We are pleased to announce the creation of the Kathleen Paternostro Morgan Memorial Scholarship Program! During 2013, we will recognize two deserving graduates from Hughesville High School who exemplify Kass’s spirit and dedication to sports, academics, and her community. With your help, we plan to expand this program in the future.
Please read below for the 2013 scholarship guidelines and criteria.
Kass loved life! She held many fond memories of her time spent in school close in her heart. So we are very pleased to be able to provide financial support to aspiring student athletes in this small way.
Purpose: To provide annual scholarships to deserving high school seniors who demonstrate Kathleen’s esteemed qualities and work ethic, including dedication to academics, sports, and the community in which they live.
Scholarship Amount: $300.00 (2 awards to be presented)
Frequency: Presented annually during graduation ceremonies at Hughesville High School.
Applicants must be a member of the graduating class.
Applicants must have participated in sports, with preference given to basketball and tennis, during their senior year.
Applicants must be attending college upon graduation.
Applicants must complete the scholarship application and write a 500-word essay.
Applications are available from Hughesville High School officials, and must be submitted by 15 May.
Applications may be submitted via direct mail to: Team Kass Foundation, PO Box 1862, Williamsport, PA 17703.
Two members of Kathleen’s family may elect to meet briefly with the nominees to determine the final scholarship recipient(s).
About Kathleen: Kathleen Paternostro Morgan was a 1990 graduate of Hughesville High School. A standout athlete, she played the number one singles position in girls tennis and was a starting member of the 1990 District IV championship girls basketball team. In addition to her love for sports, Kathleen had a creative spirit and was an accomplished artist. She graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Technology in 1992 with a degree in Food & Hospitality Management and worked within the hospitality industry for 20 years before her journey to Heaven in July 2012 at the young age of 40. She was the proud mother of Josephine, whom she loved with all of her heart.
I do not think that I noticed it at first. There was no way it was possible after the beautiful sunshine had playfully followed us all day long. I could not believe my eyes. But, as I looked toward the sky during the ride home, there it was: a bold, shimmering, and perfect rainbow. And, as I gazed out the window of his Jeep, I felt his hand grab mine and then I heard the words, “It is okay. I want you to know that I understand.” And, then he squeezed my hand. With tears in my eyes, “I know, thank you” was all that I could say in reply. As I continued to look through my sadness, I knew that he had come into my life for a reason and the rainbow was a sign from sweet Kass that just maybe she had something to do with it. And, with him. But, this was only our first date…..
The past 15 months had taken its toll on our family and on me. Losing Kass after battling side-by-side with her in the trenches, fending off this cancer foe, and believing we would persevere and then having to say goodbye was a devastating blow to our family. And, my feelings were no different than what we all felt about losing Kass: sadness, sorrow, grief, pain, and a whole host of other emotions that words could never adequately describe. But, I guess in a way, it was a little bit different for me. Looking back, I guess the most had changed for me personally during this time. Shortly after Kass was diagnosed, I relocated back to Williamsport and took a new job that would allow me to work from home and to spend time with Kass on the road. I was blessed to have been offered this new job right before Kass’s diagnosis. I had thought about moving home for some time. I had six adorable nieces and nephews that were growing up right before my eyes. And, of course, missing out on seeing my entire family had taken its toll over the 11 years I had been living away from home.
I could have never known what a gift from God that job offer turned out to be. Life is funny that way. Looking back at it now, it makes perfect sense. When my Dad called with the new of Kass’s diagnosis, everything moved quickly and there was never any doubt. I was able to resign from my current job and transition into this new position that allowed me to work virtually. So, I could work while spending time with Kass. She needed me. Or so I thought. But, what I came to realize over the next year was that it was me who needed Kass. Watching her fight so hard to live; seeing the genuine, uncomplicated love in her eyes for our family and for Josie; listening to the words of wisdom she shared as her time on Earth drew to a peaceful end…..all of it made me realize that I wanted to live a different life than the life I had been living.
This is not to imply that I had been living an unhappy life. To the contrary, my life was great. My job had me learning, growing, traveling, and actively building a professional resume that I was proud of. I was working on my master’s degree, working out on a regular basis, and I had a circle of friends that were constantly helping me to become a better person. Life was good. But, I had spent the better part of a decade building my resume at the expense of working on my personal relationships. I have come to know that no matter what the resume says, or what car you drive, or who your friends are, no matter what degrees you hold, without love….you might as well have nothing. Unfortunately, nothing really matters beyond it. And, every single sentiment in my heart seemed to change during that year of magical love with Kass.
As I watched my sister fight a valiant fight against God’s perfect timing, no amount of money, no advanced degree, no material possessions, not even the best-of-the-best doctors could save her life. And, she never once mentioned wanting more things when she was dying…all that she ever wanted was more time to love her baby girl. Just as simple as that: she just wanted to love. I believe that bearing witness to this selflessness has filled my heart with gratitude for the little moments that life has to offer and to the love that we all possess that connects us to each other. All of this has changed me for the better and allowed me to shift my thinking about my own life and to put myself in a position to live it better and more fully with Kass’s lessons about love as my guide. And that is where the story continues.
Jamie and I went on our first date on a Saturday in September 2012. It was a beautiful day. I had started out with a quick run and then he was picking me up at 11:00 a.m. We were headed to Ricketts Glen for a long hike and perhaps dinner afterwards. Strangely enough, I was not nervous. Running into him that previous Saturday at the Lycoming College football game had given us a chance to reconnect after not seeing one another for many years. (I swear to this day that we were friends during my time at the Chamber. But, he still says no; we were not friends, we were simply acquaintances. Ha!) Either way, I cannot put the right words together that capture how I knew from this first date that he was different, but I just knew. After 42 years of trying, I finally understood the phrase, “when you know, you just know”.
Something truly special is happening between us right before my eyes. And, every day just keeps getting better. Since our first date, we have been truly inseparable. He makes me happy. He makes me smile. He makes me laugh. He makes me want to be a better person. He accepts me for who I am, where I am. He respects me and he loves me, just as I love and respect him.
A few months ago, I was having a particularly hard day thinking about Kass and I began to cry in front of Jamie. I had tried to hide these emotions from him during those early days so as not to overwhelm him with my grieving process. That night, as I told him that I cry every day and that sometimes I cannot stop myself from crying, he lifted my chin looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “You do not have to cry alone”. I looked back at him perplexed, “What do you mean? Who should I cry with?” I said. “You can cry with me,” he said. “I am here with you. You can cry with me.” And, he pulled me in. To this day, I have yet to let him go.
When we saw that rainbow on the ride back home after our first date, I could not help but think that Kass somehow approved, too. Looking back now, I think it was more than that. It was almost as if she was looking down on me saying “Thank you for all that you did, and now you go and be happy!”
So, I am left with two great loves: the first that helped to pave the road to now, forever entwined in the moments of my life with too many stories left untold, layered in a kind of sweetness and care that can only exist between sisters who have seen both the darkness and the light. The reserve is wide and deep and overflows in my heart, but will never dry up. For with each moment of laughter, with every thought and giggle and story from the past, the reserve is replenished and love abounds once more.
The second love preparing for what lies ahead, filled with excitement and joy for the path forward. Bound and strengthened by this deep understanding of the past and wrapped tight around a genuine appreciation for life and its fragility. This love is replenished by creating amazing, new memories of our future together. Like the most unexpected gift, this love is to be cherished, appreciated, and returned with even greater splendor.
Despite all that God has taken from me, He brought me love. And now, I have two great loves. These loves coexist in my heart….one to keep me present with the past; the other to show me that I am okay and worthy of a blessed future.
