Parish member Alaina Bickhaus succumbs to bone cancer
By Linda Briggs-Harty
Last week, a few days after 15-year-old Alaina Bickhaus died of complications surrounding cancer, the sun sent warm rays through the changing leaves in the garden dug in her honor last year.
The neighbors across the street from the Bickhaus home in Rock Hill met as usual for casual connection. They smiled, laughed and carried on, though nothing would ever be the same without Alaina.
The neighbors’ sole aim now involved supporting the family that welcomed everyone to their side yard over the years for barbecues, Easter egg hunts and games for all, young and old. The Bickhaus side yard is where Alaina’s Garden stands, sporting purple flowers (Alaina’s favorite color), a blue birdbath and turtle she picked out and a bright stepping stone she made amid other crafty creations.
Alaina’s Garden is but one tribute to the blond-haired, young beauty who died Sept. 18 after battling metastasized Ewing’s sarcoma for a year and a half. According to Sally Bickhaus, Alaina’s mother, the invasive bone cancer is rare in the world of terminal child illness — only about 700 cases occur in the U.S. annually.
‘Determined to fight’
Alaina’s family — including Dad Jim, Mom Sally, brothers Trey and Adam, grandparents Jane and Jim Bickhaus and Virginia and William Henderson, and countless other relatives and friends — pulled for Alaina with the same strong will the would-be high school freshman showed throughout her life, both before and during her illness.
“She was determined to fight and fight she did, until the very end. She had hope. We all had hope. You have nothing if you lack hope,” said Sally Bickhaus, in a moment’s lull between funeral planning and commemorative activities.
Sally said she wants to thank the many people in Brentwood, Webster Groves, Rock Hill and surrounding communities for the kindness extended to them during the family’s ordeal.
Boosters at the family’s parish, St. Mary Magdalen in Brentwood, held golf tournaments and a 5K walk/run. Teammates on Alaina’s Webster Groves swim team wore caps emblazoned with her name during the 2013 season. Neighbors had chili parties and stood by Alaina’s side for the duration.
Nurses at Children’s Hospital and volunteers with Friends of Kids with Cancer held a 15th birthday party in late August for their favorite, feisty outpatient. Alaina’s birthday was Sept. 1.
In the end, the cancer prevailed but could not stifle the spunk of a girl who lived a short life but left a huge impression on those who knew and loved her.
“She wanted to live,” said Sally Bickhaus. “She had so many plans and dreams.”
A heart for children
Among those aspirations was a desire to teach kindergarten. Artsy and outgoing, Alaina Grace Bickhaus loved children and relished time spent babysitting kids on her block and elsewhere.
“She was concerned about how her death would affect her younger friends on the block, particularly 7-year-old Sophia Lindo and Sophia’s big sister Miah,” Sally Bickhaus said. “She loved the girls a lot, like a mother as well as a sister.”
Lindsay Lindo, Sally Bickhaus’s best friend as well as Sophia’s and Miah’s mother, said she never had to worry about her girls when Alaina was near.
“She was so mature in a protective way,” Lindo said. “I loved her take-charge confidence.”
Said Jill Snare, Alaina’s volleyball coach at St. Mary Magdalen, “Watching Alaina grow into a young woman has been a privilege. She exemplifies what a truly decent human being is. Grounded, full of love, and always, always smiling.”
Alaina’s lively nature extended to her family relations as well.
“Her brothers built an alliance against her, she was so bossy,” Sally laughed. But Alaina adored her brothers Trey, 17, and Adam, 12, and she had their competitive natures, Sally said.
All three of the Bickhaus kids enjoyed swimming through the Webster Groves Parks Department. Alaina’s long-time coach Leah Berndsen said Alaina had a contagious and sunny personality.
“I will miss my pretty, pretty little princess, what I called her often, but I know she has a big job ahead as our guardian angel,” said Berndsen. “She’ll get the job done because of her can-do attitude.”
Matt Stoverink, a basketball coach at St. Mary Magdalen, said Alaina loved to win but displayed good sportsmanship above all. In his all-girl team’s sixth-grade season, the Chargers finished undefeated.
“Alaina made awards for every player on her team, highlighting each winner’s strength and unique quality.” Stoverink said. “Alaina saw the best in everybody.”
One of Alaina’s peers, Brentwood High School freshman Brigid Buckley, spoke glowingly of her fellow athlete and personal heroine.
“She was cute and quirky and full of life,” said Buckley. “You always felt comfortable around Alaina.”
A treasured memory for Buckley involved singing a spur-of-the-moment, a cappella tune from the movie “Pitch Perfect” with Alaina during basketball games.
“Alaina told me she’d be the first to buy two copies of the album I’ll put out one day,” said Buckley, who sings in a choral group at BHS.
‘Intelligent and outspoken’ at Steger
Kristin Denbow, principal at Webster Groves Elementary Computer School, made no bones about her appreciation for Alaina: “She was a spitfire!” Denbow kidded.
Alaina attended the computer school through fifth grade and finished sixth at Steger, on the same campus. She graduated from Hixson Middle School and would have started her freshman year at Webster Groves High School this fall. Her older brother Trey is a junior there.
“Alaina told it to you like it was and didn’t shy away from her ideas and opinions,” said Denbow. “She made many connections with the kids at school because her classmates loved her spunk. If a staff member said something teasingly to her in the hall, she would dish it right back. Who wouldn’t love that spirit?”
Said Steger’s sixth-grade counselor, Lynn Reif, “She stood out immediately to me in the classroom. She was intelligent and outspoken, and she seemed really comfortable in her own skin, which is so rare in a sixth-grade girl. She was a kid I thought could be president someday.”
Principal Denbow said she was touched by how close-knit the Bickhaus family is.
“Both Sally and Jim were a constant, loving support for Alaina, and she was close to her siblings as well,” said Denbow. “I could see how Trey looked after her throughout their time together in computer school and at Steger, and how much Alaina enjoyed having her older brother there. Likewise, it was heartwarming to watch her interactions with Adam — she loved being a big sister.”
Funeral at St. Mary Magdalen
At Alaina’s funeral Sept. 27 at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church, a packed house heard her father Jim Bickhaus and her uncle Stephen Pieper give moving eulogies. The pastor said he’d be a fool to try to explain why God allows such precious young people to suffer and ultimately expire.
“I wonder, though, if God hasn’t been present throughout the situation by way of the support of family and friends,” said Father Jack Siefert.
Siefert announced that two grants had been given in Alaina’s honor to Washington University School of Medicine, for children’s cancer research. The parish gifted the family a statue of a guardian angel with a child and will place a similar one in the lobby of the St. Mary Magdalen gym, with a plaque bearing Alaina’s name.
Photos of Alaina and some of her favorite items, including a sparkly dress, lined the wall at the reception in the gym following the funeral at the church. In the center of the mementos lay a bright quilt over a bench, sewn by Alaina’s grandmother from an assortment of Alaina’s T-shirts, many tied in with her schools and community affiliations.
Neighbor and family friend Lindsay Lindo, who planned much of the memorial Mass and reception, projected a slide show, with one of the slides sharing the post Alaina left on her phone last May: “People leave one thing when they die . . . love, and that lasts forever!”