INDIANAPOLIS — This whole thing, it started on the fifth floor at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. That’s the oncology ward. This whole thing, it started in Room 6. That’s where Audrey was.
The two girls had never met, didn’t know each other, but they had so much in common. They had hiking and camping. They had community service. Photography. Cross-country running. Cancer.
Kathleen Soller went down the hall with a deck of Uno cards. A nurse at Riley had told her about the girl in Room 6. Her name was Audrey.
By the time Kathleen got to Room 6, Audrey was packing up. She was leaving the fifth floor, leaving Riley. Kathleen had learned about her too late. Audrey was going home.
When Audrey Lupton died six weeks later, Kathleen attended the memorial service at the Historic Landmarks Center. That’s where Kathleen learned how much they had in common. The outdoors. The photography.
Kathleen and her mom, Joanne Soller, left the memorial in silence.
“We both got in the car and started crying,” Joanne says. “I told Kathleen: ‘It’s like listening to them talk about you.’ She said: ‘I know.’”
Kathleen, a senior cross country runner at Roncalli, had been diagnosed two months earlier with a fast-moving form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with tumors throughout her torso. Four rounds of chemotherapy had left her numb in places and weak all over, and with sores forming in her mouth. Her hair had fallen out. Her final season of cross-country at Roncalli was over before it could begin.
But sitting in that car, crying with her mom, remembering the girl in Room 6, Kathleen Soller made a decision:
She would run one more race.
She would run it for Audrey.
* * *
Kathleen Soller figured she’d get a pity clap. Those are her words, by the way, and she says them with a big smile and absolutely no self-pity. Whoever finishes near the end of a high school cross-country race, they have a cheering section.
“There’s always a pity clap for the last people,” Kathleen is telling me from Room 18 at Riley Hospital, giggling at herself. “I expected that.”
But she didn’t expect this: Hundreds of people at the finish line of the Triton Central Early Bird Invitational on Aug. 14, boys and girls and coaches and parents from other teams, all of them waiting nearly a half-hour since the winner, Jada Reedus of Franklin Central, had broken the tape in 19 minutes, 39 seconds. Here comes Kathleen Soller off in the distance, and the place explodes in noise.
Kathleen picks up the pace. She will be back at Riley the next day, back on the fifth floor, for her fifth round of chemotherapy. She will be so sore and so tired, 24 hours after running 3.1 miles, that she needs a wheelchair to get down the hall.
But right now? Right now, she’s flying.
She has been running for 48 minutes, heading for 140th out of 142 runners and a time that will be nearly twice as slow as her personal best, and she has not been running alone. Five or six Roncalli teammates, injured and unable to race, took up different spots on the course at Blue River Memorial Park in Shelbyville to hand her water or jog alongside her. Audrey Lupton’s teammates at University High in Carmel also have come, not to run but to support Kathleen. They are waiting on the course, waving signs and sitting on each other’s shoulders and chanting for a girl from Roncalli, a girl they’ve never met.
Every now and then, Kathleen looks down at her right hand. In ruby red marker, she has written “AGL.” She has written “29:15.”
Those are Audrey’s initials. That is Audrey’s personal-best time.
Several days after the race, propped up in her bed in Room 18, Kathleen has tears streaming down her face. I have just asked her why she ran in the Triton Central Early Bird Invitational.
“It was for her,” Kathleen says of Audrey Grace Lupton. “I wanted her to be able to run one last race.”
* * *
Kathleen Soller has to beat cancer first, but she’s made up her mind about that, and also about her school of choice. Her dad went to Notre Dame, and Kathleen has been to so many football games in South Bend. She’s going to Notre Dame, and that’s that.
Stubborn, this girl? You have no idea. She first noticed the cancer more than a year ago, but didn’t tell anyone. Didn’t want to complain. Didn’t know it was cancer, obviously. Asthma, maybe. Midway through the 2016 cross-country season, she’d finish a race and collapse in the arms of her mom and her dear friend, Roncalli senior Grace Murphy.
At school, Kathleen was starting to get winded just walking up a flight of stairs. Then came track season. She ran the 400. She’d always been competitive, but not anymore. Now most girls were crossing the finish line in 60 seconds or so, and there was Kathleen, barely halfway around the track.
On May 11 came one answer. A family doctor found a heart murmur, and then a cardiologist found fluid buildup in her lungs. A CT scan was ordered, and there it was: a large mass in her chest that had been pressing on her trachea, pinching it. Kathleen didn’t go home. She went to Riley. Doctors needed one biopsy to learn more about the tumor, then another, but they wouldn’t put her to sleep for the second procedure.
“They were worried my breathing would stop,” she says.
Local anesthesia wasn’t enough. The sounds of Kathleen’s screams carried down the hall, and when a Riley child-life specialist escorted Kathleen back to her room and her parents, the specialist looked sick and left. She came back 20 minutes later.
“I’m sorry,” the specialist told Joanne Soller. “That was just really hard for me to watch.”
To Kathleen, the specialist said this:
“I know those 15 minutes were hard, but they saved your life.”
A PET scan revealed four cancerous tumors.
“It just glowed all over,” Pat Soller says.
She played Uno. She met Audrey.
“I said hi,” Kathleen is telling me in Room 18. “That’s the only time we spoke.”
She’s crying now, crying for Audrey. She went to that memorial service at Historic Landmarks Center and she made that decision to run one final race for Audrey, and she scheduled her fourth round of chemo to make sure she was available the next day for Roncalli’s annual cross-country camp, a one-day event in Brown County.
Roncalli has rallied around her. There are Kathleen Strong banners on the walls and Kathleen Strong T-shirts on kids wearing Team Kathleen bracelets. Roncalli purchased a bed for her and made room in an office for Kathleen to take naps.
Kathleen doesn’t talk about how hard the cancer has been on her. She talks about how hard it has been on her older brother at Purdue, Ryan, and on her younger sister at Roncalli, Lizzy. She talks about how hard it has been on her parents. She talks about how hard all of this has been for Audrey Lupton’s parents, who came to Blue River Memorial Park to watch a girl they’d never met run a race for their daughter, who died July 6 at age 17.
Kathleen talks about the date of the race: Aug. 14.
“It would have been Audrey’s first day of school,” she says, and now she’s getting emotional again, thinking about a girl she barely knew, a girl who inspired her to run 3.1 miles with four tumors in her torso.
She is an amazing young woman, this Kathleen Soller, an inspiration and an optimist who wears a bracelet that says three words – never give up – as she works on an acrylic landscape in the fifth-floor art room. She is painting a range of snow-covered mountains above a lake, and on her canvas the clouds are white and fluffy, and the skies are blue.