A package arrived Tuesday with a signed jersey from hockey great Sidney Crosby and an inspiring letter from the Pittsburgh Penguins National Hockey League team for Kathryn Meinzinger, 22, who dreamed of being its head trainer.
But tragically, she had died the day before.
While the community mourns her death at such a young age and curses the cancer that caused it, friends and family also marvel at the things she was able to accomplish in her 22 years.
“She was born with a backpack,” said her father, Rodger Meinzinger, who works for Mississippi Power Co., “and every day she was looking for new adventures.”
Those who stop by the family’s Gulfport home are met by Sarah, a breed of Australian Cattle Dog called a “blue heeler.”
“This dog stayed at Kathryn’s feet the entire time,” said her mother, Pam Meinzinger, general manager at Gulfport Premium Outlets.
“What are you going to do with her?” Kathryn had asked about Sarah, one of 30 dogs she’d fostered over the last 18 months while going to school at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and working at Starbucks. Kathryn had adopted, trained and certified Sarah to be a recognized service dog, and was able to fly home from Texas with her after her cancer was diagnosed. The hospice nurse who cared for Kathryn said she would train Sarah to be a hospice dog.
Judging from the comments under her online obituary, Kathryn’s family could see how many people she touched in her short life, during which she was always in charge.
“We called her Katie until she came home from the first day of kindergarten and announced she changed her name to Kathryn,” her mother said.
Kathryn and Kelsey Lynch, best friends since they were babies at church, were “yin and yang,” her mother said. Kathryn was adventurous and athletic. Kelsey, by her own admission, is not. In a video that will be shown at Sunday’s memorial service, Kelsey calls her friend fearless.
“That’s the word everyone says. Kathryn is fearless,” her mother said. In fourth grade she wanted to go to summer camp. She researched camps online and put the information on a spreadsheet for her parents to review. They agreed on a camp in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. “She went there every summer and ended up being a counselor,” her mother said.
“She wasn’t a full tomboy,” her father said, but neither was she a girly-girl. She traded dresses for a Sea Wolves hockey jersey and games at the Coast Coliseum and he said, “we were season ticket holders from the beginning.”
She spent six months of her junior year at St. Patrick Catholic High School as a page in Washington for Sen. Thad Cochran. She made mission trips to South America.
Last summer, she worked the ropes course at a camp in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. She was healthy then, but by fall started having backaches. An MRI found a “huge, massive tumor” in her pelvis, her mother said. The cancer was also in her liver and lungs.
“That was Dec. 9,” her mother said. Her parents rushed to MD Anderson in Houston. “The doctor came in and said, ‘We cannot cure your daughter,” her mother recalls. The cancer was Spindell cell. “It’s so aggressive and it’s very rare,” she said; a cancer of the tissues and muscle, and surgery wasn’t an option. The diagnosis was reviewed by Harvard University as a last hope, but they gave her just weeks to a few months to live.
She died just three months after the tumors were found, March 6, at home.
“We were all here,” her mother said, something that rarely happens. The family had postponed Christmas, leaving the tree decorated and the presents wrapped until mid-January when she was released from the hospital, her brother Alex said. He and brother Andrew sat on either side of her and helped open presents.
“They stayed with her every day,” their mother said.
Her last days were spent not feeling sorry for herself, but enjoying life. Three friends from Mississippi College, where she went before transferring to Baylor, came every other weekend and took her out. Kathryn was in a wheelchair with a baseball cap on to cover her head after chemo when they went to Half Shell Oyster House, and when the group went to pay for dinner, someone had already picked up the check. The owner of the Escape This Biloxi paid their admission to the attraction.
“People are good,” her mother said.
A memorial service will celebrate Kathryn’s life at 3 p.m. Sunday at First Baptist Church Gulfport, with visitation beginning at 1 p.m.
Her grace will live on. “We’re going to build a prayer garden,” her mother said, on the grounds of First Baptist Gulfport where there are already beautiful trees. A wall will hold cremated remains.
“She’ll be the first one,” her mother said.
Donations can be made to the Kathryn Meinzinger Memorial Fund at fbcgulfport.org or through the church at 12190 Mississippi 605 in Gulfport so her prayer garden may grow.