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Eleven Years On

For Margo, for Salt Water, for everyone who has walked this path …

I was a blogger at GBerger in years past. It was a healing place for me for many years, started in the months immediately after Katie’s death. I approached it as a reporter writing from the front lines of a war, and it was powerfully cathartic. I met many wonderful bloggers during that time, and the community was a sustaining force during my introverted times of deep grieving.

I am not writing as much these days, as I’m an artist and have a part-time job at the Bloedel Reserve, but this week, on the eleventh anniversary of our daughter’s death from cancer, I realized some things that I want to put into writing.

Gregg, David, Karen and Katie on the cough. Gregg is wearing a blue button down shirt and tan pants. David is wearing a white button down shirt and tan pants. Karen is wearing a flowered top and black pants. Katie is wearing a black t-shirt and bright green headband.

I’ve had 11 years of missing Katie, 11 birthdays and 11 anniversaries of her passing to endure. We miss her all of the time, but this day — the day she passed — is the worst of them for me.

Katie died here at home — in her own room, in her own bed — a fact that was a mercy for her, but one that makes being here on the day of her passing a trial for me. I can’t help but relive the entire month before her passing, and then, in detail, the day it happened, as it happened, when I am at home during this time of year. It started with the CT scan in July 2007, the day we were told that the cancer had returned, and there was nothing more they could do to help her. The memories are inside and all around me.

It’s like being in a little skiff on the ocean and watching a big wave coming toward you, knowing it’s going to capsize your boat. You know the water is going to be cold and dark, and you’ll have to let the weight of it wash over you and knock you out of your boat; then you’ll have to haul yourself back into your skiff, dry off, warm up and carry on. It’s natural; it’s a wave, and you’re on the ocean — but it’s not easy to bear, year after year.

Katie and David climbing a rock. Katie is higher than David wearing a teal tank top and blue shorts. David is wearing a teal t-shirt and gray shorts. They're both carrying sticks.

I have avoided some of this pain by planning a family vacation to a remote beach town (yes, salt water) at this time every year, but of course, the pain is still there; it just helps that I’m not walking past the door to her room, or going in, and seeing it happen all over again my mind’s eye.

We used to go away as a family, but recently, our son, David, hasn’t been able to be with us; he is in his 20s and lives and works in Montana. I have worried about him weathering this day without us, the day his only sibling — his best friend — died, because who else can really understand those feelings except those who were present? However, we talked about it, and he assured us that he was going to be okay. So this year, we decided to stay at home.

I knew it was going to be different, but I couldn’t seem to plan anything, aside from asking my husband, Gregg to take the day off from work. For Gregg, Katie’s death means that every day is equally painful; he doesn’t feel that the anniversary of her death is worse than any other day without her. He doesn’t see the need to mark the day in any way, so it has fallen to me to try to find ways to deal with it. It isn’t easy to find constructive ways to spend the day that someone precious to you — a 12-year-old girl with all of life awaiting her, who shouldn’t have died — did.

We’ve done lots of memorial-making throughout the years, such as scattering Katie’s ashes in special places, buying a bench in our town’s waterfront park and putting a plaque on it, founding an endowment at Seattle Children’s Hospital (the Katie Gerstenberger Endowment for Cancer Research), founding and serving Katie’s Comforters Guild at Seattle Children’s Hospital (making blankets for patients), writing articles and a book, and speaking in her memory at fundraisers and to medical students. But getting through this day is different from all of that.

Katie's Comforters Guild -- three women involved with the program plus Karen on the right wearing glasses. In front of the four women are an array of brightly colored quilts.

Some years ago, my friend Robin (author of the “Grief and Gratitude” blog) gave me a gift and suggested the lighting of a yahrzeit candle at sundown on the evening before the anniversary of Katie’s death. These little candles, available at grocery stores in the Jewish food section, burn for 24 hours. The flame shines a light in the dark hours before and all through the day of her passing. The tradition of lighting this little candle each year at sundown has given me more comfort than I can say. I brought one with us each year on our travels and made a ritual of lighting it while Gregg and David watched, putting it in a safe place so it wouldn’t be a fire hazard.

This year, we took the candle out on our deck. I went indoors, and when I returned, found that without saying a word, Gregg had lit it. It took me a few moments to realize that this was a beautiful shift. The tradition moved from “me” to “us”. The next morning, around the exact time of her death, he brought out the photo albums. That was also new; we usually do this on her birthday, but not on her death day. This little shift made me feel supported and partnered in my grief. My heart lifted, looking at her shining eyes, huge smile and confident demeanor — her beautiful life in pictures.

Karen on a hike wearing a yellow short sleeve shirt and blue pants. The trail, trees and mountain is behind her.

We decided to take a hike on Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. It overlooks the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains; David would have loved it. We hiked for four hours, up to Klahanie Ridge, with a stop for lunch at the top and returned to the car, arriving home sweaty, dirty, exhausted and happy. The yahrzheit candle was still alight.

Gregg on hike wearing a black athletic short sleeved shirt, baseball cap, standing with his hands on his hips.

 

Here is what I learned from August 16, 2018, eleven years after Katie’s passing:

  • David can manage this day in his own way.
  • Gregg can participate without me leading him.
  • After 11 years of things being one way, they can change without my intervention.
  • I can tell the story of what happened, in detail, to the right person (this year, a trustworthy therapist), have a cleansing cry and be all right afterward.
  • Crying doesn’t have to be disabling. It can be freeing.
  • A vigorous hike in the mountains is a good way to spend the day. It doesn’t have to be far away from home or at the beach.
  • Returning to a still-burning yahrzeit candle after being away all day is a heartwarming gift.

Lit yahrzheit candle for Katie sitting on blue, white and dark blue tile table on Karen's deck with view of the water beyond the low wall of the deck.

I posted photos of Katie on social media on the 16th and received comforting and kind comments (from lots of people who knew her as well as those who didn’t have the privilege) which helped me through the day. Every photo and story of shared memories, every word of solidarity and compassion sent to us via card, email, text or social media is precious and appreciated. Every single one helps us to know that Katie is remembered, and that we are not alone in treasuring the gift of her life. We love hearing her name. To all those who are able to bear the pain of witnessing our loss and not turning away, thank you. To everyone who has donated to the endowment or joined in supporting Katie’s Comforters Guild, thank you. Every act of love and kindness done in her memory comforts us. Thank you.

Katie wearing a big smile looking right at the camera. She has long brown hair parted on the side and is wearing a teal and pink athletic jacket.

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