Remembrance Weekend

The O'Brien family at the Memorial Garden of St. Jude

Good evening Catie Team,

      You all continue to be in our prayers as we journey.  Thank you for continuing on this journey with us.  This past Friday, Christine and I and the Fab 5 all hopped on a plane from the Harrisburg Airport and headed to Memphis.  After the 16th time that Christine complained about how early I had awakened her to catch the flight, I stopped counting.  This has been an issue since our honeymoon 14 years ago when we had to catch a train early in the morning on our 5th day of marital bliss.  Apparently I am slow to get the message.  On the plus side, we were in Memphis sitting at an IHOP having breakfast by 10am and at the table next to us, we noticed a mother, daughter and grandmother, who likewise noticed the fab 5 all decked out in St. Jude t-shirts.  After we finished eating, our two families approached one another and we learned that the young lady, who happens to be named Maggie, had just arrived at St. Jude to receive treatment.  We talked for a while, exchanged information and offered our assistance as they tried to navigate through the first few weeks.  We then made our way to the car, prayed for the newest member of “Catie’s Kids”, and headed for Target House to visit with some of the staff there and renew acquaintances.  So much had changed!  They have continued to improve the common areas to make it even better for the kids and for the parents.  Mia, Molly, and M.E. played on the playground and I felt the first pangs of sadness as I pictured Catie climbing all over the monkey bars in her first few weeks at Target House.  She was so healthy after surgery and through radiation that despite the tremendous odds, we truly believed that she would beat the odds and survive.

      We left Target House, went to Mass at Sacred Heart, a church that Catie, Christine and I had visited many times in the past.  We then headed downtown to St. Jude and pulled up to the gate and announced that we were here for remembrance weekend.  Christine, Maggie and Max headed to the gift shop, while Mia, Molly, M.E. and I went in search of “Catie’s bench.”  Recently, one of Catie’s followers had made a donation to St. Jude in her name and St. Jude placed a plaque on one of the benches in the garden area where Catie used to sit between appointments because it was so cold in the hospital.  The bench and the plaque looked great, and we are so grateful.  As we were exiting the garden and meeting up with Christine, we saw Shannon, one of the schedulers who had been so wonderful to Catie and Christine during their time at St. Jude.  We spoke with her for a spell, (we were in Memphis, there will be more of these “southern” idioms as you continue to read).  Shannon then walked us into the hospital and showed us around the clinics that had been updated and enlarged since Catie’s treatment.  While we were there, we ran into Maggie and her mom and grandmother (from IHOP) and sat with them and exchanged more info and hopefully imparted some useful tips and information.  By this point, it was 1:30, and the official “Remembrance Weekend” activities were commencing so we headed to the Pavilion.  In the Pavilion, each family was given a bulletin board to hang pictures and other items as a remembrance of your child.  Many had pictures, some had articles of clothing, others had artwork that their child had completed.  In all, over 30 boards were created in memory of children who had battled in this wonderful facility and lost their battle.  Some, we knew personally, others we knew of, and many; we came to know over the course of the next two days.  All of them demonstrated the need to continue to battle pediatric cancer until remembrance weekends are no longer needed.

Mia, M.E., and Molly on Catie's bench at St. Jude

      This portion of the weekend offered the opportunity for families to connect and reconnect with one another, but also with the doctors, nurses, and staff that had such a part of our daily lives while our children were patients.  I can only imagine how difficult it was for these people to walk amongst us and see pictures of themselves with our children who did not survive.  It is a testament to who they are as individuals and to the overall vision of St. Jude that even in death, these people truly care and are forever invested in our lives.  To know that Catie and the other children represented in that room had such a profound impact as to compel people to come and visit with us is an indication of how special these children and the people who care for them really are.  While Christine and I spent time with these people, the kids were eating and having their faces, arms, and hands painted; they looked great!  When we left the hospital grounds at 6pm, we knew 3 things.  Catie and the other kids were all safely watching out for us and were clearly here with us in a very special way.  We also knew that we were doing okay.  Lastly, we knew that the fab 5 were doing really well; they were happy, outgoing, and proud of their sister and her legacy. 

      Before we took this journey, people asked us if we were nuts.  “Why would you go back there?  Why open up all of the scars, why ruin whatever healing you and the kids have already done?”  On Thursday, just before we packed, Christine heard Catie as clear as day repeat a phrase she had uttered throughout their days together at St. Jude.  “It’s ok mom, they have been doing this for years, trust them.”  St Jude has been inviting parents and siblings back for Remembrance weekends for years and have refined the weekend based on countless feedback from those who have traveled this road before us.  So once again, we trusted St. Jude and asked God to bless our journey.  There were families that we expected to see that were absent, and in their absence we realized that they, perhaps, had fallen victim to the same temptations.  With nothing else to offer them, we prayerfully accepted their decision and hope that their decision offered them the same peace that ours did.

