Katie Kirkpatrick gets some last-minute help. For her walk down the aisle, she left her oxygen tank at the back of the church with her wheelchair.
The bridesmaids, eight in all, wore strapless black dresses that hadn’t been the bride’s first choice but were available on short notice and looked lovely nonetheless. The groomsmen wore sharp tuxedos. The parents and grandparents of the young couple at the altar looked proud and happy and maybe a little wistful.The 400 or so people at the church to witness this quickly arranged exchange of vows cried not just because that’s what people do at weddings, but because they didn’t know how long this marriage might last. The bride, though brimming with happiness, was terribly ill.
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Katie Kirkpatrick, 21, had chased away cancer once, only to have it return — to clog her lungs and grab hold of her heart and try to pull her away from those she loved and those who loved her. Breathing was difficult now; she had to use oxygen. The pain in her back was so intense it broke through the morphine that was supposed to act as a shield. Her belly, legs and feet were swollen because her organs were shutting down and her body was retaining fluid.
People prayed for her, just as she prayed for strength and guidance and deliverance from the disease. They raised money to help pay medical expenses, and Katie Kirkpatrick did everything she could to help herself. She ate well. In the hospital for chemotherapy, she walked laps through the hallways and rode a stationary bike to stay strong. She took her medicine and vitamins and she never complained because she believed everything would be all right.
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And that is why all these people came out on a cold Saturday in January, when the sun shone so brightly it made the snow sparkle like the crystal beading on Katie Kirkpatrick’s wedding dress. They watched, awed, as she summoned all her strength and walked slowly, smiling, down the long aisle of the Church of Christ in Hazel Park on the arm of her father, who himself has cancer.
While some people might have considered this wedding to be a last act before cancer got the best of Katie Kirkpatrick, it wasn’t that at all. She had hope and faith and when you have those things, when you have a glimmer of something in which to believe, there are no last acts.
She did not use oxygen during that walk; she left the big green tank at the back of the church with her wheelchair. She didn’t want to look back at photos and be reminded of illness at the moment she pledged her love to Nick Godwin, the man who was devoted to her and the man with whom she would build a future. She knew she would get through cancer, she would beat it. And in the end, the very end, she did.
Katie Kirkpatrick grew up in Metamora, a small town full of horse farms and expensive subdivisions in Lapeer County, about 50 miles from Detroit. She graduated from Lapeer East High School, where she was co-valedictorian, a good athlete — basketball and soccer — and the homecoming queen. She was hugely popular. She belonged to a church choir. As a neighborhood baby-sitter, she often canceled her own plans to help out parents in a bind. She counted shopping as one of her hobbies and had a good eye for fashion; she helped family members pick out clothes and even on he morning of her wedding, when she was groggy from morphine, she complimented a friend’s coat and asked if it was new. Last year, $30 at Marshall’s, the friend said.
And Katie Kirkpatrick smiled.
It was a great smile. Friends said that when she smiled at them, they felt like the most important person in the universe. They liked that she listened to them. When they visited during her many hospitalizations, she always asked what they were up to, what they had received for Christmas, who they were dating. When they got scared about the cancer, she was the one who talked sense to them. Everything will be fine, she said.
Late at night, when she was too sick even to sleep, when the hospital bed in her girly pink and yellow bedroom at her parents’ house couldn’t be adjusted to comfort her, she read her Bible. While everyone else slept, it was her comfort and her companion.
Katie Kirkpatrick’s parents, David and Niki Kirkpatrick, work for the Lapeer Community Schools District, though her dad, a counselor and basketball coach, is on leave because he has cancer in his brain and her mother, a teacher, is on leave to care for her sick family. Neighbors and friends and church members help. They bring meals. They find housekeepers. They loan their cars and they provide rides because sometimes driving is just too much for Niki, her mind overcrowded with medication schedules, and vitamin smoothie recipes, and doctors’ reports, and wedding plans.
She tried hard to keep everything together because she was the only one who knew everything — what doctors thought about Katie Kirkpatrick’s prognosis and David’s prognosis. And for the most part, she kept that information to herself. She was their protector, their cheerleader. When Katie Kirkpatrick ate all of her breakfast — scrambled eggs and toast — Niki told her she’d done a good job. When David put a glass bowl of soup on the stove to heat, Niki took it away from him and showed him, again, that he needed to use a pot. There was no way she’d ever, ever risk hurting them by telling them exactly what the doctors thought. Or, even, exactly what she thought — that it was possible neither her husband nor daughter would be around for a wedding if they waited too long to have one.
