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Jenn's Blog: More than a Game: Lessons from Kate

01/14/2020, 9:15am EST
By Jenn Skinner

Today is my birthday. I am 51 years old today. Four years ago on my birthday I sat down at my laptop to write about a little girl who was only able to celebrate four birthdays. Her name was Kate Rhoades and she died on January 12, 2016 after a sudden relapse of leukemia. Each of the four years since her death, my birthday week takes on a new meaning for me. I think of Kate's sunny face and try not to lament the passage of time, the new wrinkles at the corners of my eyes, and the increasing number of aches I discover in my body. I recognize that time is a gift and that birthdays are not promised to anyone. The anniversary of the death of a four year old girl only days before my birthday makes that recognition glaringly clear.

So why do I include a post about Kate on a travel baseball league's website? Because as most longtime players and fans of this game know, baseball is more than just a game. Baseball is about people and relationships and community as much as it is about strikes and hits and runs. I knew about Kate's story because of my involvement in the Kyle's Kamp Memorial Day Youth Baseball Tournament which raises money for pediatric cancer patients. Many NVTBL teams participate in the tournament and many are paired with a local pediatric cancer patient throughout the tournament. The coaches, players, and their families form a relationship with their "patient ambassador" and I can tell you from personal experience that young boys who have been singularly focused on basehits and batting averages become young men who learn life lessons they might never have otherwise and are  forever changed by the moments they spend with these children.

The following is the story of Kate and of her team. It was written in the aftermath of her death when I was shook with pain and grief and a whole lot of fear. I am well acquainted with many of "Kate's boys" to this day. They are freshman in high school this year and will soon try out for their high school baseball teams. I have no doubt that they will carry Kate with them for the rest of their days both on and off the field. I have no doubt that they will be better men for having known and loved her.

If you are interested in registering your team for the 2020 Kyle's Kamp Memorial Day Tournament, please visit www.kyleskamp.org.

Wrestling with the What Ifs

A couple of days ago I heard the news that yet another child was lost to cancer in our community. Kate was only four years old. The worst part of her journey seemed to be over. She had celebrated her last treatment for leukemia with a "No Mo Chemo" party in September. She was getting back to the life of a regular preschooler - friends, school, playdates.

Then suddenly, Kate relapsed rapidly and irreversibly. Her little body could not withstand the onset of leukemia this time. Her doctors did everything they could do. She died Tuesday morning.

Kate was one of Kyle's Kamp's Patient Ambassadors. Each team participating in our Memorial Day Baseball tournament and/or High School Diamond Dreams fundraising games has the honor of hosting an area pediatric cancer patient. At our Memorial Day tournament, only eight months ago, Kate was the ambassador for a very special team, the 10U Loudoun South Eagles. The Eagles players included a number of great kids who have at various times been teammates of my son, Drew, over the past three or four years. The Eagles coach, Travis, is a friend and member of my church. These boys treated Kate like a queen;  inviting her to their games and practices, showering her with gifts, donning her name on their batting helmets and even making her a special video. They dedicated their tournament to her, chanted her name in their huddles and wore special "Kate's Krew" t-shirts.

When I heard the news of Kate's passing my first concern was of course for her parents and close friends. Quickly, though, I remembered my friend, Travis, and his team of 10 year old boys. My heart sank. I felt guilt and horror at the shocking news each of these boys would be facing when they returned home from school Tuesday afternoon.

Dear God." I thought. "What have we done to such young children to introduce them to this kind of grief and
tragedy? As adults we cannot make sense of this. We cannot explain this. What are these parents to say? How are they to say it? What will this do to these children?"

I tend to think of myself as a woman of faith and trust and yet in an instant I was overwhelmed by fear and doubt. Before I could get my shaky hands to click out a text to my friend, Sara, Travis's wife, I allowed the fear-filled "What ifs?" to crowd my mind. Relentlessly, each of the young faces of the Eagles players crossed my mind like a slideshow.
What if this is too much pain for them? 
What if they can't reconcile this brutality with the God we have assured them is good and loving? 
What if they have nightmares? 
What if they become anxious that they will get sick, too? 
What if they become bitter and angry?
What if they become fearful that a sibling will die, too?
What if this opens up a slew of questions that adults can't possibly answer?
What if they see the world as dark and unfair now?
What if? What if? What if?

It occurred to me later that this "What if" game is similar to one of those game shows where you can choose what's behind Door #1 or Door #2. In those moments of fear and worry, I was choosing to accept only one option:  a world of pain, worry and defeat behind Door #1. But as I prayed for Kate's family and for those young ball players, God reminded me that if one chooses to let her faith be bigger than her fear, she can walk through another door. While the future behind Door #1 might be full of darkness and despair, the promise of my faith tells me that death and heartache do not have the final say. The gift of Jesus Christ gives me Door #2. That door is weathered and broken and splintered. But if I look closely, I see that there is most definitely light filtering through the cracks. And those streams of light bring different questions.

What if, for Kate, a boy practices harder this year with the understanding that the very simple act of playing catch with his dad is a gift beyond measure?
What if, for Kate, a boy determines to raise even more money for the tournament this year thus giving exactly the last dollar that researcher needed?
What if, for Kate, a boy studies a bit more for that math test, knowing that just sitting in his classroom is a blessing she was never afforded?
What if, for Kate, a boy determines to become a scientist, or a doctor, or a nurse working with pediatric cancer patients?
What if, for Kate, a boy decides that maybe his little sister isn't so terribly annoying?
And hey, what if a boy realizes every little ball player's dream and actually does become a professional baseball player making a ridiculous amount of money? AND THEN what if, for Kate, that boy grows up to use that money to start a foundation or build a hospital or fund a clinical trial?
What if, for Kate, a boy remembers that qualities of strength, bravery and perseverance are not really found in mythical SuperHeroes, but are absolutely present in any one of us - even a tiny, four year old, sunny-faced little girl?
What if, for and because of Kate, these young boys will resolve that in the midst of a world that is broken and battered, they will become men of character and purpose who will be committed for however many years they are given here to spreading light in the midst of darkness and hope in the face of horrible tragedy?

What God has shown me tonight is that I need not fret that these boys will become scarred by the experience of knowing and loving Kate. There is no doubt there will be scars.  But they are scars that will make them better students and teammates, better brothers and sons, better friends and eventually better men.
Perhaps the most important question I have to ask myself tonight is this:

What if, for Kate, for her family, for her friends, for those young baseball players, and for me, I can truly believe the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:18? What if "our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us?"

What if we might believe that the glory that has been revealed to Kate and Gavin and Gabriella and Mathias and so many others we have lost is beyond any beauty, any peace, any joy that our minds could ever conceive?

Those are the "What if" questions that I will focus on today. Those are the questions that are rooted in faith and trust and not fear and doubt. Those are the questions whose answers remind me that there is always a light shining in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

​Rest in peace, sweet Kate. For you, we will work harder, speak kinder, love deeper. For you, we will be better.

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