always did.
“When Joel got to the house his room was all made up, his towels laid out, and his favorite beer stocked in the fridge,” Kistler’s stepdaughter Ziven Drake recalled last week. “That is just what Kristi loved to do. Both she and my father were happiest when the house was full of people and laughter and music and food.”
Barely two weeks later, the 67-year-old Kistler died while tending her garden on Hardy Hill, triggering memories of the way she and Drake, a schoolteacher-turned-building contractor, opened their doors and their arms to family, friends, Kistler’s clients and colleagues at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and to a succession of cats and dogs, during their quarter-century together.
“Our mother (Charlotte Kistler) moved to New Hampshire in 1989 and lived with them until she died in 1993,” Kistler’s sister Heidi Kistler said. “They provided a wonderful life for her in her last years.”
Before long, Kristi Kistler was detouring daily to Wheatley Street in Lebanon to look in on Charlie’s mother, Mary Drake, en route to and from work at DHMC. From the mid-1990s until Mary’s death in 2004, she dropped off in the morning and picked up at night one of the rescue golden retrievers who kept her mother-in-law company and received hours of brushing and mutual admiration in return — a logical evolution from the therapy dogs Kistler brought to work during her early years as activities director at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital’s mental-health clinic.
“There was a dachshund named Greta, and Merry, a miniature poodle,” said Orford resident Jenny Littlewood, Kistler’s colleague and close friend since the early 1970s. “It was a great way to get through to people. She was the kind of person who really liked talking to people, getting interested in their life.”
Kistler continued winning people over — colleagues and health-insurance bureaucrats as well as patients — after moving in 1994 to what is now DHMC’s office of care management, as the medical center’s Medicaid specialist for New Hampshire and Vermont.
“She really developed and grew her role,” said Michele Blanchard, Kistler’s supervisor in care management. “It was almost like it was tailor-made for her. She was always, no matter how complex the situation, saying — it was her mantra — ‘the patient is at the center of all this. The patient and the family.’ That’s the way she saw it with every patient, from children to the elderly population. And it went beyond the walls of Dartmouth-Hitchcock. She built these incredible relationships with Medicaid staff in both states.
“She was a go-to person for everyone.”
At home as well as at work.
“I cannot recall a single day when Kristi did not have dinner on the table for us,” said Ziven Drake, who with sister Farrell ‘Roo’ Drake spent childhood weekends and some summer time with their father and stepmother, and who lived with them for her last few years of high school. “She worked all day taking care of people at DHMC, and would come home and talk about how terrible she sometimes felt when the system had failed them. When they would need assistance and it was out of her control. All she ever wanted to do was take care of everyone. She would come home and make dinner, clean dinner up, read the paper, retire to bed, and wake up and do it all over again.”
And somehow, she would find time to make life more than a cycle of work-eat-sleep …
“Some of my most favorite early memories of life with them was spending time outside in the two gardens my father built and that the two of them spent countless hours tending each weekend,” Ziven Drake continued. “The sunflowers seemed, at the time, to be a million feet tall, and I always loved planting each row at the beginning of the growing season. We would always go and have a big harvest toward the middle/end of summer once things were ready to eat.”
Kistler cultivated friends the same way.
“Everybody loved her,” Littlewood said. “She exuded that aura of friendliness and love, and everybody responded to it.”
She reaped what she sowed, especially after Drake developed the rare form of cancer that he would battle for several years, with countless procedures and experimental treatments, before his kidneys failed in November of 2011.
“Some of the people in our department have participated in honor of her husband in the Prouty (benefit bicycle ride for the Norris Cotton Cancer Center) as ‘Charlie’s Angels,’” Blanchard said.
Added Littlewood: “After Charlie died, Kristi went back to thank the hospital staff who treated him, and they said, ‘You don’t owe us any thanks. We owe you the thanks.”
Ziven Drake couldn’t imagine finding enough ways to thank her stepmother for the way she took early retirement to care for Charlie between and during his stints of inpatient and outpatient treatment.
“I have never seen somebody so devoted and accepting of another human as I did with her towards my dad,” the younger Drake said. “She was always there for him. Always. When he started to get very, very sick she learned how to give home IV infusions.”
For a while after Charlie died, friends and family wondered whether Kristi Kistler — with Ziven serving in the Air National Guard and Roo living in California — might move away from the more painful memories, perhaps closer to her sister in upstate New York, where they had grown up and where Kristi went to college.
“By the end of 2012, she was talking more about staying,” Heidi Kistler said. “She had a very supportive group of friends that she developed over the years, and she’d gotten close with Charlie’s sisters. They really became family to her, also.”
So Kistler found the little place in Wilder, just the right size for her and the two cats whom she and Charlie had adopted after their elderly owners died, and began mapping the next phase in her Upper Valley life.
So as hard as it was to be overseas when the call came about her stepmother — no chance to say goodbye — Ziven Drake could think of worse ways for Kristi Kistler to leave.
“She was puttering around her garden on a beautiful New England late-summer day,” Drake said. “It’s almost like she returned to the happiest place where I remember her and Dad spending so much time together.”
David Corriveau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 603-727-3304