Five years ago this past Monday a gorgeous, fun, spirited and happy 11-year-old girl passed away from cancer. Kaitlyn is the oldest daughter of my friends Nick and Kelly, and big sister to their daughter Megan... and this smiley face is the symbol of her life.
I don't know how to explain it when I tell you that such a sad time is one of the most treasured times of my life. So often we experience a death in our lives and want to run away from it; leave it behind so sadness doesn't follow you. But that's not how it was in this case. Heartbreaking, yes. Sad, terribly. But in her struggle with cancer and even in her death, Kaitlyn taught all of us about living more than anyone seven times her age could hope to.
Megan asked me out of the blue a few years ago when it was that I became their friend... and this is one of those rare times I can't pinpoint the moment. Kelly and I became close friends in that year before Kate died, but I really think the week of her death and wake and funeral turned us into family. The kind of friendship where, whether they realized it or not, they were going to be stuck with me for life. But Kaitlyn had that effect on people ... the ability to bring them together. This little girl who put up the fight of her life, who never lost her spunk and looked out for other little kids in the cancer wing, brought a whole world of people together as they all fought along with her.
And she did it all while smiling.
I'm sure her mom could tell of many times when orneriness was more prevalent than a grin, but only a cool and happy kid would want to rock out to Bon Jovi's It's My Life on her way to Mayo for treatments. Or know all the words to Barenaked Ladies If I Had A Million Dollars. They had fun as a family and it's obvious in every photo you see of her with extended family that they loved each other beyond words.
I had the privilege, along with so many others, to be there with their family at Hospice when Kate died. At different times that day the room was filled with people who loved her... her young friends holding her hand... people gathering around her to pray for her or remind her of stories. And even when crying and reminiscing, there was always a touch of laughter. Because she brought that out in people. Even before she was gone it was obvious we would never think of her without eventually turning to a smile.
I know so much of that week was a blur for her parents, but pretty much every moment of it is seared in my memory. And this week, five years later, I can't help but stop each day and remember where I was. Yesterday, Thursday, was her wake service and today was her funeral. In the days between when she died and the services their house was a revolving door of people, and because their friend Joe and I were singing at the services there was a lot of planning to be done and decisions to be made. And I am so grateful that I got to be a part of it. I didn't know how to make it better for her family, because there is no way to make it better. But we did make it a celebration.
Nick walked into her wake service with a big smiley face balloon, and spoke so eloquently of their girl. He captured her spirit and her joys and her young wisdom that touched everyone. The wake and funeral were beautiful, and at the cemetery there was a warm wind that circled everyone and made it impossible not to feel the spirit that was there. The sky filled with colorful balloons that were released in her honor, and that night as we all gathered at their home no one wanted to leave. It was like if we stayed long enough, if we didn't let the week come to an end, we wouldn't have to really say goodbye.
But we did leave, and five years later Kate's spirit is just as present as it ever was. And when we talk about her she brings us together as much as she ever did. She lived 11 years on this earth, and that kid truly lived her whole life. She touched people and left a mark. She accomplished what we all are trying to do... she laughed and she loved and she caused trouble and taught lessons. She really lived her life.
And she did it all while smiling.