      The next morning, I was perfectly willing to let Christine sleep in, (I had learned the lesson from the previous day), but the schedule dragged us all out of bed and over to St. Jude for the second part of the weekend.  As soon as we arrived, the fab 5 were escorted to age appropriate sibling groups and Christine and I joined the parents of 32 other children for a panel discussion on grief.  Led by parents of children who had died more than 5 years ago, the 32 of us listened, commented, questioned and commiserated.  The weekend is open to parents and families whose children have died within the past year and each family may attend 2 consecutive years.  Christine and I are planning on attending again next year and were approached to be on the panel after that.  The morning went by quickly, and we connected with a few families whose stories and journeys paralleled our own and we intend to keep in touch with them.  At the end of the morning session, a short video was played of interviews with staff at the hospital relating their memories and experiences with our kids and how fortunate and blessed they feel to have known our children and how honored they were to have been able to treat them and that they, like us will never forget them.

           After lunch and reconnecting with the kids, we attended a prayer service that offered readings, flowers, a display of the artwork that the kids had worked on in the morning, and beautiful music.  Then, to the song, “Bridge over Troubled Water”, a picture of each of the kids was projected on a large screen.  As I counted the 55 kids whose family had signed up for the weekend, I realized that over 20 families had signed up but had been unable to attend for one reason or another.  We all then went outside and launched a balloon for Catie and the other kids, spent some time in the memorial garden that Catie loved so much, and went back through the gates and into the city of Memphis. 

      It was now time for what Mia believed to be the highlight of the weekend, baking cookies with Miss Mary.  For those of you who have been following Catie’s story, you will remember that Catie and Miss Mary had become instant friends and that Mary would deliver “happys” or little gifts of cookies to Catie and at times, her cookies were all she would eat.  Mary has been and continues to be such a wonderful blessing to all of us.  Mia and Maggie went to Miss Mary’s house and spent a few hours baking cookies while the rest of us went back to the hotel room and took a nap.  When we picked Maggie and Mia up later, we spent a while talking with Mary and Keith, and then headed on our way to the Rhea’s house. 

      Katie Rhea and Catie became instant friends when Catie arrived at St. Jude in July of 2008.  Katie still rides the bicycle that we bought for Catie while she was at Target House.  The kids all got along fabulously for hours as we reconnected with a family that had adopted us.  Jessica, Jason, Katie and Jaxson are a wonderful family who exemplify southern hospitality and we are blessed to count them as friends.  At midnight, we left the Rhea’s and headed to the hotel for a wonderful night’s sleep that was interrupted by Mia throwing up in her bed, but thankfully not on Max who was sleeping next to her.  We got her showered and changed, tried not to think of Catie and her constant nausea, and went back to sleep.

      When we woke up on Sunday morning, we got dressed and headed to Mass at St. Mary’s, a church that had been a wonderful home to Christine and Catie.  Father Eric gave a wonderful homily and reminded us of where we learned the “God is good, all the time” that has become the Catie’s Wish Foundation slogan.  It was a wonderful homecoming.  After Mass, we headed to the Peabody Hotel, home of the world famous Peabody Ducks and had a wonderful brunch.  We then went to Mud Island and waded in the scale model of the Mississippi River until it was time to head back to the airport.  We arrived home at 1am and all-in-all, we had a very good time and were glad we went.

      Christine and I just read over this update and said a prayer and realized that while we were remembering Catie for 3 days, 3 more of Catie’s kids had died, another 150 children and their parents learned that cancer had invaded their lives, and 20 more children that we will never know succumbed to their cancer and joined Catie in heaven.  Because of your generosity and the generosity of hundreds more, millions of dollars have been raised for research and progress continues to be made in this battle for our children’s lives.  However, the biggest difference will still come about as a result of prayer.  Please take a moment now, gather your family, and join us as we ask God to continue to bless these kids and the people who care for them.  Talk to Catie and ask her to continue to climb up into God’s lap and talk to Him about her kids.

God is good, all the time,

 As for us, we will keep all of you in our daily prayers.  We thank you for the blessing you continue to be for us.  May God bless you and the work of your hands.

 Christine, Kevin, Maggie, Max, Mia, Molly, M.E., and always Catie

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2 Responses to “Remembrance Weekend”

  1. Donna Cohen says:

    When I saw the picture of Mia, M.E. and Molly on Catie’s bench, I was struck by the empty space on the bench. Whether consciously or not, the girls left room for Catie, who is always with them.

  2. Ann Kinney says:

    I just read about your daughter and her legacy in the AD Times. Thank you for an inspiring story and chance to help St. Jude’s. You have a beautiful family. God is good, all the time.