Happy 22nd Birthday, Catie!

March 2023

My sweet Catie,

Happy Birthday!  Each year we share with you all the efforts taken during the past year to further your last words, “Do all you can so that the next family’s journey is better.”  It was an ambitious request to give to us as we were trying so desperately to hold onto you rather than let go of you.  For my part I wanted to stop the world and take up the task of being your personal historian.  Even in the seven years we were blessed to have with you it would have taken me a lifetime to complete the work “The Catie O’Brien Story – lessons for a life well lived.”  We do our best to hold onto all our memories and share them with others; donors, grieving parents, medical staff; all those who will listen.

This past year we continued our work supporting the efforts of Penn State Health, THON as well as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, by teaching communication skills to Fellows, Child Life Specialists, and Pediatric Oncologists at the Global Academy.  We continue to listen to the tears and memories of grieving parents; we understand their loss and truly feel no one should be alone in their grief.  We participated in the creation of a podcast for grieving parents based on all of the research we have done.  We continue to speak at events and share the lessons you taught us with donors hoping they, like you, will fall in love with St. Jude and join their mission and yours.

We are not alone doing this work. Your brother and sisters are doing their part as well. Maggie has finished her Nursing Residency at Penn State Hershey, where you had your surgery. She is now working at Penn State’s Hampden campus caring for patients and making an impact just as your nurses made on you and her. Max is serving in the Navy. We felt his commitment when he missed both Thanksgiving and Christmas to be on watch; knowing we were free to celebrate because in some way he was keeping us safe. Your biggest influence was on Mia. She changed her career path after reading your patient files and doing research on your tumor.  She now wants to be in the lab finding cures for kids like you!  After she graduates early this coming December she plans to continue studying Biology and hopes to go into cancer research.  Molly graduated from high school in May and is away at college studying English.  She is another one who seems to love research.  That leaves M.E.; she is driving now, can you believe that!  She is finishing basketball, getting ready for lacrosse season and looking for the right college for her.  This year she put up a THON fundraising page for you.  They all make us proud, just like you do.  Yes, you still do make us proud as we remember how hard you fought, how big you smiled and how much you laughed.

Remembering you is most difficult in January, the anniversary of your death. It is still heartbreaking, and we imagine it always will be.  It is softened, lessened if you will, whenever we share you with others.  Valentine’s Day is the anniversary of GP’s death.  On anyone’s calendar there are days of both celebration and sorrow; both are important and in my opinion, both should be marked in a special way.  I remember GP and as I ponder his life and his impact on my life, I see another lesson to be learned.  Do you remember that GP stands for Grand Pop?  As we got older it seemed appropriate to change his name as we were not too old to have a grandfather but he was too cool and involved in our lives to still be Grand Pop and so he became known to many as GP.

GP lived into his nineties. He lived beyond his parents, wife, sisters, friends, and his son, Billy. GP died the year before you were diagnosed.  I think if he had had to watch me go through what he and Mom-Mom went through it would have crushed him.  His Billy died from leukemia before the doors of St. Jude opened.  There were no treatments.  Families whose children had cancer didn’t have the hope that Penn State and St. Jude offer families today.  Children died and families mourned together and grieved alone.  Yet when I think of GP, I think of a loving, storytelling, avid reader who loved crossword puzzles and was a wonderful grandfather who joined us for vacations, played with us as kids and played those same games with you as your Great Grandfather.  He wrote great cards filled with insights and memories. He wrote to you before you could even read, signing his cards GGP.

I never spoke to GP about his son Billy. I loved him enough to know he was happy talking about what he wanted to talk about and even though he loved history he shied away from discussing his own. I was born about ten years after Billy died, and GP lived for more than fifty years without Billy.  We have been without you, Sweet Catie, for fourteen years now.  We have learned that time does not heal all wounds but allows us to find a way to continue living and loving those no longer physically present. GP’s life and his willingness to continue living after so much loss taught us that how you live your life honors those like you who have gone before us. What people remember most about GP is not his losses but his stories and his love for his family.

As we were writing this letter the image of the red doors at St. Jude were off in the distance. They are revolving doors, the doors to the Children’s Hospital at Penn State are also revolving doors. It is always the hope that the sick child enters those doors and the healthy child exits. How perfect would that be!  We know that there is more work to be done “so that the next family’s journey is better” — do you remember saying that to us? We remember and we continue doing our part in your memory to care for that next family.

Each of us fill our lives with many things.  Some stay with us for a long time and others, like fireworks are impactful but don’t last.  You, my Sweet Catie, were an amazing fireworks display; just like the ones you so loved at Longwood Gardens!  We wish you a Happy Birthday!  We wish you a cake filled with candles to blow out and that all your wishes come true.

For all those reading this, our wish for you is that you have and take advantage of the opportunity to love those who are present in your lives. Moments are fleeting and precious but love is a lasting gift.  We wish you wonderful memories of those who are no longer present and peace; knowing that your love remains.  We want to thank you for supporting the foundation that bears Catie’s name.  Your support allows her wish to come true in so many ways for families impacted by pediatric cancer.

God is good, all the time,

Mom and Dad

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