As each day passes, I become more and more strengthened in my resolve to just keep going. As difficult as it seems at times, this is truly the only choice we have. This winter has been particularly difficult. You see last winter; we were still in the fight. We were traveling, telling stories, getting treatment, spending time, talking, listening, laughing and loving. We were working toward a positive outcome. We never lost focus. We stayed in the moment as much as we could. We just kept going.
As I watch the snow fall this afternoon, I am reminded that the journeys we go through in life are often unexpected and many times lead us to this place we never could have anticipated. In our case, we are left in a swirl of uncertainty, compounded by a sadness that floats around our hearts and permeates the motions of our everyday life. We may not understand why God allows things to happen the way they do, or how the course of our life may be altered as a result, so the best that we can do is appreciate that everything has a reason – some greater purpose – that one day will be revealed to us when the time is right.
One thing is for certain, though. If we are lucky to have a loving family to provide a steady hand to guide us through the hard times, we are among the fortunate ones. And, we should consider ourselves blessed if we have true friends who will stop at nothing to help to see us through. Luckily for me, I have both.
Through the next several writings, I will relate stories about friendship that need to be shared as a part of Kass’s story. I begin this week back in 2010 with a story about my amazing friend, Kate:
On a whim back in July 2010, while living in Alexandria , VA, I walked into CrossFit Old Town to check out this new (to me) fitness regimen that a friend had told me about. I knew no one, but I was determined to give it a try. From the beginning, I was hooked. But, it wasn’t just the exercise and fitness that I loved; it was the experiences that I had and the friendships that I made along the way that I will always remember. What I found inside of this place was: encouragement, support, hard work, commitment, willpower, determination, dedication, strength, athleticism, and the overwhelming surroundings of friendship. On that same day that I started CrossFit, my life became forever intertwined with another new CrossFitter, my friend Kate. Kate and I were workout partners. Kate and I pushed each other. Kate and I worked out hard together. Kate and I supported each other’s successes. And, over time, Kate and I became friends.
Not the acquaintance type of friend but, the forever friend. The kind of person who comes into your life for a reason. The kind of friend who is genuine to the core, and will always be there for you no matter what. The kind of friend that always has your back. The kind of friend who believes in you. The kind of friend who helps to make you a better person. The kind of friend who understands and appreciates you for who you are, where you are. The kind of friend that I could not have realized that I so desperately needed at the time.
We only worked out together for a year. But, a year was more than enough time for us to share our personal journey and to reflect on the hopes and dreams we both had for our own lives. So Kate understood what it meant on that day in July 2011 as we ran when I told her about Kass. I cried. She cried. Even though our hope was still surging at the time, she understood what this meant to me. She had heard enough stories about my life to know that Kass was my very best friend. She understood and supported what I needed to do. After we ran, we stood there on that sidewalk and she said, “She is going to fight this thing. You are going to help her. You are strong, Krista, so I know that Kass is strong, too. You can do this.” I will never forget that day. And, shortly thereafter off I went to join my family to fight alongside of Kass.
That August, Kate and I ran together in my first Team LIVESTRONG event in Philly. It was a beautiful day. The emotions were almost too much, but we did it. We crossed that finish line together, just as I knew we would.
In November 2011, I came back to join with 8 other ladies from CFOT to run in the National Race to End Women’s Cancer in Washington, DC. This 8K run was an amazing experience, organized by Kate. Every member of our team ran with Kass’s picture on their back….she was our inspiration! And, it was the friendships that I had made from participating in CrossFit that kept me going that day. To this day, I still feel connected to all of those I knew from that 6:00 a.m. class, even though I never see them and our time together seems like a lifetime ago.
Over the past several months, I have shared many personal stories of Kass’s determination, courage, strength, positive attitude, and that bright light that was always shining toward others who surrounded her during her fight. Kass radiated love. Below, I invite you to read about that light as seen by my friend Kate, who wrote this just a few days after Kass went to Heaven, in July 2012:
What do you do when what you give just isn’t enough? When the fight is just too hard? How do you say good-bye when it just is not supposed to happen this way?
A year ago I was running down the streets of old town with Krista when she shared with me that her sister had been diagnosed with cancer. Although shocked, I felt that for sure this vibrant 39 year-old mother would fight and beat this goliath that she was facing. As the months went by, the treatment began and I watched my friend Krista stand by her sister through everything.
Krista decided that she wanted to do a run in Philly, for LIVESTRONG that August, and while having dinner at Fireflies last July, before she moved back home to be with her sister, I said, count me in! So we ran in August. Although the drive involved a horrible storm, and a very late night arrival, Krista and I ran in Philly for Kass, and after the race I got to visit with Kass and their mom after the run, and we all sat in the sunlight and laughed at this horrible disease.
I came back from the run having been surrounded by, fight, I heard it and saw it everywhere, you can fight this, keep fighting, don’t give up, and to deal with the helplessness that I felt I wrote the song, “Fight” hoping that Kass could listen to it while she was going through treatment. That maybe this would help motivate her through the long fight ahead.
In November, a group of us from CrossFit OldTown, ran in the National Race to End Women’s Cancer, each wearing a shirt with a picture of Kass, running for her as she was not able to run but was continuing to fight. Krista and I ran together again, and we fought through every mile for Kass, we didn’t stop and we didn’t give up, together we ran.
Just a month ago I was able to bring a copy of “Fight” to Kass, and visit with her in the hospital, I was able to sit with Krista, her mom and Kass, and once again we laughed at this terrible disease. I hugged Kass as I left and said, “Just keep fighting!”
Kass did fight, she fought in the hospital, she fought at home, she fought through it all, and I watched in awe as her beautiful sister, Krista, cared, loved, listened, and laughed with her sister month after month.
On Monday our fight changed, Krista stood by her sister, and said her last good-bye. Now the fight is to keep moving forward, to keep Kass in our hearts, to fill each holiday with a new memory, to get through each day, sometimes just a minute at a time.
So what do you do when the fight seems like it’s over, you keep on moving, loving and laughing and trying to keep all of the beauty that was inside that person, that you felt and held and benefited from and share it with everyone that you can, and through it all recognizing that there is just this amazingly unfair crap that no one can explain or tell you why it is happening, that nothing anyone says will change the outcome, but know that through it all there will be people around you and that you will not do it alone. That when we are down and feel like we can’t get up, there are people there that will lift us to our feet, and in those moments we are reminded of that person that we lost, and although the space is never exactly filled it slowly, day by day, is changed.
Kass was a beautiful woman and my heart and love sits with her family over the next couple of days, I look forward to the small moments of laughter, love and family we will share on Saturday.
Pretty amazing. Perhaps the lasting legacy of this story is that Kass inspired Kate to write a song, Fight, and the song will live on forever as a tribute to Kass’s spirit! How awesome is that? You see, while Kate is not working on her PhD or doing her job for the U.S. Department of Education, she headlines in her own band and she is remarkable. She still plays “Fight” during her shows. She still tells Kass’s story before she sings. So, I now invite you to check it out on iTunes and download a copy and think of Kass. All proceeds will benefit the Team Kass Foundation.
Thank you, Kate, for your wonderful friendship. You do so much for so many. I cannot thank you enough for being there for me through this most difficult time of my life. But most of all, I thank you for taking the time to visit with Kass, to tell her that she inspired you, and to share her inspiration through your music. I know that your last visit with her meant so much to her. You left the hospital that day and she just smiled at the thought that she had inspired you to write a song! And, she proudly displayed the framed cover artwork that you gave her in her home. That moment that you created for her is forever imprinted on my heart.
