Monday, October 22, 2007

The Ronald McDonald House Benefit

On Saturday, Gregg, David and I joined my family at the Ronald McDonald House Dinner and Gala in Seattle. This was especially meaningful to us for two reasons: we lived in the House during Katie's treatment and recovery in 2006-7, and Alaska Airlines hosted two tables at the benefit in Katie's honor. [It was David's first experience in black tie, and he got his braces off just before the event.]
My sister-in-law, Caroline, works for Alaska Airlines. Her colleagues were very kind regarding our family's situation during the past year, and offered help and understanding. David met some of these kind people in the company's box seating areas during Seahawks' and Sonics' games, when we were living at Ronald McDonald House and the hospital, and he enjoyed them very much.
For this gala, Alaska donated many airline tickets (for auction items, as part of different vacation packages). They had a full page in the auction catalog "Thank You" section. They decided to put a tribute to Katie there, where I imagine they could have advertised their services. I thought that was amazing, and it touched me deeply. It said,

"Celebrating the courage and spirit of
Kathryn (Katie) Emilie Gerstenberger
March 8, 1995 - August 16, 2007
and the haven Ronald McDonald House provides families."

I want to say my own "Thank you" here to Alaska Airlines. It is because of the generosity of corporations with heart, as well as individuals, that Ronald McDonald House is able to help families (like ours) stay together during the most stressful time of their lives.
We learned that Children's Hospital is going to expand - possibly double - in size. They have challenged Ronald McDonald House to grow, too, because many of the families served will need accomodation. So the need to support the house is great. We were happy to be able to bid on (and buy) items whose proceeds will go to support the House. We bought a flying lesson for David, and some vacation time on the Oregon Coast.

Barbara Jo
My mom had three cousins who grew up in Atlanta. One of them had three children, and her older daughter, Ruth, was killed by a drunk driver 26 years ago. I have been corresponding with her about the experience of having a child pass away at this age, and she understands. She gave me permission to share some of that correspondence here. I wrote to her:

I have been thinking about our girls, and the point in their lives at which they passed. It feels like such incompleteness, from a mother's point of view ("I'm not finished mothering yet!"), yet they have inspired great things from others...I think about your work with RADD and your writing. I think about Katie's Endowment at Children's Hospital, the nurses and doctors with whom I have spoken, and the impact that Katie made on their lives;...about the funds raised when we spoke at a Hospital guild event; about the blood drives after her surgery, and so on...I wonder about my sense of incompletion vs. the possibility that Ruth's and Katie's lives were full, in their own ways, and I think I will never make peace between those two conflicting things. I will live instead with the conflict, and have to learn to allow "both/and," instead of trying to make "either/or."

Here is her reply to me:

I used to sit in The Compassionate Friends' meetings,
listening to the stories of other bereaved parents: I never got to buy her
a first pair of Mary Jane shoes, I never got to see him off on his first day of
school, etc. It seemed to me that, terrible as every child's death is,
losing a daughter on the cusp of womanhood was the worst of all. I had an
inkling of who she would turn out to be, but I didn't get to see it. I had
put in the hard work of those early years and was just beginning to get a
glimpse of the pay-off (not that I didn't enjoy those years, I loved them!). I
remember once crying to Rabbi Jablon, a young, kind, red-bearded man who led the
congregation at which Ruth led Shabbat groups, "I wanted to see how she turned
out!" His reply has stayed with me all these years, "She turned out

I think that what he was saying is that even if she didn't complete her
life from my point of view, it was a complete life, and indeed a beautiful life.
But it still--26+ years later--feels incomplete to me. Recently a good
friend mentioned her niece's wedding some 15 years ago. What my friend
remembers is how freezing cold it was on that January night. What I remember is
that at some point, unable to hang on any longer, I fled to the ladies'
room where I sobbed and sobbed. Ruth and the bride, Rachel, had been
classmates and friends. Rachel still lives in Rochester, and I often see
her with her four children, and have learned to be happy for her rather than sad
for me. But the sadness of all Ruth's unfilled dreams and potential is
never far below the surface, even if she did "turn out beautifully."
Living with "both/and" isn't easy, but I think you're on the right track.
To think of it as "either/or" is to demean either your sense of yourself as a
mother or Katie's very essence.

So there is a voice of experience, of one who is surviving this...thank you, B.J.!


S/K/O said...

Such powerful words. It is amazing, beautiful, overwhelming and joyous that we are so touched by the people closest to us. Karen, you and your family are such an inspiration. Katie lives on and loves on through you. We think of you often and fondly and so enjoy reading your blog.

Stacy, Kelsey and Owen

WoodenHue said...

How beautiful you all look, yet lovelier still are your courageous words. I'm hoping that with time the both/and approach comes easier for both you and Barbara Jo. In the meantime, with the help of Alaska Airlines, it seems like your responses to this tragedy will make the world a richer and more heartening place for all of us who might find ourselves facing these challenges some time in the future.