By Barb Arland-Fye
Katie, then 16, arrived at the house with a portable oxygen tank and a big smile on her face. Her dad, Larry, gently reminded her not to get overly excited at my son Colin’s 16th birthday party to avoid using up her oxygen supply. Our family and Katie’s knew each other through school — Colin and Katie participated in special education together — and our parish, Our Lady of the River in LeClaire.
She and the other four teenagers with special needs made that birthday party one I’ll never forget. They ate pizza, listened to rock ‘n roll, danced and laughed with abandon. I laughed along with them, and overlooked my duty to monitor how quickly Katie’s body was tapping into the oxygen in the tank. It didn’t run out, but the supply was very low by the time her dad returned to take her home.
Two years later, Katie and her parents (Larry and Gloria) attended Colin’s high school graduation party at our house and the following year the housewarming at his new apartment. They lived in different cities, but Colin and Katie often saw each other at Mass on Saturday nights at Our Lady of the River. Colin always looked for an opportunity to talk with Katie and her parents. He considered Katie to be a friend and, equally important, a connection to his cherished past; a past with structure and consistency that my son with autism longs for.
We hadn’t seen Katie at Mass in a while, but figured it was because she might not be feeling well, or because of the unseasonably cold temperatures. Perusing my email on Saturday, my heart sank when I read a prayer chain request. Thirty-one-year-old Katie had passed away peacefully Friday afternoon in her home. “I ask for prayers for peace for the family as they grieve the loss of such a beautiful, vibrant soul,” the prayer request stated. “As Gloria said, ‘she was a gift to us from God and it was time for her to return to him.’”
My first thought focused on Katie, her parents and siblings, all of whom doted on her. My second thought: how do we tell Colin and how will he react? We figured her name would be mentioned at Mass that evening during the Prayers of the Faithful. Our younger son, Patrick, volunteered to pick up Colin for Mass and to tell him the news about Katie’s passing.
Colin burst into the family room and said, “Mom and Dad, I have tragic news…. Katie passed away.” I asked Colin how he was feeling after hearing the news. “I’m sad. I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I will deal with it,” he responded.
Then Colin peppered my husband Steve and me with questions in rapid-fire succession, a sign that he was anxious. “When did this happen? When did Katie die? What time? Did she die at her house? Larry and Gloria are sad. Dad, she was only 31 years old.”
Katie’s parents and at least one sibling were at Mass Saturday night. Colin, who does not typically distribute hugs, gave a big one to Gloria after Mass. He wants to attend Katie’s funeral Mass at Our Lady of the River, and to give a speech. The funeral yes; the speech, no, I told Colin.
We’ll just have to hang on to the memories from that birthday party 15 years ago when, with Katie’s presence, the cares of the world parted for a few hours. Godspeed, Katie!
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)