Our family invited Kate to sing during Kass’s funeral mass. There was no other choice but to have Kate sing. And, she sang beautifully that day as the loveliest hymns filled the church: Be Not Afraid, On Eagle’s Wings, How Great Thou Art. I can barely type the words. But it was her a cappella version of Amazing Grace that will forever fill my heart. I already know that no matter how often we talk or how often we see each other, we are forever friends.
I close by writing that I still stand in awe of Kass. She had never even met Kate before she was sick, yet Kate saw something special in her. And, I have heard it from others who met Kass during this time: there was something inspiring in Kass’s eyes, there was calmness, there was acceptance, and there was peace….a strong sense that no matter what, everything would be okay. I miss her every day.
I guess our love of music started young. From my earliest days, I can remember singing and performing with Kass. When we lived in upstate New York when we were growing up, our house had a huge wrap-around porch. I have vivid memories of Kass and me “performing” in front of no one in particular on that “stage”. We sang and we sang and we sang. Usually, we sang into our hairbrush while the music played from the living room speakers through the open windows. As our confidence increased, so did our desire to dance as we sang. Pretty soon, we were a full-fledged, rocking-out, sisterly duo! With no desire to ever actually sing on stage, and without the talent to back it up (at least speaking for myself…), we just sang for the pure joy of singing.Over the years, even as we grew older, we shared many moments of spontaneously breaking into song together. In one such moment from about 20 years ago, I recall Kass and I singing every song on the John Denver – The Rocky Mountain Collection album for hours as we painted our bedrooms in our family’s new house in Unityville, where my parents still live. It was listening to John Denver’s music during that time (I was 22, Kass was 20) that the lyrics actually started to resonate. Kass, my Mom and I saw John Denver several times over the years and each time, I could always see this glimmer of light in Kass’s eyes as she watched him sing. He was, and will always be, a special part of our childhood memories. It was Rocky Mountain High that was Kass’s favorite: “Now he walks in quiet solitude, the forest and the streams, seeking grace in every step he takes. His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.” And, “Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear of a simple thing he cannot comprehend.”
Oh, how she loved John Denver! In the summer of 1998, only months after he was killed in an airplane crash, Kass and I flew to Denver and then drove to Aspen during a summer vacation. Part of the itinerary was a visit to the Windstar Foundation, which Denver founded in 1976. During our visit, Kass walked teary-eyed through each exhibit room and wrote a sweet tribute in the guest book. Looking back, I wish I would have taken a picture of the entry she made. But, even without the picture, I know that it meant a lot to her. A few months before she left us for Heaven, we were having one of our beautiful talks at her house. She was telling me about all of the people she wanted to see in Heaven. John Denver was high up on her list.
More recently, Kass had passed her love of singing onto Josie. Every day on their way to pre-school, Kass would sing songs with Josie in the car. Whenever Kass forgot to turn the music on, Josie would yell from the back seat, “Mommy, let’s sing Fake Hill (her name for Faith Hill).” And, they would sing with passion and conviction. At three years old, even Josie knew every word: “Hey, that’s the way we do it. New friends and blue skies that never end. Hey, that’s the way we like it. Good times, sunshine and summertime.” Sunshine and Summertime was a definite favorite. I have one of these special moments on video and cannot wait to show Josie someday.
When Josie was born, Kass actually made up the words to her own lullaby and each night she would sing to her. The first time I heard her sing it, I asked her about it. “I made it up one night as I was putting her to bed when she was a tiny baby,” she said. “I have been singing it to her every night since.” And each night she continued to sing, even on those nights when she was away for treatment, it was always the last part of each phone call. And always in the same sweet and tender voice, “Lullaby and good night, oh my sweet baby Josie…..” it began. Mom and I would just look at each other and our tears would begin as we listened to her softly sing into that phone each night from the road. Those were the hardest of nights. Just knowing. Knowing and watching Kass as she tried to hold on to that song and to that moment with Josie, wishing so much that she was not in this place, but accepting everything that came her way with incredible guts and inspiring courage.
I share these memories so that there is understanding as to why music has been so important in our lives. We still hear the music, and the sounds are so sweet. Several moments throughout Kass’s battle are directly tied to music and the songs and inspirational lyrics that helped all of us, but especially Kass, to pause and reflect. To someone facing what Kass faced, each word inspired, gave hope, and took on new meaning as she looked at her life through her new eyes: the eyes of gratitude and love. I have included a few of the songs that meant so much to Kass, and will always have a permanent place in our hearts. I have also included a few that she may have never heard, but that I discovered after she left us last July. For each song, I provide the story of its significance and some of our favorite lyrics.
Today Is Your Day – Shania Twain
There are so many reasons why this song was meaningful for Kass. She loved Shania Twain’s music, but it was the lyrics with this song that resonated with her. She said it was her inspiration to fight. One day, we were driving in my car to meet our parents and brothers for lunch. She had her iPod on and I noticed she was crying as I drove. I reached over to grab her hand and I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I just really love this song.”
Favorite Lyrics: “You’ve got what it takes you can win. Today is your day to begin. Don’t give up here, don’t you quit. The moment is now, this is it.”
I’m Gonna Love You Through It– Martina McBride
My Mom and I introduced Kass to this song while she was in treatment at UPENN. When we saw the profile on Good Morning America, we just knew that we had to make a video using this song. Kass loved the video and especially loved the song. As you might have guessed, Kass was a country music fan and loved Martina McBride. This song was called upon many times throughout Kass’s fight. In many ways, it was homage from our whole family to Kass. Words to live by when unconditional love is involved….
Favorite Lyrics: “When you’re weak, I’ll be strong. When you let go, I’ll hold on. When you need to cry, I swear that I’ll be there to dry your eyes. When you feel lost and scared to death, like you can’t take one more step, just take my hand, together we can do it. I’m gonna love you through it.”
Chances – Five for Fighting
In September 2011, Kass had finished 7 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation and was ready to go home. She was so happy. We were so happy. On the last day of radiation at UPENN, there is a tradition for patients to ring a big bell in the waiting room to signify your last day. Kass rang that bell four times on that September day (for Josie), and the waiting room applauded and Mom and I were laughing, and crying, and hugging everyone. We went to lunch and then Kass said to me, “Let’s go. Let’s go to the Liberty Bell and then to the Art Museum and run those steps.” I looked at Mom and then back at Kass. “Okay, let’s do it!” And, off we went. I took lots of pictures that day and made a video to capture it all. For the overlay song I chose Chances by Five for Fighting. I think you will agree it was so fitting for what we were feeling. Looking back, I remember on this day feeling so much hope and so much love. One of my favorite days of my life, hands-down. Please check out the video link below.
Favorite Lyrics: “Chances are we´ll find two destinations. Chances roll away from me. Still chances are more than expectations….the possibilities. Over me. Eight to five, two to one, lay your money on the sun. Until you crash what have you done? Is there a better bet than love? What you are is what you breathe. You gotta cry before you sing. Chances. Chances.”
That day in October 2011 I will never forget. It was a Monday. The 24th. Kass was starting her second chemotherapy drug at UPENN. I was not able to drive down with my Mom and Kass. A few days before, I had moved into my new house and boxes were everywhere and my calendar was filled with appointments. Anyway, Kass called me on the drive down. She told me she was listening to music and she said, “Did you ever really hear the lyrics to Where the Streets Have No Name by U2?” “I think so,” I replied. Then, there was only silence on the phone and I knew she was crying. In an excerpt from my journal of that day I wrote: I wasn’t sure what to say, but I told her that we all loved her so much. I told her that this drug was going to work and that she would battle through this round and that we would never leave her side. And then she said, “I know. I feel okay with everything. It’s just that song….the lyrics are just so powerful.” And then, “Will you listen to it for me?” “Of course I will,” was all that I could say.
