Dean Kahn

Kendall Elementary librarian maintains love of life in face of terminal cancer

Bev McKissick waves to a class of first-graders as they leave the library at Kendall Elementary School on March 12, 2009. McKissick is undergoing her second round of chemotherapy for bone cancer.
Bev McKissick waves to a class of first-graders as they leave the library at Kendall Elementary School on March 12, 2009. McKissick is undergoing her second round of chemotherapy for bone cancer. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Editor’s note: This story originally ran March 16, 2009

Bev McKissick, 56, wakes up each morning with a sense of wonder and appreciation for whatever the day will bring.

That happens when you know your days are numbered.

A librarian at Kendall Elementary School, McKissick has bone cancer. Doctors say she has 18 months to two years to live, maybe.

“We all have a time clock; when it runs out, we’re done, “ she said. “If I go out at 56, my life is complete.”

Her whole approach is, this isn’t something to be ashamed of or to be secret about. Bev is a remarkable person.

Charlie Burleigh, school principal

In this era of medical privacy, McKissick is public about her cancer. With her approval, Principal Charlie Burleigh told her co-workers last fall, and McKissick has mentioned the basics to students who come through the library.

“Her whole approach is, this isn’t something to be ashamed of or to be secret about, “ Burleigh said. “Bev is a remarkable person.”

A Whatcom County native, McKissick graduated from Meridian High School, and then from Western Washington University with a P.E. teaching degree. She’s married to Rob McKissick, a technical education teacher at Nooksack Valley High School.

They have three grown sons, and a daughter, the youngest, who’s in college. They also have three grandchildren, with a fourth due this June.

McKissick has faced cancer before. Nine years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She took a year off from teaching to undergo treatment.

“After breast cancer, I realized that life is not certain, “ she said.

Her cancer drugs harmed her heart and lungs, but she was well enough to return to work, and landed the librarian’s job at Kendall.

Cancer spread

Then, last October, she began experiencing shortness of breath. Tests showed that bone cancer had decimated her sternum and spread throughout her body.

She still works four days a week, with a day off for treatment. Pain medication helps her get through the day. She walks with a cane, but moves at a fairly normal pace and otherwise appears chipper.

McKissick has undergone new radiation and chemotherapy, but the cancer remains undeterred.

Being weak means other people circle around you, and you’re stronger.

Bev McKissick

She says she isn’t being Pollyanish, and doesn’t presume to tell other people how they should cope. She’d rather not have cancer, but she accepts the facts and says there are benefits to being open to other people about her condition.

“Being weak means other people circle around you, and you’re stronger, “ she said.

Once word spread, people have helped in ways large and small. Co-workers and students lift books and other heavy objects for her. Friends drive her to and from work, and to appointments.

Fellow school district employees flooded her with donations of their sick-leave hours, and she receives support from people at her church, Christ Fellowship, in Everson.

People give her hugs, but gently. A hard squeeze could crack a rib.

“I wish everybody had this kind of opportunity for affirmation in their life, “ McKissick said. “It’s kind of like having your funeral before you die.”

Beloved by others

McKissick has been at Kendall for only four years, but she’s already left a mark with her energetic work on behalf of the students and teachers.

One time, she was asked to talk to some second-graders about a program in which students move a horse figure around a track as they improve their reading skills. McKissick showed up wearing chaps, boots and a cowpoke’s hat.

She’s very much loved, both professionally and for just who she is.

Sher Ross, librarian

“We didn’t even think about dressing up like a cowgirl, “ said Annie Welch, a second-grade teacher at Kendall. “That was way over the top.”

So when her co-workers talked about what they could do for McKissick, the answer was obvious. On Feb. 27, more than two dozen came to a surprise breakfast in the library dressed as their favorite character from children’s literature.

Burleigh, a reserved sort of guy, donned overalls and a red work cap and came as the title character from “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.”

“She’s very much loved, both professionally and for just who she is, “ said Sher Ross, the librarian at Mount Baker Junior High who mentored McKissick when she started at Kendall.

At home, McKissick continues a practice she began after her round with breast cancer. She writes letters to her grandchildren, including ones for any children her daughter might have.

McKissick doesn’t know how long she’ll be able to work. She loves being at Kendall, but will leave when she’s no longer able to make a positive contribution to the students.

“You know those people who stay too long at the party? I hope I’m not one of them.”

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