“She just brought so much life into the house,” Carol Ruchalski said of her daughter Mary, who died on March 11, two days before her 13th birthday, after a 14-month battle with cancer. “You knew she was in the room.”
“She was always singing,” Mary’s sister Ashley chimed in.
“She never really sat,” added her father, Francis. “If it wasn’t a sport, she liked crafts, or she liked going to the beach, or she liked riding her bike. She didn’t like to sit.”
In January 2017, Mary, then a sixth-grader at St. Agnes Cathedral School, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that affects muscle tissue. Though doctors were unsure whether she would live to see the start of the next school year, she attended the first month of seventh grade after months of intense treatment.
“I never really met a student that loved school more than Mary did,” said Kate Carey, her fourth-grade teacher. “She had such a positive attitude, and she had such a contagious smile.”
By the time she returned to St. Agnes last September, Mary’s long, light brown hair was gone, her head burned from radiation treatments, Carol recalled. But when she returned to school, she didn’t want to wear a wig. “She was so proud to go to school just like that,” Carol said. “She didn’t care. It was such a victory for her.”
Mary’s twin brother, John, helped her get to her classes that month. “She was really smart,” he said, “and she would always help people who didn’t really fit in as much as her.”
Carey, who also taught John, said she enjoyed watching Mary and him interact, noting that they always looked out for each other in school.
“She liked all the stuff I did; I liked all the stuff she did,” John said. “. . . Her voice was really sweet.”
Her passion for learning was matched by her love of sports. Mary enjoyed playing soccer, softball, lacrosse and basketball, and also loved the water, becoming a talented swimmer.
She was part of Rockville Centre’s 10-year-old softball team that advanced in 2016 to the state championship in Dunkirk, N.Y. A third baseman, Mary, who was taller than most girls her age, batted cleanup.
Pat Darcy, who coached her in lacrosse from second grade until last year, described her as “a larger-than-life presence” who truly loved the game. Her smile made everyone around her feel happy, he added.
“Whether you were up by 10, down by 10 or had a tie game, she was just one of those people that had a wonderful outlook on life that was contagious,” Darcy said. “She had a love of life that doesn’t come across in most people. I’m just blessed to have gotten to know her.”
Mary played two seasons with Team Elevate, a Long Island girls’ lacrosse club that Ashley, 24, had played for years earlier. Francis and Carol recalled Mary on the sidelines of Ashley’s games — normally wearing her sister’s other jersey — with a lacrosse stick of her own. “She loved Ashley so much,” Carol said, starting to cry. “She just wanted to be like her sister.”
“Except she was better than me at everything,” Ashley said with a smile.
When Mary joined Team Elevate, she used her height and athleticism to her advantage, according to Coach Dave Kotowski. When she became too sick to play, her teammates showed her their support.
“All she wanted to do was get back on that lacrosse field,” Kotowski said, adding that after each practice, the girls would huddle and yell, “You got this, Mary!” sending a video of the chant to her. The rallying cry became a common hashtag on the team members’ social media pages, and they have helped raise money for pediatric cancer.
“Mary served as an inspiration to our players to push themselves, and get better, and play with joy, and love the game like Mary did,” Kotowski said. “That’s what Mary was all about.” He added that Team Elevate alumni, many of whom now play in college, take the field with #WePlayForMary etched on their equipment.
Though Mary was in and out of the hospital over the last year, Ashley said that her sister always looked toward the future. Before the school year began, Mary told Ashley that she was determined to try out for St. Agnes’s seventh-grade lacrosse team in April, and wouldn’t mind putting in the work, even if it meant playing while sitting down.
“She had just gotten 40 days of intense radiation, and she could barely stay awake,” Ashley said, “but she was like, ‘I’m going to practice every single day.’”
Even as Mary battled the disease at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Carol said, her focus was on others. “She would be in the hospital getting the strongest chemo, sick as a dog . . . and she would say to me, ‘Mom, there’s so many sick kids here.’ She never saw herself as sick.”
Hundreds of people who knew Mary, or had simply heard her story, attended her wake at Macken Mortuary last week. A funeral was held at St. Agnes Cathedral on March 16.
The community’s support while Mary was ill, in Rockville Centre and beyond, was tremendous, Francis said. Hundreds of family and friends, as well as community members who didn’t know Mary, donated blood for her. Iron workers who were putting up a Memorial Sloan Kettering building in Manhattan painted “Get Well Mary Ruchalski” on one of the beams. The family would pass it on their way to the Ronald McDonald House on 73rd Street. “She was so taken aback that this building had her name on it,” Carol said. “You’d look up to the heavens and see this.”
Carol said that a friend, Jennifer Minnigan, organized a group called Mary’s Prayer Warriors, which prayed for her every day after she was diagnosed.
As part of a Cycle for Survival event in New York City last month, Mary’s team raised more than $50,000 for pediatric cancer, and many of those donors continue to give. An online fund in her name has raised more than $70,000 in donations, which the Ruchalski family hopes to put toward St. Agnes’s sports and arts programs, as well as memorial benches near the athletic fields and perhaps even a scholarship for girls like Mary.
Kotowski, the head lacrosse coach at Holy Trinity High School, held a Play for Mary game last year with his daughter Victoria, who coaches the team at Friends Academy, to raise money for pediatric cancer. Kotowski said he would be doing the event again next month.
Carol looked around her living room, where photo collages of Mary — made by friends — surrounded her, Francis and Ashley. Pillows that Mary had sewn — she liked to make crafts and give them to people — adorned a nearby chair. A framed drawing of her, based on a photo taken in Sag Harbor, a getaway spot for the Ruchalski family, sat prominently on the mantle.
“I just don’t want anyone to forget her, and I don’t think people will,” Carol said. “I just want her memory and the things she did in her short life to go on. She did so much in those 12 years.”