David Kirkpatrick, 52, has a loyal following of students and former students who like that he was always encouraging and positive and funny. He’s all those things still, though his mind is a little scrambled from the tumor and he’s often tired from radiation and chemotherapy. Not long ago, he looked at a glass of orange juice and called it tea. It’s not unusual for him to bid a visitor goodnight three or four times in the matter of minutes because he forgets what he’s said. When one of the groomsmen, one of David Kirkpatrick’s former basketball players, saw him dance with Katie Kirkpatrick to “You Are So Beautiful” at the reception, he sobbed because he hated that two people he cared for so much were so sick.
Katie Kirkpatrick’s best friend was her sister, Sara Nelms, who is 29, a stay-at-home mom married to a special education teacher, Kevin Nelms. They met while they were students at a Christian college in Arkansas. They have a 4-month-old, Jake, who is plump and cuddly and much loved. Once Niki told a stranger he was the bright spot in the family’s life. A split-second later she corrected herself. The family, she said, has many bright spots. More than once Katie Kirkpatrick wondered aloud if the children she and Nick have will be as cute.
That was the thing about Katie Kirkpatrick, she could be exhausted and in great pain and yet she’d say something — about having babies, or about being thrilled with the Calphalon pans someone had given as a wedding gift or the new apartment where she and Nick would live — that made you wonder if she realized the extent of her illness. In Katie Kirkpatrick’s eyes, there was always hope.
“Sometimes I forget that,” Niki said. “Katie Kirkpatrick never forgets that. I think, ‘How can she think that?’ “Then I think, ‘How can she not?’ “Nick Godwin, a 23-year-old Lapeer County Sheriff’s deputy who wanted to be a cop since he was 2, is strong and athletic.
He has loved Katie Kirkpatrick since 11th grade. (“The first time they ever really talked to each other was at a basketball game,” said Sandy Godwin, his mother. “I think she had him right there. You could tell by the look on his face.”) They dated a bit but broke up when he went away to Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie.
She was still in high school and wasn’t interested in a long-distance relationship. “I always figured I’d go to college and I’d meet someone there,” Katie Kirkpatrick said a few days before her wedding. “I wasn’t a big believer in high school love.”
Still, she and Nick remained friends, and on holidays and summer vacations, they spent time together and with each other’s families. “He kept calling when he was in college. He just was consistently always there — not in a bad way,” Katie Kirkpatrick said. “She couldn’t get rid of me,” Nick said.Katie Kirkpatrick, who won a basketball and academic scholarship to Rochester College, a Christian school in Rochester Hills, Mich., dated other guys.
When Nick sent Katie Kirkpatrick a Valentine’s Day e-mail in February 2002, he decided it would be his last attempt at winning her heart. If he didn’t hear back, he would move on. Instead, he received an e-mail from David Kirkpatrick that said Katie Kirkpatrick had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was in the hospital. Nick’s sister called later and told him Katie’s condition was more serious than anyone had originally thought. Nick got in his truck and drove home to see Katie Kirkpatrick. He couldn’t explain it, but he needed to be with her. “Something about her made me feel differently than anybody else did,” he said.
A few weeks later, Katie Kirkpatrick had surgery. After that, she had follow-up treatments. She lost some of her language skills; she had to learn to read again. But she was getting better. She was feeling healthy. There were no signs of cancer.
In March 2003, she realized that she might feel something more than friendship toward Nick, but she was concerned about his religious background. She was a devout Christian, had grown up in the Church of Christ. Nick hadn’t grown up in a church. God is important to me, Katie Kirkpatrick told him. I can’t consider a future with someone who doesn’t feel the same way.
In the summer of 2003, Nick began studying the Bible with Katie Kirkpatrick and her dad.In July, she told Nick she loved him.In October he was baptized in Katie Kirkpatrick’s church.The same month, she learned the cancer had returned — this time in and around her lungs.
She went through more chemotherapy, and for a while, the cancer seemed under control. She went to work raising money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. She spoke to business owners and civic groups and raised $28,000, earning an opportunity to travel to Austin, Texas, to meet and ride with champion cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.Even though she had difficulty breathing, she managed to complete a 7.5-mile ride. It was the fall of 2004, and her cancer was spreading.
She and Nick had been engaged in March 2004. He proposed during a trip Up North. They’d already postponed their wedding so Katie Kirkpatrick could concentrate on getting well.
