“Keep the Hope Burning” – Relay for Life 2015

Note:  Since losing Kass in 2012, I have only spoken about her loss five times publicly.  Each time I speak, I write down the words I want to say in order to keep me focused, as the content is very difficult. This talk, delivered May 29, 2015 at the Tri-Town Relay for Life event in Hughesville, was only the second time I have spoken publicly about losing our Dad last fall. Losing our Dad and sister has been devastating for our family.  When I have finished delivering my remarks, I usually cannot go back to re-read my words, as they always seem inadequate to capture the genuine feelings of love and loss. It is almost impossible for words to truly capture what the heart feels.  However, I share these remarks with you, as a number of people asked me to post them here.  One special person that I met last night shared that she lost her sister to cancer in January 2015 and that my words provided comfort and hope.  She said, “I felt every feeling you shared and I related to having the feelings of hope mixed in with the sadness.” My five minute conversation with her made me realize that by sharing our stories we can help each other to heal.  So, here it is….

These remarks follow my opening comments, which were not written down.  I hope they provide some comfort to those who understand this journey.  God bless!

On the front of our shirts are the words:  Harnessing Hope.  Living Passionately.  This is the tag line of our family foundation, created in loving memory of our sister Kathleen and our father, Tom, both of whom were taken from us by cancer over the past three years.  It is through these words that I will share with you our cancer story.

Maria captured the night.
Maria captured the night.

The cancer journey for our family started four years ago in the summer of 2011, when we received the news that our little sister Kass, who was only 39 years old at the time, had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

For those of you who have been down this road, you know that this news is impossible to swallow.  We could not understand.  To this day, I do not believe we have been able to wrap our heads around any of it.

So, Harnessing Hope is for our sister, Kathleen.  She was the youngest in our family, a special and important part of our family unit.  As we were growing up, from Kass we learned about laughter, creativity, resourcefulness, adventure, and love.  When we watched her fight cancer, we learned about grace, we learned about courage, and we learned all we ever needed to know about HOPE.

From the moment of her diagnosis in the summer of 2011, Kass never once wavered in her belief that no matter what the outcome, ‘everything will be okay’.  And, we watched as, no matter what piece of news she received over that year she fought, she always tried to see the hope….to see the positives…to believe that she would prevail.

Following a series of second opinions and referrals, the diagnosis was confirmed in July 2011 and Kass chose the University of Pennsylvania for treatment.  This was our first introduction to the American Cancer Society.

We were grateful that Kass and my Mom were able to stay in the Hope Lodge outside of Philadelphia during the first rounds of her treatment.  What a gift!  And, I believe this is one of the reasons we continue to participate in Relay for Life each year.  It is our way to give back to an organization that helped us so much when we needed it.

Our shirts say it all.  Faith.  Hope.  Love
Our shirts say it all. Faith. Hope. Love.

During just 12 short months, our little sister endured so much.  I share just some of her cancer journey.  Over the course of that year, Kass underwent:

  • 5 different chemotherapy medications administered in 21 different chemotherapy treatments
  • 35 radiation treatments
  • 13 CT Scans
  • 3 MRIs
  • 5 PET Scans
  • She received 39 units of blood
  • Made 6 Emergency Room visits in 3 different hospitals
  • Spent 28 Inpatient days in 3 different hospitals
  • Endured 17 different Procedures
  • Took 51 different medications

And she did it all with zero complaints and always with a smile on her face.

But, beyond the medicine and tests, the biggest reality Kass had to endure during this time was making peace with leaving her 4 year old baby girl, Josephine.  I know for certain that she struggled with this.  But, I also know that she fought so hard for Josie and because of her.  For me, this was always the hardest part to experience. I only saw fear and sadness in her eyes when she talked about Josie.  But, I know and believe deep in my heart that someday, Josie will know her Mommy like we knew her and she will be inspired and she will be very proud.

Watching my sister fight cancer changed my life in so many ways.  Most profoundly, it forced me to face head-on some of the most difficult conversations that anyone could endure during a lifetime.

Over the course of the year that Kass fought cancer, my Mom and I never left her side.  One of us, and usually both of us, was always there.

So, there were a lot of questions that had to be answered.  Some were conversations that I never expected to have with anyone during my lifetime, but most especially with this strong, young lady who was my best friend, whom I spoke to every day of my life leading up to this time.  These conversations were the difficult ones.  The real ones.  The kind of conversations that made your heart hurt and your entire body ache, for these questions had no answers, only uncertainty and often, sadness.

We spoke of what to do, how to spend our time.  We talked about why this was happening to her.  She asked me several times to tell her about all of the people she would see in Heaven. Most of the time, though, we talked about Josie.  And, I listened as Kass shared her hopes and dreams for Josie’s life.

