JOLIET – At the foot of Kathy Wagner's bed at Joliet Area Community Hospice hung a banner.
The banner had but two words: Finish line.
Imagine the encouragement they gave a woman who'd led a life of gentle ministration and mentoring to her family, other women and her church, First Church of God in Joliet, where Kathy's husband, Carl Wagner, is pastor.
"She taught me what love meant," said Deb Delsasso of Joliet, a member of First Church of God.
Deb said she had grown up in an abusive environment, but through her friendship with Kathy, she learned to trust and love without fear of rejection. In fact, years later, Kathy attended training at Guardian Angel Community Services in Joliet so she could advocate for women who had been abused.
That was after Kathy's oldest son, Kyle, died.
Kyle was just 6 when he began having trouble climbing stairs. He was eventually diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an inherited and progressive fatal muscle disorder affecting only boys.
He died on Thanksgiving Day in 2008 at the age of 26. Kathy chronicled his story of deep faith in her book, “Of Sojourners on the Narrow Road."
“Sometimes we feel like we have nothing to offer,” Kathy said in a 2014 Herald-News story. “Kyle showed me that we can be in a state of almost total helplessness and still influence people. There’s no excuse for not doing anything.”
During the years Kathy cared for Kyle at home, she also home-schooled her other four children. By the time Kyle was completely bed-bound, Kathy was home-schooling her youngest two.
Karen Braam of Manhattan, a nurse and friend of Kathy's, said Kathy frequently moved Kyle to prevent bed sores, which Kyle never had, even rising every two hours at night to do so.
"It seemed like Kathy was always just there, doing what needed to be done, faithfully and in the background," Karen said.
But Kathy didn't limit her efforts to care of the children. She also beautifully decorated her home, cooked delicious meals, planned church programs, played the piano at church every Sunday ("Even if she just had a baby," Karen said) and discussed theology with Carl.
Carl said Kathy was a wonderful listener. She often brainstormed and shared ideas with him. And Kathy never, ever, complained about raising a large family on a small pastor's salary.
"She was a great life partner," Carl said.
After Kyle died, Kathy asked God where he wanted her to serve now, Carl said. And that is when she became trained as an advocate for victims of abuse. Kathy also created a 12-week "Hope and Healing" class, which she offered at First Church of God so victims could have a faith-based option, too, Carl said.
"Kathy picked me out of a crowd," Megan Terry of Joliet said about the first time she attended First Church of God four years ago. "She had a way of scanning the lost. She was very discerning."
Megan said she, too, had an abusive childhood and had become, "tough, hardcore and non-emotional." But Megan's interaction with Kathy changed Megan for the better.
"The more I learned why I was the way I was, the more I softened up," Megan said. "I'm more in touch with my emotions."
When the situation called for it, Kathy could be whimsical, almost childlike – or she could be candid and blunt. But Kathy never surrendered to cancer. She was still playing the piano at church on Sundays within weeks of her Sept. 21 death at the age of 64.
So why the "finish line" banner? The words refer to a passage in the Bible, where the Apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." 2 Timothy 4:7.
According to family and friends, that was Kathy.
Carl said he pointed out to Kathy that she would reunite with Kyle, which filled her with great joy. Karen recalled her last visit to Kathy at hospice.
"I was crying and she reached out, took my hand and told me, 'It's going to be OK,' " Karen said. "She said she was looking forward to seeing Jesus."
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