'In sickness or in health'
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 8:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 7:10 a.m.
Valentine's Day has just never sparked much candy-and-Cupid action at the home of Brian and Kate Burke.
Everyday expressions of affection are common enough in the house that the family hasn't sensed a need to make much of Feb. 14.
Daughter Riley, a 17-year-old senior at Santa Rosa's Maria Carrillo High, looks at her dad from across the family room and grins. "Sometimes I'd come downstairs and you guys would be dancing to some mushy love song."
The dancing days are over at the Burkes' place in northwest Santa Rosa, yet the declarations of love come more frequently than ever.
For the past 10 days or so, Kate Burke, 46, has mostly slept as a brain cancer she fought off twice before proceeds now to shut down her life.
She was just 37, and a decade into her marriage with Brian, when a grand mal seizure in 2004 led to a brain scan and a crushing discovery.
Brian, 49, is grateful that she has remained with him and the kids for so long after doctors found the stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme tumor, a malignancy that often brings death within about a year or less.
"In April, it will be nine years," Brian says. He blinks and adds, "I don't know that we'll make it to April."
As time grows short, Riley and her brother, Colin, 14, speak words of thanks, comfort and devotion to their mother, by now mostly nonresponsive, and reflect on all they've learned from her and from her quest to live.
"She was always everyone's inspiration. Everything is positive," Riley says. "I just hope to carry that with me."
The teen recalls, "One of the things my mother always told me was, 'Let go and let God.' I will always have that engraved in my head."
Watching their father give over much of his life to care for their mother also has taught the Burke kids much about the nature of true love.
Pondering the strongest qualities he has witnessed in his dad, Colin, an eighth-grader at Rincon Valley Middle School, says, "I can't think of the word . . . it's someone who never leaves."
"Loyal?" his sister asks.
"Yes, that's it," Colin replies. "He is loyal."
His big sister agrees. Having observed her father care for her mother day after day, year after year, persuades her that "this 'for better or for worse, in sickness or in health' is a real contract."
Again casting her gaze to her father, Riley says, "I hope I can find a man one day who holds such a high standard."
It's not just Brian Burke's children who believe he has distinguished himself through the way he has tended to Kate through an ordeal marked by two brain-tumor surgeries, serious seizures and strokes, a raging infection of meningitis and an onset of breast cancer, unrelated to the brain tumor, that two years ago precipitated a double mastectomy and partial hysterectomy.
The Shire pharmaceuticals company has selected him as one of 15 people in the world to receive a BRAVE Award for their actions as nonprofessional caregivers. Accompanying the honor is a $10,000 check.
"Brian has been a beacon of hope for Kate," reads the Massachusetts-based Shire's dedication. It says the award recognizes him for all he has been doing to provide for the children and keep up the house, "maintaining a full-time job and standing by her through unending treatments, including surgery to remove breast cancer."
Brian, who manages a large region for the Lifetouch school photography firm and met Kate as a co-worker in 1991, was nominated for the BRAVE Award by one of his wife's longtime friends.
"I'm incredibly honored and flattered," he says. "For me, being a caregiver for her is a matter of giving back."
He admits to feeling a bit undeserving because of all the assistance he received in the care of Kate from his kids, other relatives, friends, fellow members of Spring Hills Community Church and a professional aide who allows him time to tend to other responsibilities.
"I can be a good caregiver because other people are helping me," he says.
Also, Brian is keen to note that Kate cared for herself and her family as long as she could, and she served and advocated for others with lives affected by cancer.
Nearly five years ago, she traveled to Washington, D.C., with Livestrong, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, to implore Congress to increase funding for cancer research. She organized teams for benefit walks by the National Brain Tumor Society and she spoke at health symposiums about living with a tumor.
Kate also served on the board of Kathy's Camp, created by the late Kathy Van Riper of Cotati to treat children in families dealing with cancer to a fun getaway. Van Riper, a competitive runner and friend of the Burkes, was 40 when she died of breast cancer three years ago.
Kate's boy, Colin, thinks of something else he hopes to inherit from his mother and to emulate all his life -- "her willingness to help others."
Many of the people who love Kate have followed the posts that she and Brian have made online for years at Caringbridge (caringbridge.org/ca/kate). Kate wrote in October 2011:
"We have a bit of rain and my incredible hubby is making a fire and tea for me to snuggle in. I'm exhausted.
"Thanks TRULY for praying. I know without a doubt it is why I am still able to update these and live my life."
Kate said at least once she knew she was going to be healed, but she did not know "whether I'm healed now, on Earth, or in heaven some day."
Today, as every day, her husband and children will tell her something she can't help but know for certain, how sweetly they love her.
Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and email@example.com.
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