Editor’s note: This story originally ran June 22, 2009.
Bev McKissick knows there is no joy in cancer.
She also knows that the dwindling number of months she has left before she succumbs to bone cancer are as joyful as they can be, in part because she has been upfront about her condition and because the community has responded with kindness and warmth.
Now her open-armed approach to life has been reaffirmed with a surge of support for the wedding of her youngest child and her only daughter, Kaitlin.
Thanks to donations from strangers and friends alike, Kaitlin and her fiancé, Kyle Holland, will become husband and wife at grand wedding June 28. A friend is handling the arrangements, so Bev can focus her waning energy on her family.
“As I become weaker, the circle around me becomes stronger, “ she said.
A Whatcom County native, Bev, 56, graduated from Meridian High School and Western Washington University before becoming a teacher and, later, a school librarian. She’s married to Rob McKissick, a technical education teacher at Nooksack Valley High School.
The past four years she has been a librarian at Kendall Elementary, where she continued to work after her diagnosis last October. At first, she took off one day a week for treatment, but she worked only a day or two a week by the end of the school year as her condition worsened.
“The cancer has not been daunted by any chemo we’ve thrown at it, “ she said.
The McKissicks have three sons: Zach, an Air Force pilot in Oklahoma; Josh, a Bellingham police officer; and Jacob, with the Peace Corps in Africa. They also have four grandchildren, including a granddaughter who Bev got to hold moments after she born June 11.
Bev and Rob knew early this year that Kyle, a 28-year-old P.E. teacher at Kendall Elementary, planned to propose to Kaitlin, a 22-year-old education student at Western Washington University.
But they didn’t know when, so Bev didn’t know for sure if she would be around to see her daughter marry.
The answer came on Easter, April 12, when Kyle talked Kaitlin into taking a break from school to watch the sunset from Boulevard Park. As they sat down, he quietly placed a plastic Easter egg on the bench.
“When I opened it, there was the ring inside, “ Kaitlin said.
Kaitlin hoped she could marry when her mother was well enough to attend and to walk down the aisle, so she moved quickly to set the wedding date. Given the family’s medical expenses, Kaitlin figured she and Kyle would cobble together a low-budget wedding; something nice, but nothing fancy.
That’s when Joni Heutink, a family friend, stepped forward to make their wedding the best possible.
“It will be bittersweet, “ Heutink said, “but we can focus on the sweet part.”
She began by contacting a neighbor, Pam Needham, who owns Alicia’s Bridal Shoppe and The Formal House, in Bellingham. Needham had heard about Bev’s situation and agreed to donate a wedding dress to Kaitlin and tuxes for Kyle and the wedding party.
“I understand how important it is to have those moments, so we were more than happy to do that for them, “ Needham said.
Encouraged by Needham’s quick response, Heutink began contacting other friends and businesses.
Janet Anker-Werderits and Linda Richter, sisters who own Front Street Spa in Lynden, donated pedicures for Bev and Kaitlin.
Donna Korthuis, who owns A Special Occasion, an event-planning business, agreed to oversee plans for the wedding and to make the flower arrangements. A longtime neighbor of the McKissicks, Korthuis married her husband, Grant, on a tight schedule so her mother, who was dying of cancer, could attend.
“It brings back a lot of memories, “ she said.
Pete Robbin, another family friend, will videotape the wedding. He’s familiar with cancer, too; his wife survived breast cancer.
“It’s something that you’ve got to do because it’s the right thing to do, “ he said.
Scott Conner, a colleague of Rob’s at Nooksack Valley High and a longtime friend, will photograph the wedding.
Haggen Inc. is donating flowers, and Heutink’s daughter, Joell Kech, the owner of Brush of Bronze in Lynden, is donating airbrush tanning to Kaitlin and Bev.
At Northwest Hair Design in Lynden, the owner, Melissa Levien, and stylist Mandi Hamilton will do Kaitlin’s and her four bridesmaids’ hair the morning of the wedding.
Vincent Lalonde, the owner of Mount Bakery in Bellingham, is donating a large, handmade wedding cake in honor of a close friend who died of cancer several years ago.
And other people are donating money, food, wine, and the cost of the wedding site, Evergreen Gardens, in Ferndale.
“I was surprisingly, pleasingly shocked by how well it all worked, “ Heutink said. “It made me so proud to be part of this community.”
OPEN TO HELP
Bev is comfortable being public about her cancer. She says letting people know frees them up to respond as they wish, whether it’s to hang back, give her a hug, or offer help.
“It’s in all of us, this ability to reach out and care, and to love, “ she said. “When you bring people into the equation, that’s the response you get.”
Kaitlin is more reserved, but is changing. Until recently, she didn’t tell school friends about her mother’s cancer. When she broke the news after her engagement, she learned that a classmate had gone through a similar experience with her own mother.
“Now I don’t feel so alone, “ Kaitlin said.
Bev plans to undergo a last-gasp round of treatment in July with a new family of drugs. She delayed the treatment until after the wedding because the drugs have nasty side effects, including baldness.
It’s important for her to walk down the aisle at her daughter’s wedding, preferably with a full head of hair.
“We really want it to be about Kaitlin and Kyle, “ she said, “and not about my cancer.”