CANANDAIGUA — Family and friends shared some funny stories about Courtney Wagner at her funeral mass on Saturday, the goofy side of the girl thousands came to know because of her battle against cancer.
The Courtney who loved scary movies and always shushed those who talked during them. The Courtney who, along with her sister, slid sugar cookies into a Wegmans shopping cart, hoping their mother wouldn’t see them until checkout. The Courtney who enjoyed washing and folding laundry.
“We’re really going to miss that,” her mother, Jamie Wagner, said.
The congregation laughed.
But so many other stories shared inside St. Mary’s Church, which was packed with people wearing purple — Courtney’s favorite color — showed how very different Courtney Wagner was from most teenagers. They showed how her strength and bravery, even though weakened after a four-year fight with cancer, made her extraordinary.
About two months ago on the day Wagner learned further treatment to shrink tumors in her spine and neck would be futile, she told her parents, Jamie and Barry, that she didn’t want them to have to share the news with her younger siblings. Courtney said she’d tell her twin sisters Alex and Allie, 17, and twin brothers, Jack and Sam, 7.
“Court sat us down and I can still hear her voice in my head,” Alex said during her eulogy. “She said, ‘My tumors are growing. They don’t know if there’s anything they can do to stop them. But I’m still fighting, don’t worry. Do you guys have any questions?’
“She took the burden away from my parents,” Alex said. “I was in awe of her.”
Wagner died on Oct. 26. She was 18. A recent graduate of Canandaigua Academy, where she played soccer and basketball off and on during her high school years because of her illness, Wagner had to withdraw from William Smith in September shortly after starting college because severe headaches and pain became too much.
Her story gained notoriety following Canandaigua basketball’s Feb. 18 “Senior Night,” when Wagner was allowed to make the first basket of the final regular-season home game against Brighton. Her coach, Mike Brennan, set that up. Soon after, the Rochester RazorSharks pro basketball team did something similar at a game and a social media push (#GetCourtneyToEllen started by WHEC sports anchor Justin Granit) resulted in Wagner appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in early March. DeGeneres was Wagner’s favorite comedian.
Two firetrucks were parked on either side of North Main Street on Saturday in front of the church and had their ladders extended over the road to display a sign with a huge purple ribbon.
Brennan read from scripture Saturday and Wagner’s former soccer coach, Kim Condon, gave one of the six eulogies. Condon and others recalled what a “fierce” competitor and hard worker Wagner was and how she never “played the cancer card,” Condon said.
Poised. Smart. Strong. Fearless. Humble.
Those were some of the words Condon used to describe Wagner, a central defender whom she said no doubt would have played college soccer. It was her favorite and best sport.
“She left a legacy and taught us the way to live,” Condon said.
She closed by making a suggestion “for daily use and handling challenging situations.” Condon urged others to think “WWCD,” as in What Would Courtney Do?
Canandaigua’s school nickname, Braves, fit Wagner perfectly. Her grandmother, Diane Ewing, said Courtney’s cousin, Matthew, who is a sergeant in the Army and stationed overseas, says she’s the bravest person he knows.
“She absolutely did a great job of (inspiring us), didn’t she?” Ewing said during her eulogy.
Her sister, Allie, said witnessing Courtney’s determination over the last four years “eliminated the woulda, coulda, shoulda” for her. Allie did every extra sprint she could this fall in soccer.
Courtney never let cancer stop her from living, a sentiment expressed beautifully in a song she loved, Martina McBride’s “Anyway.” Three of Wagner’s classmates — Tyler Boseck, Kathryn Bjorling and Jessica Ingalsbe — sang that during mass, accompanied by CA Choir director Kristy Ingersoll.
“God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good,” the lyrics of one refrain go. “When I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should. But I do it anyway. I do it anyway.”
“She was full of laughter and light,” Wagner’s best friend and soccer teammate Emily Young said, adding that Courtney also had a keen sense. “She knew when you weren’t OK and needed some support.”
To the very end, Wagner protected her family from her own pain.
“I want to help you,” were the last words she whispered into her mother’s ear before she slipped away and the days of her lying unconscious commenced.
And Courtney did help on Saturday, too. Jamie began her eulogy saying she was worried she wouldn’t be able to keep her emotions in check to finish, but she did, speaking for about 10 minutes with her husband at her side.
She thanked her daughter for another gift, too. Jamie used a journal Courtney wrote over the last few months to navigate through her emotional eulogy, reading some passages that were poignant and funny.
Courtney marveled at the compassion and work ethic of her doctors, nurses and caregivers, calling them “angels in disguise.” She also wrote that in the future she hopes doctors can find ways to speed up MRI tests so they take “half as long.”
Medicine, she hopes, will become available not only in liquid and pill form but also in “gummy.” That also drew laughs from the congregation.
Jamie hopes those who knew Courtney, or even strangers who just knew her story, will remember her spirit and try to carry it on forever. “Courtney made this world a better place,” her mother said. “We will, too.”