Favorite Lyrics: “I wanna run, I want to hide. I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside. I wanna reach out and touch the flame. Where the streets have no name. I wanna feel sunlight on my face. I see the dust cloud disappear without a trace. I want to take shelter from the poison rain. Where the streets have no name.”
Let Your Love Flow – Bellamy Brothers
A 40th birthday bash for Kass would not be missed last May! We gathered as a family, along with a few special friends, for a lovely evening (pouring rain notwithstanding) to welcome Kass to 40. As the crowd gathered in my living room, I felt the need to say a few words. From my journal entry from that day: Before we blew out the candles, I offered a few welcome remarks and introduced everyone. I then relayed the story of our recent trip back from NIH. “I was driving, Mom in the front seat and Kass in the back. A great song from the 80s came on the radio and I began to sing out loud. From the backseat I hear, “Oh good God, are you really going to sing?” A pause. Then me with a smile: “Why yes, I am”. A few seconds later, I heard Mom join in. And, then right after that from the back seat, I hear Kass singing, too. It was a special moment. We laughed and just continued to sing. Then, I said, “It is in that same vein, that I offer this song for Kass tonight, and invite each of you to stand up and dance. For Kass.” I then played the Bellamy Brothers, Let Your Love Flow. No one really knew what to do. So, I just started to dance. Right there in the living room. It was not long until everyone was dancing around Kass. The tears in Kass’s eyes told me that she not only understood this moment, but appreciated it very much. This is such a happy memory for me. There was such love in that room that night.
Favorite Lyrics: “There’s a reason for the sunshine skies. There’s a reason why I’m feeling so high. Must be the season when that love light shines all around us. So, let that feeling grab you deep inside and send you reeling where your love can’t hide. And then go stealing through the moonlit night with your lover….”
Best Days – Graham Colton
During our final trip together just a few weeks before we lost Kass, we sang a lot during that drive to Chicago. We talked about a lot of things, but we also sang. This song had been on my radar since 2008 when I first heard it while I was living in Pittsburgh. And, it was on my iPod that we were playing in my car during that trip. Kass loved it and together we sat in silence as we listened to the lyrics. It is a beautiful song for those who have never heard it; I encourage you to really listen to it. Again, I believe the lyrics meant something very deep and profound to Kass. At some level, though, I think I understood. I can hardly bring myself to listen to this song these days.
Favorite Lyrics: “With everything I’ve ever done, I’d give it all to everyone for one more day. Another night I’m waking through, another door I walk into. I can’t break. It’s a winding road. It’s a long way home. So don’t wait for someone to tell you it’s too late. Because these are the best days. There’s always something tomorrow, so I say let’s make the best of tonight….”
And, now I share two of my favorites songs that continue to mean so much to me. The first, I discovered during Kass’s journey, the second came into my life from my uncle. Like the moon and the stars, both will be forever linked to beautiful Kass.
You Can Close Your Eyes – James Taylor
I first heard this song during a tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9.11 in September 2011. James Taylor has been a family favorite forever. He sang this song so beautifully that day. I never had the guts to actually play it for Kass, but I remember listening to it during my drives back and forth between Alexandria, Philadelphia and here over that fall. I must have listened to it thousands of times. Every time I heard it (even now) I can hardly get through the first verse. I guess I include it here because there is something so very peaceful about the lyrics.
Favorite Lyrics: “Well the sun is surely sinking down. But, the moon is slowly rising. So this old world must still be spinning ’round. And, I still love you. So close your eyes. You can close your eyes, it’s all right. I don’t know no love songs. And I can’t sing the blues anymore. But I can sing this song. And you can sing this song when I’m gone.”
Love and Happiness – Emmylou Harris
On the night of Kass’s funeral mass, I received an unexpected email from my Uncle Bob. He had been with us earlier in the day and had been a part of our family’s pain and sadness. In fact, he and his entire family had been very supportive of Kass throughout her fight. Visits, support, cards, letters, pictures, hugs….there was no end to their commitment. But, it may have been this email and bringing this song into our lives that stands to have the greatest impact. I believe he intended it for me as an inspiration for my life moving forward, but I also saw it as a gift for Josie….a message from Kass in Heaven and a prayer for her baby girl’s life. So, shortly after hearing it for the first time, I introduced it to her. One day last July, I saw her singing along to it in my rearview mirror. It still tears me up whenever I hear it, but it also brings me such peace.
Favorite Lyrics: “You will always have a lucky star. That shines because of what you are. Even in the deepest dark, because your aim is true. And, if I could only have one wish, darling then I would be this: love and happiness for you.”
As you can imagine, every time I hear one of these songs I smile. Just like a photograph, these lyrics will be forever linked to these special moments with Kass. The moments that help us to remember, and help us to find peace, and help us to heal from the heartache. I have found over the past seven months that not even an hour can pass without some thought, some memory, or some moment with Kass washing over me. In the most unusual places and spaces, while everyone else is focused on the conversation, I am sometimes withdrawn quietly thinking about Kass: about how she would have loved this moment; or about what she would be saying or doing right now; or how I remember a story about her that relates to this moment. I never want this to go away. I want these thoughts and memories to keep flooding my heart always. Always. In some crazy way, it keeps me close to Kass. And, even though I know we will be connected forever, music will always be a special bond that we shared. Music and lyrics truly capture our universal truths about life, love, happiness, hope and sorrow. From the time we were little girls singing on that porch, music has been a fundamental part of our lives. And even now, I still hear the music and the sounds are so sweet.
Over the past several months, we have been sorting through old photographs, letters, cards, emails, videos…..really anything we can find that links us with Kass. There have been so many amazing moments during this time that have forced us to pause, breathe, and smile. Sometimes, we cry. Most times, though, we simply laugh. Kass was so very funny. Some of the notes that she wrote over the years have helped to bring back our smiles and our laughter. We find that no matter what, there is always reason to believe, just as Kass always said, that everything will be okay.
Just yesterday we lived another one of these special moments. Dad called me in the afternoon. He said that he had recently taken an old computer into a local computer store to have any remaining files pulled from it. After he picked up the files yesterday, he found a writing that Kass had written back in 2000 when my parent’s dog Josh had died. Only five years old, he was struck by a car and killed near my parent’s home. Like a lot of families, we grow very connected to our pets and find peace in remembering them after they are gone. But, it is likely that no one, including Kass, had seen this tribute in many years. Yet, reading it now, brought a sense of such overwhelming peace. I share it with you below:
Reading it again now brings tears to my eyes. I feel so overwhelmingly sure that Kass’s words then were and continued to be at the core of her own beliefs and values. Our beliefs are our foundation, and as a family, we have been lucky that our foundation was filled with abundant love and the fundamental truth of God and Heaven. You are home now Kass, run free.
This time of year, it is hard not to think about the past 12 months and how the events of the last 365 days have shaped, sculpted, and molded our lives. Anticipation of what the next year will bring is on everyone’s mind these days. The holidays are winding down and the bitter cold fills the air. The New Year brings a chance to reflect, forgive, hope, anticipate, and perhaps an opportunity to move on to a brighter future. It is a time for renewal, remembrance, and a reinvigoration of the soul. We write down our goals for the year ahead, we reflect on what we are thankful for, and we yearn for a better year than this year offered. In essence, we hope that life will continue to get better.
As we begin to craft our resolutions, we offer many that sound so familiar: get into better shape; eat healthier; take care of ourselves; spend more time with our family and friends; find a better job; be a nicer person; and the list goes on. Over the past several weeks, I have given much thought to 2013. Of course, I want next year to be a wonderful year, but I am not ready to say goodbye to 2012 quite yet. I guess it would be acceptable to view 2012 as the worst year of my life so far: my brothers and I lost our sister, Josie lost her Momma, and my parents lost their baby girl. The loss is still raw, and the pain so enormous. But somehow, I know in my heart that I will always look back on this year as the most meaningful and special year of my life. This is how I have to look at it in order to make any sense of it at all.
