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.