THERE. I said it. That damn D word.
I will call dying out as the damnable thing it is even though I hate swear words. Even in private. There’s enough ugliness in the world.
But I hate more what’s happening to you.
I’ve been dancing around it ever since you were diagnosed as Stage Four. Not the kind of happy dance you did at the end of our driveway after Amber and Ben’s wedding reception. Instead this awful verbal two-stepping I’ve done around what you’ve never been afraid to face.
“Dying’s not so bad,” you said to me last month between coughs. “Other than the pain. This is the best way to go. Time to plan. I’ve done what I wanted to do. I have no regrets.”
Your steady voice.
So very Catherine.
So what that we’re not sisters in any kind of way a birth certificate can prove? You have plenty of those. I have one I treasure too.
Kindred Spirit Sister. That’s what you’ve been to me, Cath.
From the time we met on the Cape over 20 years ago, you’ve been Anne-with-an-e to my Diana.
Fearless when I was cautious.
Candid when I was guarded.
Exuberant when I was hesitant.
Long red hair aflame, you whirled into our lives reminding me of nobody never I’d ever seen.
Neighbor first. That big old Victorian you shared with Doug around the corner in our village.
Friend next. You two plopped into a pew at church and declared you’d come home.
Sister last. And always.
Because who but a sister would do what you did that time at the Cape Cod Mall?
You disdained shopping. Prized your quiet weekends on the Cape after those hectic 12 hour days as a high-producing executive in Boston.
So when you ran into the mall for a minute that summer Saturday and rounded the corner, why did you even break stride when you saw my five crazed kids darting every which way, me needing octopus arms to corral them all?
But with a clap of your hands you had them at hello.
“Rowe kids!” you exclaimed and they stilled, sensing Something Good might be about to happen.
“There is a great kid movie at the Cape Cod Cinema,” you improvised (knowing that a family of seven never afforded such things.) “And here I am feeling sorry for myself because I have no kids to go to that movie with.” (A suspicious sorrow dredged up that very instant.) “When who should appear but two beautiful girls and three boys?!
“Who wants to go with me?”
And with arms around shoulders and the fast retreat of 10 sneakered feet, you left me, pathetic with gratitude and guilty with grace, until a note arrived thanking me the following week.
Blue cardstock. Boston postmark. I have it still.
You took five active children off my hands, paid out of your own pocket for movies and popcorn and hot chocolate, and then you wiped out my mom-debt by insisting I had done you a favor?
It’s a story I’ve told many times since. But I have lots of Catherine Stories that might never get told because you beat me to the punch there too.
“You can speak at my service,” you said, “but don’t go on too long.”
So I can’t tell about the time a blizzard blanketed the dark streets of Osterville and you greeted me and the kids at your backdoor, coat tossed on over nightgown, your face brightening when you saw the snowfall?
“Snow angels!” you cried. “Kids, let’s go!”
And nightgown and all, you flung yourself backwards into a drift, young ones tumbling next to you, laughing.
Or what about our 90’s Sister Act with Claire, all sparkles and lipstick and Big Red Hair? We got it on video 20 years later, didn’t we, this time with a tiara perched on your wavy white chemo-‘do.
From a thousand miles away I can hear you wagging your finger, perfectly manicured as always.
“Don’t you go on too long,” you warned. “And don’t talk about me. Make it about God.”
With you, Catherine, it’s always been about God.
Business acclaim and designer suits, decorator homes and four master’s degrees, you’ve dismissed it all. Always a careful planner who liked to travel, you made the decision about your final destination decades ago. I’ve heard you say it a hundred times.
Jesus. Without him I have nothing. When I’m with him nothing else will matter.
“Dust to dust,” you say cheerfully. “I want my ashes scattered in the pond and garden. And at the service we’ll give away those bottles we saw in Israel – what were they called?”
“Tear flasks,” I manage to get out.
“Yes, those!” and I think I hear you clap. “They’ll be the party favors.”
“But Catherine,” and now I’ve lost it good. “I don’t want to be at that party when you’re not there.”
Silence hums along the wire. Coughing.
“I have never been happier in my life,” you say, “but now I’m tired. We need to say goodbye. But we’ll see each other again, and maybe I’ll have red hair!”
The connection is broken. I stand there a long time.
Struggling. Finally conceding.
You’ve always been good at living – throwing yourself headlong into whatever needed doing. Now you’re showing us what it means to be good at dying too. And even though you’re younger than I am, it looks like you’re gonna get Home first. You always were a little competitive that way.
But you know what, sister? When my time comes I’m gonna know you whatever color ‘do you’re sporting in heaven.
And I promise not to talk about you at your service. Not too long anyway.
I always was a little bad that way.
‘Till I see you again, your kindred spirit sister,
*Catherine passed away on Saturday, September 20, 2014.
“Than smoke and mist who better could appraise
The kindred spirit of an inner haze?” Robert Frost