I know that Kass’s journey to Heaven forever changed my life. I am also quite certain that I will not know the true extent of the change for many years to come. But for now, I take comfort in knowing that I was truly blessed to have spent 40 amazing years surrounded by her sweet love and kindness.
January 2, 2013 marks the 6-month anniversary of Kass’s passing. I have no words to describe the depth of the emotions that I still feel every day. I continue to feel inspired by Kass’s daunting courage yet saddened with the acceptance that she is really gone. Each day that I have been in town since that fateful day in July when we laid her to rest, I journey to the cemetery to be with her. Sometimes, I sing to her. Sometimes, I tell her stories. Sometimes, I ask her for advice. And sometimes, I just breathe in the stillness and the soft breeze and say nothing at all. So often, I think of her strength to fight, her resolve to live, her passion for her baby, and her love of her family and I am easily moved to tears. Even in moments of laughter and light-heartedness, she is always near.
As I think about the journey of the past 17 months, I have written a lot about Kass, our family, our love, and our memories of Kass’s last magical year. But, it truly wasn’t just our family that Kass inspired. Just this past week, my parents received a letter in the mail from one of Kass’s former co-workers. Kass had only worked there less than a year before she became sick. Less than a year of knowing someone and yet the words are so profound! I share some of it with you below:
Dear Parents of Kathleen,
Although I only knew Kathleen a very brief time, it felt as though I had known her always. I am thankful for the bond that we had – a true friend. She was a good daughter, wife and friend. But mostly, she was a wonderful mother. When she was diagnosed, her first and foremost thoughts and fears were leaving Josie. My heart ached for her and had I been able, I would have gladly traded places with her, as my daughter is grown, successful and happy with a family of her own.
It seemed so unfair, but our loss is the angels gain. And I know she is waiting for us in Heaven. It was pure joy knowing her.
What a gift for my parents! When my Mom read the card to me over the phone yesterday, I smiled through my tears and thought simply, “Yes. That was Kass. Pure joy.”
I will forever look at 2012 as the year that changed me for the better. Everything, I mean everything that happened during this past year has shifted my thinking, strengthened my heart, and helped me to grow. As I glance towards the future, I cannot help but first reflect on the most significant lessons from this past year, the year of never-ending love.
1.As much as we think we are – we are not in control.
I have always been proud of my ability to have everything in my life just as I wanted it. Just the right job, the right house, the right surroundings, the right friends, the right workout, the right vacations, the right books, and the list goes on. I was a control freak of sorts. I admit it. You know the kind: it was all “right” according to my own high standards for me. And, of course my “right” was not necessarily your “right”, but I was very content with the world I had created for myself. Perfect in its own imperfect way. What I have learned in this past year is that none of it matters….none of it….and it can all go away in the blink of an eye. Life is just rolling along, perfectly happy, steadily controlled, just as it should be when, BAM! out of nowhere it all changes. It changes so fast that any semblance of having control seems like a dream from a life that isn’t yours. You quickly move from having complete control to having no control at all. Allow me to be clear on this point: control is an illusion. This is a hard lesson to learn. It was not only hard for me to learn but even harder for me to accept. And, this loss of control can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Be ready for it! Or, my better advice…..stop controlling everything around you, take a deep breath, and let it all go! Love. That is all that matters. Just love. And, the best news is that love does not cost anything, and the less you control it, the more freely it flows.
2. Life should be lived in the small moments.
Seemingly similar to my first lesson, this one just seems more obvious and easier to achieve. However, it may just be harder. You see, as a society we are wired to celebrate our happiness based on those big moments of achievement: engagements, weddings, births, graduations, new jobs, new homes, milestone birthdays, etc. Please do not misunderstand: these are very important moments and they should all be celebrated and celebrated with enthusiasm! But, life is what really happens outside of those big moments. It happens with a hug between two friends; as a flower is picked from the garden; as you read a story to your child; as you hold the door open for a stranger; as you sip your favorite wine; or as you call on an old friend. It happens as you watch the sunrise or look at the moon, and it happens sometimes while you are all alone simply standing still.
This past year has taught me to celebrate the big moments, but to not miss the little ones that happen in between those big bookends….for this is where our stories are written. This is where life happens. The insignificant moments become significant when you are facing the end of your life. This I know to be true. I watched intently and listened carefully to Kass in her final months of life. I heard her words soften. I saw her face become more at ease. I realized the significance of these small and simple moments and what they came to mean to her. I watched her as she found tremendous joy in just sitting on her porch and watching the birds play in the hanging baskets or listening to the wind blow across her fields. I am more aware of these moments now and understand that my sense of purpose and meaning in my life increases in direct correlation to these small events.
3. Love is eternal.
Ahh, my favorite lesson from this past year, and the one that keeps me moving forward. It may be true that with any big loss comes questioning and uncertainty and denial. I know this was true for me. At first, I could not believe that Kass was gone. (Did this really happen?) Then, my disbelief became denial (This did not really happen.), which was quickly followed by anger. (How did this happen? How is this fair?) But, through a lot of work, I have come to accept this most unacceptable outcome. With this acceptance has also come a genuine belief that nothing has really changed between Kass and me. Our sisterly love is eternal. Love is strong. It knows no concept of time or space or distance. Love transcends our human comprehensions. Love is not the spoken word, but rather it is a truth that cannot be spoken, only lived. As the bible says “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:6-7)
This I know for sure: Kass loved us and she knew how much we all loved her. There were no words left unspoken between us. But, the true gift of our love was the way that we all lived. How we were as a family growing up and how we loved one another over the years was best expressed through our actions, not just our words. We didn’t just decide to start loving once Kass became sick. We loved and we loved and we loved! And now Kass’s love for me will carry me through the difficult times. And, my love for her will be my motivation to keep moving forward….to continue to shine her light in this world and to let her life be an example to us all that love is eternal.
If 2012 was the year of never-ending love, then I hope that 2013 will be the year of enormous gratitude. There is so much to anticipate about the next 12 months. Life can be profound. If anyone had asked me last New Year’s Eve what I would be thinking and feeling just one year later, I can tell you that it would not be all of this. Kass was still alive last New Year’s Eve. I spent time with her at her house that night. I called her at midnight. I have a voice mail from her from January 1, 2012. She wished me a happy new year and told me that she hoped for a good year for all of us. Just twelve months ago.
Life can be profound but it can also be fleeting. So, please don’t miss a moment! It is all right there for you. And, it is all good. May your 2013 bring you one step closer to your dreams! No control. Just love. One small moment at a time….
Just last week, I caught the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Like many people, this was one of my “must watch” holiday favorites. Growing up, I have fond memories of the four kids gathered in the living room ready to watch them all: The Grinch, Rudolph, Twas the Night Before Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and of course, Kass’s favorite: Emmit Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. We never missed them!
I smiled as I saw the final minutes of this year’s broadcast. Jamie and I had just come back from dinner and we caught the very end. And, just in time…there it was. The final scene. Always my favorite, but this year, it had a new and special meaning for me.
As kids growing up, I think we all understood the basic lesson from the Grinch: Christmas is not about the presents, but rather, it’s about the love and joy of family (and in our family: the celebration of Christ’s birth). Even as kids, this lesson was reinforced by our parents who taught us that Christmas is about giving back to those less fortunate than ourselves. I recall a special memory of a time not too long ago when my parents invited our old neighbor from down the road to our house for Christmas dinner. We realized at the time that this was likely his only hot meal that day. He had no family and was all alone on Christmas. And that night, he ate that food as if he had not eaten in awhile. We are quite sure that he hadn’t. He has since passed away, but I think he always respected my parents for inviting him into that special moment. I know that I do and I will never forget the lessons we all learned that night.
