Making the moments count Wishes: A loving sister and a Baltimore County fire station make another lifelong wish come true for a woman battling cancer.

November 16, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

School bus driver Kathi Nine has come to learn the importance of making the most of the time she has left.

Since she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, the 38-year-old Middle River woman has been fulfilling her lifelong wishes -- including a trip to Las Vegas last year when she thought she had beat the illness.

Instead, the odds turned against her. The cancer spread to her brain.

She's kept on pursuing wishes, trying her wings at sky-diving two weeks ago in Ocean City. And yesterday, yet another wish came true. She helped drive a firetruck.

Wearing a yellow firefighter's jacket and helmet, Nine -- looking the picture of health with red cheeks and a wide smile -- steered the tail end of a hook-and-ladder truck about a half-mile around the grounds of Baltimore County's Towson fire station on York Road as friends and family members cheered and cried.

"I feel like I've really been to the fire," said Nine over the siren's wail as she worked her arms around the huge wheel. "I smell like smoke and everything. I did it; I did it. I love it."

With four firefighters and her sister Barbara Jones aboard, Nine maneuvered the rear of the truck with relative ease as she steered around sheds, buildings and fire hydrants in a narrow driveway. In her 15-minute dream ride, she even seemed to master backing up the 46-footer.

Firefighters presented Nine with a Truck 1 baseball hat, a union T-shirt, an official department shirt and the roster of the firefighters riding with her.

"I'm a fireman now," Nine said to her well-wishers. "How many people do you know who have done all they wanted to? Kathi Nine has."

Nine's only other wish, she said, is to meet actor Mel Gibson.

"What would you do with Mel Gibson?" she was asked.

Nine, who has been married for six years, laughed and, to the hoots and hollers of her brother and five older sisters, replied: "What wouldn't I do with Mel?"

It was Jones, 44, who arranged the firetruck adventure earlier this month after Nine told her -- while driving to her sky-diving trip -- that she had always wanted to drive one. County fire officials waived a special license requirement to accommodate her.

"It's quite a joy to be able to help to fulfill somebody's lifelong dream," said Daniel Bollinger, the firefighter who is usually the tillerman for the company's Truck 1 and who coached Nine as she turned the steering wheel. "You look at her and it's hard to believe she's sick. It's wonderful to see her do this."

Nine's fan club -- as friends and family call themselves -- arrived at the firehouse laden with cameras, videotape and Polaroid film.

"It's almost like she's still in denial" about the cancer, said her sister Michaeleen Rhoten, 42, of Perry Hall. "She has her good days and her bad days. Some days, she's so sick she can't even get out of bed. This is a good day."

Growing up in Middle River, Nine was a bit on the wild and crazy side, her family said. She was known as a tomboy and mostly played with her younger brother, Jim Markowski. Once the two set their parents' bed on fire, family members recalled with a laugh.

Nine's niece, Christine Stancliff of Rockville, watched her aunt's ride. "It's amazing she's getting to do all this," said Stancliff, 29. "This is her last wish. That makes it seem all the more final. That makes it scary."

As Nine climbed off the truck, her sisters smothered her with hugs and kisses. Jones videotaped the drive on the same tape that has other events -- sky-diving, a Fourth of July pool party, a neighbor's wedding and a niece's graduation.

Nine, who has made funeral preparations, said she wanted a copy of the tape with those memories in the coffin so she "won't be alone."

She said one of the hardest things about her illness was having to give up her job driving a school bus. For six years, she ferried 12 to 54 students a day. Now, taking considerable medication and undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she no longer drives.

As she walked out of the firehouse arm-in-arm with Jones, Nine said: "I thought this would only be a pipe dream. I thank you for today. It was the best."

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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