I come from a line of Katherine Sullivans. It all started with Katherine Sullivan Madden. Then there was Katherine Sullivan Gorman. Then me, Katherine Sullivan Stone.
Katherine Sullivan Gorman was my Aunt Kit. Oh, how I loved Aunt Kit. She was my mother’s younger sister and she was awesome. I always felt special that I had been named after her, and I named my daughter Madden in honor of the entire line of Katherine Sullivans, but especially her.
Aunt Kit never failed to be funny and fun, always playing with her nieces and nephews at any family gathering. She never had children of her own, and I always felt this was completely appropriate since I was convinced she had been put on this earth to be an aunt. She couldn’t possibly have showered so much attention and love on my cousins and I had she been looking after children of her own. She was an accomplished young horsewoman and a writer, and the two things combined made me think she was the ultimate in cool. I wanted to be her when I grew up.
Aunt Kit was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. I remember the whole family being so shocked that the diagnosis came at such a young age. I think I must have still been in high school, or perhaps even younger at the time, but I lived far away so I wasn’t around much during her treatment. I know that she had a mastectomy and suffered through chemotherapy. I remember her telling me that she’d start throwing up whenever she arrived in the parking lot of the hospital; in anticipation of how sick the chemo would make her, her body would start to react before she even received the treatment.
It was a long and awful slog, and we were so thrilled when she went into remission. She had changed, that’s for sure. I remember in particular that her once straight and luscious long brown hair — her signature, really — was now short, gray and wavy. But whatever. Who cared? Aunt Kit was back!
Years later, whenever my husband and I went to visit my grandmother in Mississippi, you could always be sure Aunt Kit and Uncle Phil would be there. We’d all sit out in the sun in the side yard and talk about what we’d been up to. She was the editor of CityBusiness, a newspaper in New Orleans, and I eventually became a writer too, thanks to the blogosphere, though nowhere near as good as she was. She was sharp as a tack, a great conversationalist, and always had a Mark Twain wit that never failed to make me laugh.
In my grandmother’s large old pre-Civil War era Mississippi home, the four of us slept in four-poster beds on opposite sides of the same room and at bedtime we were usually making inappropriate jokes and giggling at each other. I was convinced decades later we’d be hanging out in those same rooms, matching wits and drinking champagne together, her favorite drink and mine.
Thirteen or so years after we thought Aunt Kit had beaten her breast cancer for good, it came back. It was now in her bones.
She fought very bravely, but I lost my Aunt Kit to cancer when she was just 49 years old. I’m still mad about it. I’m angry that I can’t go visit her and sit out in the side yard with her and talk about genealogy and daylilies and writing. I sometimes lie in my bed and talk to her and tell her how bummed I am that she’s not here. How I wish I knew more about her. I wish she were here to make me laugh. That I hope she knows how much she is missed.
I’ve created a special tribute to her in the form of a portrait, featuring some of these words and an image of the two of us together, thanks to Bank of America and Susan G. Komen. The project is called Everyday Portraits, and it allows all of us to honor the amazing people in our own lives who have courageously fought against breast cancer. For every portrait made in the month of October, Bank of America will contribute $5 to Susan G. Komen! You can visit Everyday Portraits and create your own lasting tribute.