Back to The Grinch. When I saw that final scene….just like 1,000 other moments since Kass left us, I could not help but think about Kass. As the Grinch was waiting to hear the crying when all of the Who’s in Whoville woke up without Christmas, “He did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started out low then it started to grow. But, the sound wasn’t sad. Why this sound sounded merry. It couldn’t be so. But, it was. Merry. Very.” It goes on, “Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing without any presents at all.”
Watching this again through my 42-year old eyes, it reinforced this simple thought for me: life is about nothing more than the beliefs that we hold and the relationships that we have with those we love. Quite simply: it’s about the love.
In that moment, I realized that even though I will not have the gift of my sweet sister at Christmas this year, I can still sing. My heart can still be overflowing. I can still smile. I can still rejoice in all of the blessings that Kass left behind. I can still drink in the memories of the 40 happy years I spent with her, and I can still reminisce with my family about all of the things we loved about her. I can still say a toast to her. I can still say a prayer for her. I can still call out to her and ask for her help and advice. I can still love her.
Just because something wonderful and beautiful was taken away from me this year, does not mean that I cannot be happy. In fact, I know that Kass would want it this way. On our trip back from Chicago only one week before she died, she looked at me as we held hands together in the car. She turned to me and she said, “What about you? What are you going to do once I have to leave here?” And, then she said the most beautiful words to me that I shall never forget. A beautiful and genuine gift that I will cherish forever: she turned to me and said, “I want you to be happy. I do not want your life to be ruined because I had to die. Please promise me that you will be happy.” When I think back to that moment, I wonder what kind of courage it takes for someone to say actually say these words out loud? But, that was Kass. So strong and so courageous.
I am not sure what I did to deserve this amazing gift? In fact, I have no idea how to be truly happy without her. But, I do know that every time I want to curl up in a ball on my bed and never get up again, I hear her voice and those words in my head, “Please promise me that you will be happy.” And then, I know what I need to do. This is how I will honor Kass. I will honor Kass by living, loving, and by simply being happy.
So, as you gather around your Christmas table this year, I beg you to pause. Sit quietly and drink in the stillness. Take a look around. Don’t miss the moment. Think of all of the blessings that you have in your life. Think of all of the love that is sitting around your table this year. Don’t focus on what you don’t have, but rather focus instead on what you do. Take nothing for granted. Think about those who have left us and say a prayer for them, too.
I can promise you this, as I am living proof: no matter how hard you pray, no matter how hard you love, no matter how hard you try to save someone, tomorrow is not a guarantee. Today is all that we know.
Just last week, I gathered with others to say goodbye to another beautiful soul who left us too soon. She was a young wife, mother, sister, aunt, niece…just like Kass. I had been given this beautiful gift to be able to meet her back in September. We talked about a lot of things that day. It seemed that she and Kass had shared a similar cancer journey. When she talked, I saw in her the same fierce determination, courage, and strength that I saw as Kass fought. In some strange way, I felt close to her. I felt her spirit that day, and I knew that no matter what, “everything would be okay.” Kass had taught me that.
Our community has suffered a lot of loss this year. In one amazing moment that evening, two of the mothers who had each lost a child this year stood and talked with my Dad as we all waited in the receiving line at the funeral home. I stepped back and I watched the three of them talking and I thought, “This just does not seem right. How did all of these young people die? And, all within a few months of each other? How is this fair?” In that moment, I was reminded once again that life is not fair. No matter how hard we try, we are not in control.
With the dawn of each new day, we are given just one more chance to do the right thing. We possess the power to love and the ability to be open to happiness. Only we can choose how we will use these gifts.
And, just like those Who’s from Whoville, this Christmas I have found a reason to sing. It is my greatest hope that you will find one, too.
You all know the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. I have come to believe that this sentiment is true. Even before all that has happened over the last 16 months – the time that has fundamentally changed my life, my view of the world, and my future plans. From the earliest memories I have as a child, photographs have been a fundamental part of my story. And, no doubt they have been a big part of your story, too.
I have vivid memories of posing for pictures as a child with my siblings. There we were, all lined up in age order, most times Kass and I wearing the same outfits (I swear my Mom wanted twins, or thought we were twins), with our biggest smiles…trying to capture a moment in time when everything seemed okay with the world. You don’t believe me? Check this one out. I bet the year was 1976. Kass and I are not actually dressed alike in this particular picture, but I will call it close enough. Notice the similar plaid dresses with the blouse underneath?
Think about it, behind each photograph is a moment in time that will never happen again. Ever. So, I guess a picture really is worth 1,000 words.
But, why do we hold on to our memories through the pictures that we hold so dear? Isn’t the best kind of memory the one that you hold in your heart, so that no matter if you actually have a tangible photograph, you will always carry the memory with you? Maybe then, the memory is always the memory and the picture simply helps you to come up with the words that truly capture the memory?
I guess what I am trying to say is that I do not need pictures from the last year to remember my sister’s courageous battle against cancer. I do not need a photograph to remind me of how strong she was or how she handled herself with an enviable sense of grace, dignity, and honor. I do not need a photographic reminder of the deeply-rooted love that she had for her family and her baby girl, Josie. I will never have to search for a picture of her to remember her beautiful face, her big brown eyes or her cheerful smile.
And yet, in so many ways, I keep looking at those pictures that we took over the last year of her life and from them, the stories leap from the picture back into my heart. I remember the appointment, the treatment, the hospital, the doctors and nurses, and I even remember the name of the chemotherapy drug she was receiving at the time. I remember it all. And, there were other pictures, too. There were the pictures taken away from the hospitals and the doctors. The moments captured outside of cancer when my baby sister was just trying to be normal…trying to think about her life outside of the disease. Those moments that defined who she really was and who she will be for all of time.
I share 12 of some of the most beautiful moments from the last year of Kass’s life with you below. How do I choose only 12? I have no idea, because there were so many special moments shared with our family and Kass’s wonderful friends over the last year. We are thankful for each moment. But, the pictures below symbolize the family fight. The day-in and day-out struggle to survive that anyone who has battled this disease understands.
As you read about each moment, I hope that you will see why my sister was so special. I hope that she will inspire you to love and to cherish this life. I hope that she will help you to put things in perspective and remind you of what you already know: most of what we focus on and spend our energy on is meaningless. Life is short. Drink in the love, and forget the rest. That is what she taught me. I know you will agree as you witness the last year of my sister’s life: the year of magical love!
I have to start out from when it all began. I took this picture in July 2011, a few weeks after Kass was diagnosed. I had been staying at her house for a little while, as I was still living and working in Virginia at the time. This was taken as we cuddled on her couch, shortly after waking up on a Saturday. We spent a lot of time talking about what was next during this period. Everything was so new to our family. We had to figure out a plan of action. We were all in this with Kass to win. “Whatever it takes,” she would say. “I am going to beat this thing.”
This is possibly one of my all time favorite pictures of Kass and Josie. This picture was taken two days after I moved back to Williamsport, in the empty living room of my new house. My Dad had just given Josie two dollar bills. She was running giddily through the empty house. Kass scooped her up and said, “Do you know how much Mommy loves you, Josephine?” “I love you, too, Mommy,” Josie replied and I captured their kiss. The picture was not staged, otherwise, I would have asked Josie to drop the dollar bills!
This picture was taken in November of 2011. I was staying with Kass and helping her to take care of Josie. She had just finished reading a bedtime story, and as I watched them fall asleep I had to take this picture. I also have a video of Kass reading the story to Josie on this same night, which will be a great memory for her when she gets older. These two had a bond unlike any I have ever seen. Buddies. Momma. Josie. Unconditional love.
