Kathryn Tucker learned to dare at 18 as a competitive white-water kayaker. She is scarcely bigger than a girl even today, only five foot three. It was horrifically scary to race in rapids, she admits, and her parents warned her against it. But she was born a rebel:
“You know your life is totally in your own hands. You’re in a tiny boat with just a paddle through rapids. If you get in trouble, there is nearly zero chance anyone could rescue you.”
She had repeated experiences of being fully present in the moment as she competed around the world as a slalom kayak racer during her Trying Twenties. It’s what gave her the personal courage years later to seek to change the law in a highly controversial space – death and dying.
While still competing, she went to law school at Georgetown, in D.C. where the US Kayak Team trains. Her dream was to improve care and expand choices for dying patients in America. She married and had children in her early 30s. She was glad she had dared herself to do a dangerous sport when she was young, when the tolerance for risk is highest. “I noticed that after I had children, my risk tolerance plummeted, “ she reflects. “I wanted to be alive for my children. I wasn’t willing to risk my life. It’s survival of the species.”
But she relied on the courage she had learned in the rapids to stand at a podium in the silence of the Supreme Court and argue a case about liberty. She was only 35. In that crazy moment when she had to say, “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court…,” she had an out-of-body experience. Looking down on herself with the consciousness of a witness, she saw that she was calm. For an hour, she argued the case for terminal patients in great suffering to be given the compassionate choice to die peacefully, on their own terms.
She won. The Supreme Court lifted the injunction against the Oregon law—the first to allow people in extremis the right to die. That was in 1998. Since then, the petite attorney has argued many other cases and by 2014 two other states had passed right to die laws by 2014. That’s when Kathryn Tucker sued New York State for refusing to grant the same rights.
Her secret? She practices yoga and meditation and takes times to be in nature, all of which cultivate equanimity. These practices, learned from Buddhist teaching, have helped her to think past the fear of failure. “I do my very best job, and then I let go of attachment to the outcome.”