The line of cars at times stretched down the block last week as friends and family of retired physical therapist Christine Larson drove by her South Hill home, banners and balloons flying, to wish her a happy birthday.
Larson and her wife, Catherine Henze, are both in their early 70s, and Larson is undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Henze wanted to celebrate Larson’s birthday, but didn’t want to take any chances during the pandemic. “COVID has upped the ante,” Henze said. “If she gets COVID, she’s gone.”
Henze also wanted to make sure Larson would be able to see at least some of the people she hasn’t been able to see in months, Henze said. Planned events such as a family reunion and other family gatherings haven’t happened. “We’d had to cancel so many things,” Henze said.
Kay Dixon lined up down the block before the official drive-by hour even began. A flag declaring “Party is Here” waved from above her open sunroof. Dixon said she got to know Larson because she’s in a writing group with Henze. She said she was happy to participate in the parade.
“They’re both such wonderful human beings,” she said. “Anything we can do to make life happy at this point.”
The drive-by birthday party was a surprise until about an hour before the event began. Larson, who wore a mask, sat in a chair in her front yard. But she soon rose to her feet and got as close as she could to the edge of her yard, enthusiastically calling out the names of those who drove up. She often stretched out her arms in what she called a “COVID hug,” acting as though she was embracing them from a distance. She waved and chatted as people dropped off cards, gifts, flowers and plants.
Larson said she knew something was up, but didn’t know what. The couple are active members of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and the two attended a drive-by birthday party for their pastor earlier this year. “I think Catherine was taking notes,” she said.
Not long ago Henze handed her a St. Mark’s member directory. “I was a little suspicious because she asked me to circle people not in choir and not in Bible study,” she said. Those are the groups she is active in.
Then there was the yard, which was in immaculate condition the day of the party. “She kept wanting us to get all this yard work done,” Larson said.
Larson was a physical therapist for 43 years. She spent most of those years in Pullman, practicing with her father. Then she worked in Spokane for a few years, retiring in 2006 to move to Wisconsin to be with Henze.
But Larson didn’t stay retired. She was the director of professional standards for the Federation on State Boards of Physical Therapy for a time. Once she moved back to Spokane, she worked for Rockwood for four years, retiring in 2016. “I’ve retired three times,” she said.
Larson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in early 2017 and has been undergoing chemotherapy on and off ever since. She had a preventative double mastectomy in 2018 because of her family history of breast cancer. Larson is optimistic that the future is bright. “Treatments are going well,” she said. “My cancer counts are way down, and I’m ready to go on maintenance.”
Some of those who stopped by Larson’s home are part of the LivestrongLIVESTRONG cancer survivor group run by the YMCA that Larson is a member of. One woman pulled off her hat to show her regrown hair, and Larson pulled off hers to show off a fuzz of new hair.
Larson said she appreciated everyone who took the time to drive by. “Part of the reason it means so much, it’s new friends I just met through Livestrong and friends I’ve known forever,” she said.
Two of her neighbors, Pat Ferro and his son, Theodore, brought pulled out their instruments and played “Happy Birthday” for her from their front porch. Other neighbors came out and waved, wishing Larson a happy birthday.
“We love these neighbors,” Henze said. “We regularly have block parties. This isn’t crazy unusual to make it a block party for Chris’ birthday.”
Larson said she’s been having a hard time with social isolation and hopes to be able to see her friends in person soon. “It’s the hardest thing for me,” she said. “I’m a pretty personable person.”
But meanwhile, chatting with them from across the sidewalk while everyone wore masks would have to do. “I’m having a good time,” she said.
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