STORY BY BRIAN TRIPLETT
Sometimes tears drip from Kathy Wennihan’s eyes when she’s crying. Sometimes they fall when she’s not.
The tear duct in her right eye malfunctions due to tumors caused by neurofibromatosis, and with no feeling in her cheek, she is often oblivious to the clear liquid that occasionally leaks from her face. When coworkers will hand her a tissue, she will have to explain that she is not crying.
While reading a bracelet on her wrist that tells of “What Cancer Cannot Do” at a crowded sandwich shop in the heart of Des Moines, one drops and deflects off the table. It seems a fitting time to weep given Wennihan’s battle with sarcoma.
But, “This was not a tear,” she explains. “It just waters.”
There are the real tears though. The kind that seem to drain from the deepest, darkest depths of the mind and body. The kind that makes the throat tight, puts the stomach in knots. And once you learn what Kathy Wennihan has been through, you will understand why that kind of tear also falls.
Three thin sheets of paper in Wennihan’s purse tell thick tales. One represents a story of progress. Another of loss. The third of a journey soon to begin.
The progress is tangible. The progress is mental. The progress is power.
As Wennihan holds up a weathered photo of her face from before plastic surgery, it is difficult to recognize the person in the picture as the same one holding it.
Her mother began to notice deformities in her daughter Kathy from the age of two. Tumors formed all throughout her body. Some were surgically removed, some remained. At a certain point, Wennihan finally decided to put an end to the operations on her face. She just didn’t think they were helping.
Because the world can sometimes be a cruel place, especially in the form of cliquish schoolchildren, Wennihan was made fun of frequently. She didn’t have many friends. She could recall one from 5th to 7th grade, but said they lost touch because of busy schedules. She lived in a shell and begged her mother not to send her to the public high school.
“I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go there!” she recalls pleading.
Thanks to support from her church, Wennihan was able to attend boarding school. It helped. There she made friends, including the one who would be at her side for support years later when Wennihan’s parents died together in 2004.
Scars cover the outside of Wennihan as well as the inside. Her face now, thanks to a plastic surgeon she went to in 2005, has lessened the stares. She keeps the photo of the way she used to look to remember.
“Plus,” she said. “I like it because it shows my blue eyes real well.”
The loss was confusing. The loss was so much at once. The loss has a theory.
As Wennihan pulls a photo from her purse of her parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, it’s evident how much she misses them seven years after their death.
She would visit her mom and dad every Sunday to help with laundry, tidy up, and usually cap the day off with a competitive but friendly game of Scrabble.
After failing to connect to them in a series of phone calls throughout a week in October 2004, Wennihan drove to her parents’ home and opened the garage with the control she kept to find their van still inside. But the door leading into the house was locked. It was never locked. She pounded but no answer. Smoky, her parents’ kitten, stared at her from inside the house as if he was saying, “Come in here please.” Wennihan peered into all the windows, yet with no further clues she remained unsure of the situation.
When the police officer arrived, he asked Wennihan to stay away from the back window as he pried the screen open. Her parents were discovered in the TV room, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.
There had been a few things out of place the last Sunday she ever saw her parents alive. Her mother insisted she take pictures from the home that once hung in Kathy’s grandmother’s house. When Kathy said she’d get them another time, her mother insisted further.
And as she headed for the front door, her father said something that seemed to make no sense at the time but now tells a painful truth. “I guess this is the last time we’ll be seeing ya.”
Wennihan chalked the comment up to confusion of dates at the time since her parents were preparing to leave their house and relocate to a retirement home. But after the funeral she replayed the signs in her head, and an ugly understanding began to form in her mind.
“I think they planned it,” she said. “I don’t know why I think that, but I think they did.”
The tale that begins with cancer is laced with its share of sadness, but ultimately it’s the happiest one.
She’s survived stares and cruelty, loneliness and loss. As of a few years ago, Wennihan could add a malignant tumor to that list.
Although it is rare for her condition to produce anything but benign masses, the unlikely news was dropped on her in 2003. This meant surgery and then radiation therapy when it resurfaced in 2007, which has led to partial loss of use of Wennihan’s left hand and could have cost her the arm altogether. They were scary times.
“The information I was reading was that I was gonna have a 40 percent chance of survival,” she recalled. “I thought I was gonna die.”
Wennihan fought it, beat it, and is alive today and then some. Surviving this cancer is what has led to the third item in her purse: a world map. A man named Dwayne, (she doesn’t know his last name) who attends her gym, surprised her with it after she told him she was going to Nepal in April as part of a cancer survivor group’s expedition to Mt. Everest. Dwayne joked to Kathy that she was “geographically challenged” since she often had her directions mixed up, so he thought the map might come in handy. Now she’s able to tell the folks that she attends to daily at Mercy Medical Center, where she works as a Patient Care Technician, exactly where she’s going next month.
As she unfolds the gift from her purse, a bright-yellow highlighted area becomes apparent. Nepal. Not anywhere near Iowa but just about the same size. She’s never left the country and has been on a plane trip just three times in her 51 years. Yet she is going there in a matter of days to hike with a group of 13 other cancer survivors throughout the majestic mountains of the Himalayas.
“This is where I’m goin’!” she yells out with a contagious smile while her finger covers Kathmandu. She’s fairly certain this will be the greatest journey of her life.
“It’s gotta be,” she says matter-of-factly, contemplating any competition and coming up with nothing to top it.
What she’s looking forward to most is, no big surprise, the connection with nature. But she also fantasizes of the opportunity to help lift up someone else in the group who falls down, and finds hope in the possibility that her story might inspire others – a survivor of cancer or any kind – to survive. There is life beyond cancer, she can say. There are mountains to be seen.
To offset the daydreams, Wennihan, who never had children and lives alone, has been having nightmares lately in which she breaks her hip en route to Everest and has to be helicoptered out.
But she eventually wakes. The journey is real. The journey is right around the corner. The journey will likely have tears on it. And having climbed nearly 18,000 feet into the sky, they will fall far from her face.
Wennihan could give off a feel-sorry-for-me vibe to the world and likely be forgiven for it. But that would be a waste of time and energy in her busy schedule. She jokes about forgetting how she can’t use her left hand during morning volleyball games with coworkers. She dances atop her stationary bike to Tina Turner’s rendition of a CCR tune in the front row of Wednesday night spin class in the YMCA. “Big wheel keep on turnin’. Proud Mary Keep on Burnin’!” she sings as she pedals with persistence to nowhere.
She speaks with adoration of her curious nephew and her three quirky cats, including Smoky who mysteriously escaped death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Unless you ask tough questions about tough times, really all you’d know about Kathy Wennihan is that she’s a sweet lady with a few scars. When you bring up the words loss and struggle, she doesn’t take sole ownership of those sad terms that relate so much to her.
“Everybody has problems in their lives,” Wennihan said. “Sometimes we think ours are really bad until you actually see somebody who’s got it worse off than you. Then you think, well, my situation isn’t all that bad. When I look at the earthquakes we had in Haiti and Japan and these thousands and thousands and thousands of people that are without power and then having to realize now their exposed to radiation, getting a flat tire is nothing. Cancer, I don’t know how to explain it. I had it, it’s gone, and life goes on.”
When asked if she ever wonders why she’s had to endure so much, a tear forms and falls from Kathy Wennihan’s right eye.
“Um,” she begins as the small splash hits the ground. “Yeah, I’ll say, ‘Why am I chosen to do this?’ There’s a reason somewhere. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
She accepts a tissue.
“That was tears,” she clarifies, already smiling again. “That was tears.”
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