Last Christmas was the last time I saw Cathy.
She was there, same as she had been for countless Christmases before that, sitting in my father’s den with a warm smile on her face and a blond wig on top of her head. The wig was a new touch, intended to hide the effect chemotherapy was having on her.
As always, she brought with her a small mountain of presents. For my parents, of course, but also for my siblings and for me and my extended family—my kids, my ex-wife, my partner. Each present, so thoughtfully selected. Even with the chemo in full swing, she had put weeks of preparation into everything she gave, and not just for me and my family, of course, but for dozens of others in her life, as well.
The thing is, she wasn’t really even related to us. She wasn’t my auntie Cathy, except in the way that the best friends of your parents occasionally end up with that pseudo-uncle or -auntie designation. By simple virtue of my mom and dad being so close to Cathy, she held us close, too. We—my brother and sisters—were an extension of them, as were our partners, as were our kids. In all honesty, Cathy probably poured more love and attention into the four of us than most of the “real” family members we’ve known.
I believe she was truly Mom and Dad’s best friend. They became friendly somewhat later in life—not as childhood or high school friends, as so many of my best friends are, but through the workplace.
Cathy, you see, was someone my dad had interviewed decades before, when he was first starting out as a principal of an elementary school that no longer exists. He hired her as one of his first grade teachers. She was young, just out of college. She was a pretty girl with an airy Irish way, but with far more than just strawberry blond hair and blue eyes. Dad says he was impressed with her attitude, and her love for reading. I’ve often heard him comment on how she could “fill the room with her smile.”
Over time, that work relationship turned into a friendship. Over a few years, Cathy and her ‘companion’ Jim (for that’s how Cathy insisted on referring to him) became an increasingly constant part of my family’s life—at Christmas, at July 4th, on father’s day at the beach house she eventually co-owned with my parents. Really, at every significant family gathering I’ve had since I was twelve…and that’s a few years ago!
I witnessed Cathy’s passion for getting kids to read first-hand. When she was young, Ashes, my middle child, had a terrible time of it, so much so that she had to repeat kindergarten. Cathy learned of this and volunteered to drive to our house and work with her, even though it was a forty minutes trip from her place to ours. For months, she worked with Ashes, who, by the way, ended up being the biggest reader in the family.
About three years ago, Cathy was diagnosed with cancer. She started going to chemo, lost that strawberry blond hair. “But she’ll be fine,” Mom said, ever the optimist. And she was fine, she went into remission, the hair grew back.
Then, in the fall of 2010, the cancer returned. This time, in the liver. A new round of chemo, and then, after Christmas, yet another round. This time, the treatments did nothing and things grew progressively…
Well, on father’s day, my dad was at their beloved beach house and opening up his gifts. A car pulled up, Jim stepped out with tears in his eyes and the news: Cathy had three or four more days to live, at the most.
She lasted into Wednesday morning.
Saturday afternoon, I was heading off to a brief service at the funeral home. “Don’t look at her, remember her the way she was,” my mother warned me, the minute I entered. “She doesn’t look the way you remember. Don’t let the kids see her.” The kids listened, I didn’t. As always, mom was right.
Instead of a moment of silence, the funeral home played Elvis singing “How great thou art.” It made perfect sense, since Cathy was a card-carrying, hip-swiveling, true blue, always and forever dyed-in-the-white-jumpsuit Elvis fan. I know for a fact she had grabbed one of his sweat-drenched scarves at a concert in the seventies.
Dad was asked to speak at the funeral. Somehow, he made it through, although I know it must have been hard. He spoke of that first day he met her, of her love for teaching. He expressed perfectly the feelings so many had for her. Then he mentioned her love for angels, how she used to collect them, how she had several at her home. He concluded his speech by saying, “This Wednesday, on the first day of summer, the angels she loved so much came to visit her, one last time.”
I tell you, not a dry eye in the house.
I don’t know. Is there a moral here? Yes, I think there is…I think that best friends are a good measure of what we hold true and dear in this world. In many ways, they’re better indicators than actual family members.
But then, best friends are family, when you get right down to it. They’re just not forged from bloodlines, but from something even stronger than that, from spirit. Kindred spirits, bonded to each other through good memories, better conversations, a shared outlook, and more than one late night drink. In a way, who we choose as our best friend is a solid guidepost for our children, for the world, as to what we cherish and value, because they speak to what we have voluntarily chosen to surround ourselves with.
I can only hope I’ve made as wise a decision, in terms of selecting a best friend, as my parents did when they chose to bring Cathy into our lives. There are few people I’ve ever known who have possessed a gentler spirit, a brighter laugh, or a keener sense of giving back to others. My parents chose extremely well. Everyone benefited from it.
This Christmas, our gathering will be a little less festive, and of course, there will be one less mountain of presents to pass out to the group.
Still, the gift of her presence…ah, that’s something that will stay with us, forever.
Cathy, you’ll be missed.