But by late December, what was the value in waiting? If Katie Kirkpatrick knew that getting married sooner might be the only way she would have a wedding, she didn’t say.”This is where we are,” she said to her mother more than once.”There’s no sense looking back or what if or anything. This is where we are, this is what we’re going to deal with and we’re going to move forward.”
The wedding was beautiful.
The church was full of pink roses and the lights had been dimmed to make it look more romantic than most churches do in the middle of the afternoon.
As Katie Kirkpatrick reached the end of the aisle and left her father’s arm, Nick turned to her and whispered: I love you.
Their vows were simple and short.
They did not include “till death do us part” because the minister, Garth Pleasant, who has known Katie Kirkpatrick since she was a baby, doesn’t use that phrase. Instead, he told them that marriage is a little bit of heaven on Earth and that love is unconditional.
After they kissed, they stood together with their foreheads touching for what seemed like the longest time. It was their moment; nothing else mattered except that they were together and they would always be together.The reception was huge and photographers, a DJ and a videographer who had heard about Katie Kirkpatrick and had been touched volunteered their services.
People clinked silverware against their glasses, and the bride and groom kissed.Then it was time for the slide show, showing Katie Kirkpatrick growing up. Nick growing up. Their life together. That’s when people started crying again, and again when she and Nick danced, very slowly, to “I Live My Life for You.”
Some of her friends from high school, people who loved her dearly, were reluctant to have their photographs taken with her. Katie Kirkpatrick was the same person she had always been, that’s why they loved her. But did they want to remember her so small and weak, her arms the size of a child’s?
When they saw her smile, they realized this was probably the happiest day of her life and they were honored to share in it. And they too smiled for the camera.Where Katie Kirkpatrick got the energy to be such a beautiful, gracious bride, considering her deteriorating health, was a mystery.
Three days earlier, she and Nick — who had worked all night on patrol — were at McLaren Regional Medical Center in Flint. She’d gone in for an intravenous treatment to reduce the amount of fluid she was retaining. Katie Kirkpatrick was especially groggy. Near the end of the treatment, she asked Nick to call her hospice nurse. But she wasn’t available. Katie Kirkpatrick cried.She called the nurse herself and said she’d discovered a lump near her neck earlier that morning. The nurse sent a doctor in to see Katie Kirkpatrick. He told her it appeared to be a swollen lymph node. He asked what kind of cancer she has — it started in the choroid plexus, which is rare and usually strikes children under 5 — and when she told him, he just raised his eyebrows.
Then he changed the subject and asked about the wedding.She had wedding rehearsal on Thursday.She tried to rest on Friday.The day of the wedding, she was up at 6 a.m.When she left the reception at 11:30 that night — after she’d been serenaded by groomsmen and eaten wedding cake — she was exhausted. Her face looked as white as her gown. As Nick wheeled her to the car, her small body surrounded by the fluff of her white dress, she looked like a snow princess floating through the air.
She looked happy.Five days later, Katie Kirkpatrick died.
She and Nick had delayed their honeymoon — a trip to the luxurious Royal Park Hotel in Rochester — and gone to suburban Chicago to consult with a team of doctors. Once there, Katie Kirkpatrick’s condition worsened. She wanted to come home. Her hospice nurse believes Katie Kirkpatrick knew she was going to die. “When you’re dying, you know it,” said Jaina Brooks, who had been working with Katie Kirkpatrick. “She got things done. That girl wanted to spread hope, and she did.”Katie Kirkpatrick’s family had her flown to McLaren, and that is where her body — which was so much weaker than her spirit — gave up.
About 1,200 people attended her funeral, held in Rochester Hills at a church much larger than her own in Lake Orion. Rochester College canceled classes for the day so students could attend. Police officers directed traffic. People hugged Nick.The funeral program included a reprint of the speech Katie Kirkpatrick gave when she graduated from high school:
“Life is a fragile chain of experiences held together by love. If there could be only one thing in life to learn, it would be to love.
“If only you can love enough, you will be the happiest and most powerful person in the world.”
While it is tragic that someone should die, especially so young, it’s difficult to see the story of Katie Kirkpatrick Godwin as a sad one.She did not allow illness to make her weak, she did not allow it to change her relationship with her God or her family or her husband. She did not let sickness stop her from living, take away the hope or faith that made her believe she had a future. She had a lovely wedding and she had love and she gave love and love doesn’t die.And that is how Katie Kirkpatrick beat cancer.