Growing up in a small town in the 1970s, we didn’t have video games or cell phones. We didn’t have play dates or kindergarten interviews. We wore bell-bottoms, listened to groovy music and played outside – a lot. For me, growing up in a small town in the 1970s also meant growing up with eight cousins who were shuttled from house to house and from parent to parent. We spent the night at each other’s homes on a weekly basis. On any given day, one mom would take us to the pool, a dad would take us to see a movie, a different mom would make us dinner… I only had two biological siblings, but it felt like I had eight. Of the nine of us, my cousin, Kay, was the oldest and I was the youngest. Kay nicknamed me “Kid”. To say we were close would be an extreme understatement. She was my favorite cousin, always signing her cards and letters to me, “From Kay – your cousin of a lifetime”. And she surely was.
As children, we engaged in all manner of fun and ridiculous activities. We rode bikes, played in the woods, built forts and held funeral services for our fallen pets (replete with veils made from dishtowels covering our heads as we made our way along in makeshift funeral processions to graves marked by cardboard “headstones”). As we grew older, Kay got married, moved away and became a registered nurse. But we remained as close as ever.
Throughout the years she was my mentor and confidante for every milestone: high school, college, first love, jobs… At every visit, we stayed up until all hours of the night discussing politics, religion, philosophy and love. We swapped books, phone calls, recipes and advice.
Kay was mother to two beautiful daughters. Kathie, the oldest, is 20 years younger than I – yet still calls me “Kid” as her mother always did. One day about six years ago, Kathie called me with devastating news, “Kid, I have something horrible to tell you – Mom’s been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.” Suddenly, conversations I’d had with Kay over the previous two years began to make sense. She had told me at various times that she knew something was wrong, that she didn’t feel like herself. Kay was known for her boundless energy, yet she had been feeling too fatigued to do many of the things she loved. She saw numerous doctors and was told that her white blood cell count was high. But no one could tell her why. Finally, a tumor had been found. After two years of not knowing – a sonogram revealed a tumor the size of a football.
The next five years were filled with hope followed by despair, laughter followed by sorrow, elation followed by disappointment. There were traditional and experimental medical procedures, alternative medicines and spiritual healing practices, each bringing with it a rollercoaster of emotion. We prayed that Kay would be one of the lucky ones – that she would beat the diagnosis – that we would have more time. My beloved cousin, Kay, passed away of ovarian cancer at the age of 59 on the eve of her favorite holiday – Christmas.
Along with the lifetime of touching, hilarious, deeply meaningful moments we shared, Kay left me with a radically altered world-view. My brilliant, kind, beautiful and generous cousin saw her diagnosis as a gift. She told me that every day since she learned of her cancer, she cherished things she had previously taken for granted. She listed examples as ordinary as a sunny day and as profound as having had the privilege to share her life with her family. Kay’s ability to turn such devastating news into a beautiful gift would forever shape the way I live my life.
As a trainer at VPR POP, I see the gifts Kay was talking about in each patient story I hear. We are fortunate to live in a time when new treatments and medical breakthroughs are discovered with lightning speed. We see more and more people facing unwanted diagnoses go on to live long, full, productive, happy lives. I am privileged to share in crafting many of their stories. Each day brings a new example of courage and hope. I like to think that Kay is a part of it all as I strive to keep the lessons of gratitude and hope she taught me at the forefront of everything I do. I can hear her voice in my head sometimes saying, “See, Kid? There are gifts all around you; all you have to do is look for them.” I know Kay would have loved hearing our patient stories and she would be thrilled by the work being done at VPR POP every single day.