I am not sure how you recover from these moments.  I am not sure I ever will.  Kass was so brave to say these things out loud.  By the end, there were no words left unspoken between us, and that is a beautiful gift.

I am still trying to make peace with losing Kass.  But, I am so very proud of the person she was every moment she was alive on this Earth.  The kind of grace she exhibited I may never see again in my lifetime.  I will forever be proud to call her my sister.

Kass passed on from this life to Heaven, surrounded by her loving family, on July 2, 2012.

Living Passionately represents our Dad.  There are no two words to better capture the essence of his life.  It did not matter if he was cooking dinner, writing an essay, teaching his grandchildren to paint, or giving a speech to a packed auditorium; our Dad did everything with great passion!   When I think of the word itself, I think about our dad.  He lived his life on his own terms, with conviction, purpose and passion.

In so many ways, we owe everything we are to our Dad.  He (and our Mom) gave us so many gifts, but their greatest gift was the gift of their time and their love.

My Dad also taught us many things.

  • He taught us about personal responsibility, honesty, integrity. He showed us, through his own example, the value of hard work and fighting for what you believe in.
  • He taught us great faith and he showed us how to love, and to live with enthusiasm.
  • He raised us, along with my Mom, to appreciate all of the blessings we had been given and to never take them for granted, even one moment.
  • He taught us to take time to appreciate nature, the beauty of the natural world, and he reminded us of the thin line that lies between this existence and the next.
  • He challenged us to not be boring, but to be bold.
  • He gave us the best of the best start to life because he never stopped believing in us and he loved unconditionally.

After we lost Kass, none of us knew what to do.  We were stalled.  Uncertain. Fearful.  Unaccepting.  Mad.  We were so many things.  When you live through the devastation that comes with losing someone you love, especially someone in the prime of her life, it is not easy to recover from.  Part of you wants to give up on all of those things that you thought you knew.  All of the things that up until that point, made you who you were:  Faith, belief, optimism.  I think a lot of those things faded for me after we lost Kass.

But, our Dad was our constant source of wisdom and strength during this time.  Just as he had always been.

For the entire year following Kass’s passing, I went to the cemetery every day.  I just knew that I had to in order to find some peace.  I recall very vividly during that time my Dad used to say, “But, she is not there….she is in Heaven now.  She is in the quiet breeze on a summer night, she is in the moon light on a cold December evening, and she is in the sunlight breaking through the clouds at daybreak.  In Heaven, there is no more pain.  It is okay.  She is okay.  We will be okay.”

And, this, perhaps, of all of the things that I learned from my Dad, has been the most profound.

For, my Dad’s experience with cancer was far different from my sister’s.  Life was moving forward.  We were planning our wedding.  Fall, our family’s favorite season, was waiting right around the corner.  And, just one week before my Dad walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, he called me to tell me that he did not feel well, and that was the first indication we had that something was not right.  But, my Dad was a pillar of strength and there were not many days that I ever recalled our Dad being sick.  I knew during that week leading up to our wedding that this was something more serious.  But, not in a million years would I have ever thought of cancer.  Cancer had already taken so much from our family.  Yet, a little over a week after our wedding day, we lost our Dad three days following his cancer diagnosis.

His cancer was aggressive and swift.   There was no time for treatment.  No PET scans, no making plans for what happens next, no time for funeral wishes, no time for anything.  But, once again no words were left unspoken.  We gathered at our Dad’s bedside and said our final goodbyes and later watched as the harvest moon – the same one he wrote about so often – rose above the mountain.  The day was September 8, 2014.  Our lives will never be the same.

So, where do we go from here?

These days, I often hear a different version of my Dad’s words, and they bring me peace.

They are in Heaven.  In Heaven, there is no more pain.  It is okay.  They are okay.  We will be okay.”

And, I believe.

I close tonight by going back to where we began:  HOPE!

IMG01 (2)
Hope remains….

 

Despite all that has happened to our family ….hope remains.

  • Hope that someday, we will find a cure for this terrible disease.
  • Hope that with time, our hearts will heal from this sadness;
  • Hope that we will never forget the lessons we learned as we witnessed the fight.
  • Hope that the beautiful moments will outshine the sad;
  • Hope that those of us who are left behind will live better lives, lives with more clarity, and lives steeped in a pursuit of giving, loving, and helping others in memory of those we have loved and lost.
  • And, finally, hope in the knowledge that the love we share will never die.

For all of those who are still fighting here tonight, keep the hope burning like a fire in your heart.

And, never stop believing that, no matter what, something good will come…

Thank you, and God Bless. 

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Harnessing Hope. Living Passionately.

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