As we finish 2016, our thoughts at the BDN turn to the interesting people we met throughout the year. It’s been our privilege to share the snapshots of their lives, whether uplifting, tragic or surreal, with our readers.
Yet we know the story doesn’t end with our telling, and in fact, the story often changes greatly after we’ve told it. This makes “Whatever happened to …” a common refrain not only in our newsroom, but we expect, among the public as well.
That’s why, at the end of this year, we wanted to find out “whatever happened.” For the next few weeks, we’ll be touching base with several Mainers whose stories came to attention during the year. What we found may sadden, delight, or surprise. In all cases, we hope you enjoy them. You can read more of their stories here.
– Anthony Ronzio, Editor, BDN
CAMDEN, Maine — Katherine Bowen focuses on a printout of last year’s December calendar.
It’s creased and stained from age and handling. Every day is crammed with her mother’s black handwriting.
“We wrote down all my nurses and things like when I had fevers, low platelets, when friends visited,” 14-year-old Katherine said, turning to her mother, Heather. She points to a number. “I guess this is probably my white count?”
“Yup,” Heather said.
They’re quiet for a few moments.
“I didn’t even know we still have this,” Katherine said. “Most of this, I try not to remember.”
On Nov. 9, 2015, eight months after being diagnosed with a form of leukemia, Katherine checked into Boston Children’s Hospital for a bone marrow transplant from her older sister, Emily. She would stay there until well into January.
Christmas Eve last was marked on the calendar as her day to move into a nearby Ronald McDonald House and one step toward recovery. The family was packed and ready to go, but there were problems and leaving would have to wait.
“I remember the doctor or nurse or whoever asking me if I had any plans that were making me sadder than normal,” Katherine said. “I was like, tomorrow is Christmas and I wanted to be home for that. I had such a big thing to look forward to. Then I was just kind of crushed.”
Her father, Stephen Bowen, went on a two-hour quest through Boston to find a fake Christmas tree because a real one would be too risky for Katherine in her weakened condition. The family and the hospital room had what turned out to be a special Christmas, because even in the worst situations that’s what loving families do.
“It wasn’t the worst,” Katherine said. “It was pretty bad, but it wasn’t the worst.”
The family’s church had anticipated the situation and threw Katherine a Christmas party in early November. That memory and the million ways friends, family and strangers rallied around the Bowens moves Heather to tears. They’re happy tears.
“They had pulled everything out of storage and decorated the whole church,” she said. “We even lit candles and sang ‘Silent Night.’ It was beautiful, just to have everybody there with us.”
For weeks, Katherine had hours to fill and nothing to do but try not to think about her illness. At times she read a book a day. That didn’t count when her father read to her for the first time since she was a young child. Their favorite was a series about a girl named Flavia De Luce who is obsessed with poison and chemistry and solving mysteries.
The superhero video games they played together led Stephen to give Katherine a miniature Incredible Hulk, which she found hiding in a different spot every morning. The Hulk is still making the rounds.
“It gets packed in Steve’s bag sometimes, when he travels or runs away with things from his office at home,” Heather said.
Normalcy returned, step by step. The first time Katherine and her mother walked into the grocery store together after she left the hospital, they looked at each other and burst into tears. The happy kind.
“That was something I didn’t think was going to be as big a deal as it was, because it was just an everyday thing. I was just…” Katherine said, trailing off.
“Feeling normal again?” Heather said.
“Yes,” Katherine said.
In June, Katherine’s eighth-grade class graduated from Camden-Rockport Middle School. She had spent much of the year attending classes remotely with her laptop connected to a classroom robot that she called Bob.
Doctors told Katherine she could sit near the door, as long as she wore a mask. When her name was called, the mask came off and Katherine’s classmates saw her face — not in a picture, not through a computer screen, not just in their memories — for the first time in months. They all stood and cheered.
In July, Katherine played bass guitar on the mainstage at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland — she aspires for a career as a musician. In mid-August, she started tryouts for field hockey. On Aug. 31, she returned to school. That was the first day all her medical restrictions were officially lifted. She’d gone from 33 pills per day to one.
Katherine went to a salon last week for the first time since losing her hair. It used to be straight, but it grew back wavy. Heather no longer writes events like that on a calendar the way she did for so many horrors.
“For a while I was only remembering the bad things,” Katherine said, studying the calendar again. “Looking at this actually makes me kind of more happy than sad. It was so long ago, and I’m fine now. This was all bad, but it’s over.”