The quintessential picture of how Kass faced her cancer….thumbs-up with a smile! I love this picture of her. The shirt was sent to her by my friend Mike. She loved it and used to wear it on particularly hard chemo days. At the time, she was being treated at the University of Philadelphia. She was starting on a new and more powerful drug that was supposed to knock the cancer out once and for all. She was used to me taking her picture by this point. I simply said, “Smile for me” and this is what I got. My sister was one tough woman. Brave on the outside, scared on the inside. She so wanted to live.
On this day in December 2011, I had spent all day with Kass at her house. I was on my way to a basketball game that evening. Right before I was ready to leave, Josie wanted Momma to paint her fingernails. This would be her first time having her nails painted. She had never worn polish before. The look on her face says it all. She was so excited. I have this moment captured on video, too. Kass giving Josie her first manicure. I was blown away by the sheer simplicity of this heart-warming moment. It was one of my favorite memories of the last year. Simple, lovely, beautiful.
As we worked our way into 2012, the times started to become more challenging. A call in January told us that the second round of chemo was not working. A clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health seemed promising. Even though treatments at UPENN had stopped and we were moving on to NIH, Kass became sick in February and Mom drove her to Philly to receive care from her doctors there. She ended up staying in the hospital for a week. I had been working in DC that week, but came to the hospital on Ash Wednesday. When I walked into the room, I saw the ashes on Mom and Kass’s foreheads. When my Mom returned to the hotel at night and I spent the nights in Kass’s room. In this picture, I had jumped into bed as I leaned in for a kiss. She thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care. We had many special talks during this hospital stay. Looking back, I know that this was the first time that I allowed doubt to set in. Hope remained, but I saw something different in Kass after this week. I saw her fear and I felt it reflecting back within me. It was the first time that I realized that no matter how hard I tried to help, I may not be able to fix this.
But, we never lost hope that Kass would be better. Our prayers during this time became more frequent and our hugs lingered. The love flowed into the spring. During our second trip to NIH, Kass wanted to stop at the Grotto of Lourdes National Shrine in Emmitsburg, MD. After a long struggle and an aborted attempt to walk to the top of the hill, we finally reached the candle vigil area and I took this picture as Kass prayed. A special moment that just the two of us shared. We hugged and cried right after this picture was taken. I would have loved to have heard her prayer that day. I bet it was the same as mine.
This is another one of my favorite pictures. I think back to these times and know that, just like in life, sometimes the best moments are those that are unplanned. Kass was being treated at NIH in this picture. She was having a particularly difficult week and she reached out for my Mom’s hand. They must have sat like this for several minutes before I thought to take this picture. It truly captures a loving moment between a Mother and her youngest child in the fight for her life. I am so proud of how my Mom handled these difficult times. No matter what the circumstance, she always remained positive, loving, supportive, nurturing, and optimistic. Just as she has always been for all of us.
One of my favorite surprises during Kass’s fight! This picture was taken on Easter Sunday 2012. Kass, Mom and I had been in Bethesda for almost a week. Kass had to have emergency surgery on Good Friday. She had wanted so much to be home for Easter. God had other plans. She was very sad about not being able to go home. So, Mom, Dad, and I cooked up a plan to have my Dad and brothers make a surprise visit to the NIH on that Easter Sunday. It was a beautiful moment. The look on Kass’s face that day was priceless, radiant, and full of love. She was so surprised. And, she was so happy to see her Dad, Tom, and Tim as they walked into the room. Many tears flowed that day. We shared an Easter blessing as we held hands around her bed. We read a prayer and for a moment, if only a moment, we were all together and happy once again.
Another great moment captured! My Dad was visiting Kass at NIH in the spring. Dad and Kass always shared this spiritual connection. They still do. As they reminded each other that they had each other in their sights, I took this picture. It was spontaneous and wonderful. Since it was usually Mom and I on the road with Kass, whenever Dad came, it was very emotional for Kass. She loved him so much. She once told me that she did not want to die because, “I will never be able to see Dad again.” This thought still tears me up. I will always cherish this picture. A perfect moment between a father and his baby girl. Always connected.
On May 4, 2012, Kass’s 40th birthday arrived with the dawn. We had a family celebration planned for that evening. But, all afternoon, she and Josie helped me to get ready for the party. They had been spending the week with me. We had our nails done together the day before, and we had ordered our party dresses earlier in the week. Kass looked so beautiful on this day! She told me that she actually felt good and was excited about the party. When I poured her this glass of wine, we said a toast to love and life and I took this picture. The entire day was a wonderful memory. Despite the rain that poured over the party that night, Kass was surrounded by family and friends and she was happy! I have always loved birthdays, but they just seem so very special now. I am blessed to have spent Kass’s 40th by her side loving her.
This is it. The last family photo we ever took. My sister-in-law Mary Cay is there, she is just the one holding the camera. This picture was taken on the spectacular evening of May 18, 2012. Our entire family gathered at Williamsport High School to participate on the American Cancer Society Relay for Life team for Team Kass. We could not have known on this glorious evening that Kass’s time with us could now be measured in weeks instead of months or years.
One of the things that I never take for granted – most especially now – is that I have a great family. I guess I always knew it, but I never allowed myself to really understand what it meant until Kass got sick.
On this night, we all walked. We all talked. We all loved. We all wore the same shirt. On the back, Kass’s picture radiated surrounded by the words Walking for Courageous Kathleen, Faith. Hope. Love. This continues to be our family mantra. Nothing else really matters.
Life is short. Drink in the love, and forget the rest.
As last summer approached and her time on Earth was drawing to a loving and peaceful end, my sister Kass used to sit on her porch and watch the hummingbirds. She would sit quietly with her eyes closed and listen to them buzz around all of the beautiful flowers that surrounded her on her porch. We spent many hours talking there and just listening. She loved to watch the hummingbirds play. She said to me before she died, “Please do me a favor. Always have a hummingbird feeder at your house. No matter what. When you watch them, you can think of me. They have always been one of my favorite little birds.”
Two weeks before Kass died, I shared with her my plans to start a foundation in honor of her. Like a thousand other moments that are emblazoned in my mind, I will never forget that conversation. We were sitting on the deck of my parent’s cabin. The day was June 23, 2012, only 9 days before God called her home. I told her that I planned to call the foundation Team Kass, The Kathleen Paternostro Morgan Foundation and I showed her a simple mock up of the logo:
“Yes,” she said. “I love it. I love the hummingbird, too.” That day, she encouraged me to begin on this new journey. I have been thinking about it for many months now, and I know that I am now ready. As I begin on this new adventure….a permanent measure to honor a beautiful and graceful life gone too soon…. I wanted to make sure that I understood everything I could about the hummingbird.
It was so interesting for me to learn – although somehow I think I already knew – that the hummingbird is a symbol for peace, love and happiness:
Hummingbirds, called new world birds cause they are native to North America, Central and South America, are considered to be symbols of peace, love and happiness, moreover, ancient pagans held them sacred for their tireless energy and anxiety. In Native American culture, a hummingbird symbolizes timeless joy and the Nectar of Life. It’s a symbol for accomplishing that which seems impossible and will teach you how to find the miracle of joyful living from your own life circumstances. They are really spectacular birds, and have a lot to teach a person about self discovery and healing.
-Source: Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small
And just like that, the symbol of peace and love now also serves as our reminder to find the miracles of joyful living no matter what our circumstances. Kass continues to teach us to love even after she is gone. And, her legacy will continue through the love we show to one another. If you think about it, what else really matters?
