On a cold Saturday in late January, Heidi and Scott Vayer decided to take a walk along Kenney’s Beach in Southold. The Greenport couple lives a few houses down from 67 Steps Beach, but they opted to travel a little farther that day.
Ms. Vayer collects sea glass, an assortment of which is displayed on a table in the couple’s home. Mr. Vayer admits that he isn’t able to spot beach glass as well as his wife, but he stumbled upon something that took them both by surprise that day: a message in a bottle.
Inside the bottle, inscribed with the words “Until We Meet Again,” was a worn, partially ripped piece of paper detailing the story of Catherine Rose Reed, a Connecticut woman who died last year at age 20 from a rare brain tumor called a glioblastoma. The message, written by Catherine’s mother, asked whoever find it to send a picture of it to her via a Facebook message or email, along with a description of where it was discovered.
“Maybe there’s a reason certain people find the bottle,” Ms. Vayer said.
Catherine’s story resonated with the Vayers, whose daughters, Zoe and Olivia, are around the same age Catherine was when she died. It made them think about all the ways cancer has affected their loved ones and friends. Mr. Vayer’s mother died of pancreatic cancer 17 years ago; a friend of his died this past year from a rare type of brain tumor called an astrocytomas; and two of his cousins have cancer. Meanwhile, a close friend of Ms. Vayer’s is battling a brain tumor.
“It’s just everywhere around us,” Mr. Vayer said.
“So many people have a cancer,” his wife added, “but I do think there’s not a general awareness that it happens to young people, too.”
A few weeks ago, Ms. Vayer, a substitute teacher in the Southold and Greenport school districts, shared Catherine’s story with Southold High School students. She asked if they thought it was worth sharing with people across the North Fork.
“They said, ‘You have tell that story,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘Why do you think I should tell the story?’ And they said, ‘It’s really important to her mother and her family.’ ”
Catherine, a promising student, three-sport athlete, artist and thespian, had dreams of pursuing a career in archeology. She was diagnosed with the deadly brain tumor in 2013 at age 17 but still managed to attend the University of Connecticut following high school graduation. Her mother, Patty DePonte, said her daughter underwent four brain surgeries, radiation treatment, chemotherapy and multiple other treatments. She created the group Team Catherine shortly after her diagnosis as a way to help fund new research that could lead to a cure.
“It turned into a page of hope for others,” Ms. DePonte said.
As Catherine’s condition deteriorated, she asked her mother not to let her die in bed. When Ms. DePonte asked where she wanted to go, Catherine replied, “The beach.” They visited Clearwater Beach, Fla., where a nurse came to their hotel to monitor Catherine, her mother said.
Some people didn’t think her daughter would survive the trip, Ms. DePonte said, but “she had her second wind and was glad to be there.”
Not long after they arrived home on June 3, 2016, Catherine died at a Connecticut hospice. Along with her mother, she is survived by her father, Edward Reed, and sisters, Tiffany and Tara Reed. She was predeceased by her brother, Joseph, who died in a shooting at age 25.
When Catherine died, Tara wrote the following on her Facebook page: “My whole heart is forever broken. I thought when Joey passed that I would never feel this pain again.”
Catherine would have turned 21 this past Aug. 1. That was the day Ms. DePonte dropped her first message in a bottle into Long Island Sound from New Haven, Conn. To date, she has left about 23 — including the one the Vayers discovered, which commemorated Ms. DePonte’s first Christmas without her daughter.
“I send out the bottles so my daughter can have her adventures,” she said. “It’s the only way I know how to communicate with her.”
On the Team Catherine Facebook page, which has more than 70,000 likes, Ms. DePonte posts images of the bottles people have sent to her, along with some of the messages she has received. Catherine’s story has already landed on the North Fork multiple times: A Jan. 1 Facebook post featured another bottle found at Kenney’s Beach containing a New Year’s Eve message. And one woman wrote to Ms. DePonte to say she had discovered a Christmas-themed bottle Jan. 3 in East Marion. In her note, the woman described how she kept Catherine with her for a few weeks and felt as though she were watching over her sick dog. She couldn’t seem to find the right time to let her go.
“Thank you for letting us be a part of Catherine’s journey,” her message reads. “I think of her often and I hope you find comfort in knowing every day she is living on and touching another soul for reasons only she knows.”
Soon, the Vayers will seal the bottle they found so they can send Catherine’s spirit on another adventure. And while Ms. DePonte has never visited the North Fork, she hopes to take a trip to some of the beaches where the messages have washed ashore. Perhaps, she said, she can even meet some of the people whose lives have been touched by her daughter.