In the coming months, please watch for more information here about Team Kass. I am sorting through our mission, vision, goals, etc. I am putting it out there now so that someday when we are ready, we can invite you to be a part of this amazing journey. There is so much that we can accomplish together with Kass as our inspiration. In her memory, we will continue to drink in the nectar of life.
A few days ago, I dropped my iPhone and smashed the cover sending pieces of glass all over my kitchen. So now when I use my phone I can actually see the electronic components inside. Needless to say, I have ordered a new one and I should have it in a just a few weeks. Like anyone who prepares for a getting a new phone, I now have to spend time transferring my old pictures, text messages, etc. for safekeeping. But, deep in my gut I also knew that one of the realities that I now had to face was preserving the voice mail messages from Kass that I have kept over the past year or so. I knew they were there; I just couldn’t face listening to them. Until now.
It is funny. I cannot explain how many times over the past four months I have reached for my phone and thought, “I cannot wait to tell Kass about that….” or “I wonder what Kass is doing today…”. I still have her number in the number one spot on my ‘favorites’ list on my phone. Even before she got sick, we would talk each and every day. Sometimes, a few times a day. We talked about a lot of things. Many of our conversations were about Josie, yet much was simply about sharing the stories that day-to-day life brings. It was just like that…two sisters trying to help each other to live a happy life. Every day our lives were intertwined. And then in July, there was only silence.
Two weeks after Kass passed away, I was telling Josie how much her Momma loved her and how her Mommy was wishing for happiness for her and I was telling her that her Mommy was so proud of her baby girl. This continued for several minutes, and as I told her about Heaven and how her Mommy was happy there, I reminded her that she also wanted Josie to know how much she loved her. Suddenly as I was talking, Josie looked up at me with her innocent eyes and said, “But, why can’t I hear Mommy, WaWa?” (Wa Wa comes from a decade of nieces / nephews calling me La La, which is also a long story…)
In that moment, I was jettisoned into another dimension. As adrenalin shot through me, I went to this place in my head where I wanted to break down into tears, but just knew that I had to stay strong. I kneeled down beside my beautiful niece and touched her shoulders with my hands and stared into her big eyes and I said, “You have to listen carefully. She is here. She is right here with you. All of the time. You won’t hear her here (gesturing to her ears), but you will hear her here (gesturing to her heart).” I stood up, unable to hold back the tears. We continued to walk and she looked up at me again and said, “I want to hear her, Wa Wa.” “You will, sweet Josie. You will,” was all that I could muster.
I share this deeply personal moment because in many ways, this exchange was a reminder to me as much as it was for Josie. As much as the silence had left me sad, I came to realize that Kass’s voice and her essence were still running through my heart. I could hear her. And every day, I still hear her. But since that last time in July when I heard her in person, I had not allowed myself to listen to her voice. I could not play the videos; I could not play the voice mails. I could not bring myself to hear her voice.
But, that day I broke my phone, I played those voice mails. I heard that sweet voice calling me. At first, I cried. I cried so hard I did not think I would ever stop. But then, I began to smile. I smiled for the treasure of having these messages. I smiled for the upbeat and positive energy that Kass put behind each and every message. I smiled because I remembered those messages and I was happy for every one of those moments that I shared with Kass. I smiled because she would have wanted me to smile. A few of the messages actually made me actually laugh. My sister was a very funny young woman. Even in the most trying times, she always made us laugh.
After this incident, I picked up the phone and called my Mom. I told her about the messages. We cried for a bit together. Then, we started sharing stories about all of the funny things that Kass said during her year of fighting cancer. It was this conversation with my Mom that provided the impetus for this blog. It is important to note that from the moment my Dad had called me in late June 2011 to tell me that Kass was sick, I started keeping a journal. I kept a journal of everything. I wrote and wrote and wrote every day and I took pictures and I made videos on a regular basis. Looking back, I am so happy that I did this. There is so much there. I consider all that I have collected as a treasure box for Josie that will be opened and shared over time.
As part of a series of blog entries to come, I will be writing in Top 12 format, to exemplify the year-long battle that Kass faced. Today, I share Kass’s Top 12 Funny Quotes.
Quote 1:“If I met a drug dealer, he’d want my business!” – August 2011
Quote 2: “My nightstand looks like Grandma’s….minus the cigarettes.” – August 2011
Quote 3:“I feel like I should order a cheeseburger and some fries!” – Waiting at the ER check-in counter – August 2011
Quote 4: “If I’m still laughing, I’m still living!” – To the ER nurse – August 2011
Quote 5: “If they come for me, pull me back Momma!” – Talking to Mom about her mystical visions – August 2011
Quote 6: “I’m going to start leaking soon I have so many holes in me!” – August 2011
Quote 7: “I feel like Billy Graham in the bathroom when I have to pee. I grab the rail and say, ‘Lord help me Jesus’.” – August 2011
Quote 8: “I’m like a traveling junkie. I have more medicine in my bag than clothes.” – February 2012
Quote 9: “Maybe if Santorum wins we can say Merry Christmas again.” – Talking to Mom and me in the car on our way to the hospital following Santorum’s 3 state victory in the primaries. – February 2012
Quote 10: “I feel like I am 104 years old: ‘How many dulcolax can I take? How many gas-x can I take in one day’? What time is my next nap?” – February 2012
Quote 11: “Did I just buy a car?” – After signing her numerous consent forms for anesthesia. – April 2012
Quote 12:“You need a holster for that thing.” – About Mom’s cane always being in the way. – April 2012
I will tell you that I still laugh when I read these quotes. I remember each experience so vividly. I will also share with you that these quotes only represent the clean ones. Kass’s sense of humor has always been enhanced by her endearing ability to swear. Let’s just leave it at that. I will keep the funniest of the funny quotes for our family and to share with Josie someday.
Let me close by saying that I believe there truly is nothing funny about cancer. Nothing. In fact, I have grown to develop a healthy dose of respect for cancer over the past 16 months. Cancer has taken so much from our family. Cancer took my best friend and baby sister from me. But, this blog is about hope. I share these funny moments to illustrate what it must take for a 39-year old woman with a 3-year old baby girl at home to be able to laugh in the midst of such a powerful and profound diagnosis for her future. If faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, how would you respond? How would I respond? I know there are no true answers to this question, only conjecture. But, what I witnessed over that magical year that I spent with my Mom and my sister as she fought this devastating disease was nothing short of inspiring and amazing. Surrounded by a constant dose of reality and what always seemed like more bad news, my beautiful sister always found a way to laugh and to make us laugh.
I know for sure that Kass was scared of what she faced. I know because she told me so. Lately, I have come to believe – thanks to the wonderful intercession of my Dad in the final months of her life – that before she died, she had peace in her heart and that she was no longer afraid. Kass and my Dad spent many beautiful moments together in those final months. He took her on many occasions to see Father Manno and afterwards, they would talk about life, love, faith, hope and death…just the two of them. They would talk openly about these things because they needed to and because Kass needed them to. Dad was the perfect one to do this, the only one capable of it in my mind. I will forever be grateful to him for giving Kass this gift. Looking back, I believe those moments they shared have provided a sense of peace to me and to everyone in our family.
I know that when I think about how funny Kass was, it makes smile. I know that she lived 40 beautiful years filled with happiness, the love of family, and the unimaginable joy of having her baby girl. I know that during the last year of her amazing life, she laughed when most people would have cried, she laughed to help to make us feel better, and she laughed because – as she used to say – she really had no other choice. “If I am still laughing, I am still living” she once said. And now she lives in Heaven and her laughter still lingers. I know for sure that if I close my eyes and listen very carefully, the sound of her laughter still sings through my heart.
Families Helping Families in the Fight Against Cancer