Catherine didn’t believe in God.
Which begs the question, why are we celebrating her life in a space that presupposes God?
The simple answer to that question is this: a few weeks after being diagnosed with incurable cancer in the fall of 2014, Catherine came across the street to ask if the Parish Hall could be used for her memorial service.
She did this not out of piety, but rather proximity: she wanted to make sure that Oliver could attend the event and, if it proved too stressful, that he could have an easy exit across the street to our house.
At that point Catherine didn’t know whether she’d live a week or a month or a year. She wanted to be prepared. And her first thoughts were to Oliver.
So that’s one reason.
Then, in the fall of 2017, Oliver and I came over the church one night for a concert by pianist Sarah Hagen; it was a cold night, so when the concert was over we took a shortcut through the churchyard, and I happened to notice a light on in the Parish Hall basement.
“That’s weird,” I thought to myself, “I didn’t know there was a basement under the hall.”
(I am not very quick on the uptake: I had lived across the street for 17 years at that point).
At the time I was looking for a new space for my office, and so in the morning I emailed the Parish to inquire whether there might be any space available.
As it happens, there was. Indeed that summer a committee had been struck to investigate making better use of the spaces in the hall. So they were primed. And I moved in.
And gradually the life of this progressive parish, theretofore a mystery to us, became a part of our family’s life.
A year later, when Catherine could no longer manage the long climb to her beloved studio on Richmond Street, I asked again: would there be a possibility that the space across the hall could be rented by Catherine?
There was. And she did. And so the Parish Hall, at 101 Prince, became kind of an extension to our house at 100 Prince. Catherine and I became coworkers, of a sort. It was easier for her to get here, and easier for her to get home. And it was close enough so that when Oliver came to the point where he was confident enough to be at home alone for a stretch, he could be there and we here, and we all gained a measure of independence.
As we consumed more of the Parish’s real estate, we also became intertwined with the life of its people: we got to know Clar, and Madonna, and Carolyn, and Otis, and Archdeacon John. The people who come in every week to fold the programs for Sunday services. And the people from the Mi’kmaq Confederacy upstairs.
We held Oliver’s 18th birthday party in the Parish Hall.
Catherine hosted her Stage 4 cancer support group meetings in the chapel every month (a group that survives her; they met on Saturday).
And when we decided, despite the complexity of our lives, to invite 60 friends from around the world to Charlottetown for an unconference last summer, the Parish Hall was the venue.
So that is the second reason we are gathered here, in this sacred space: secularly-minded though we may be, the Parish has given us a warm embrace in recent years, and we truly have come to feel like ex officio members.
Soon after I moved my office into the Hall, I subscribed to the weekly blog posts from John, and I found myself, more often than not, nodding my head in agreement or solidarity with his words, none more so than from the last week of December 2018 when John wrote about the motto the church community had chosen to mark its 250th anniversary, “A Caring Community for All.” He finished the post with a challenge:
But here’s fair warning, “All” means all. Make no mistake about it—everyone, no matter their circumstances or history will find a caring community at St. Paul’s. People ridiculed, ignored, beaten, or lost in this world are welcomed here and will be cared for to the best of our abilities. Or we change “all” to “some” and that just doesn’t seem true to the Gospel.
And that is the final reason that we are here: “A Caring Community for All” could equally be the motto for Catherine’s life as for the Parish: inclusion, justice, solidarity, peace, and a searing belief that “everyone, no matter their circumstances or history, will find a caring community,” were ideas at the very core of Catherine’s soul.
She expressed this publicly in many ways: working toward a world where persons with disabilities are fully embraced as equal citizens, fighting to ensure a woman’s right to choose, making art to draw attention to shoreline erosion and climate change, leading the PEI Crafts Council through challenging times, writing letters to the editor (despite having, essentially, to learn how to write anew every time she set down to do so).
And she expressed this privately in almost everything she did: so many of those who wrote messages of support and condolence over past weeks mentioned something that Catherine had taught them: how to turn flax into linen, how to spin, how to weave, how to sew, how to make that turnip dish with cheese and mushrooms, how to bottle feed a lamb. How to be kind.
Catherine was a teacher in the purest sense: she expected nothing in return for sharing her knowledge; indeed she was as driven to give knowledge away as she was to acquire it.
Beyond that, though, the way Catherine conducted herself knew no boundaries of age or class or circumstance: my brother Mike, who’s been with us here for the last three weeks, mentioned to me that he’s never met anyone with so many people who identified her as their very-best friend. All sorts of people. From all over the place. Met through diverse doorways.
I was one of those people.
Catherine and I, really, had no business being together. No computer algorithm would ever have matched us.
She was a dyslexic weirdo who held bonfires in her back yard every week, and collected bits of metal from around the neighbourhood to turn into art, and had legions of friends. She grew up showing cattle and shearing sheep and going to Junior Farmers dances.
I was a weirdo computer programmer, working at a daily newspaper, passionate about words and letters, introverted to the point of terror. I grew up in the suburbs, hacking computers and volunteering at the YMCA.
But, from the moment we laid eyes on each other when I picked up the key from her for the house next door, in the summer of 1991 on George Street in Peterborough, our lives began to overlap.
I became sweet on her. She became sweet on me.
She made me an orange pop float when I was sick; or maybe it was me who made her an orange pop float when she was sick.
I started to develop a 5-year plan over which I would slowly and carefully woo her; after three months, sitting on the hood of my Toyota Tercel on a moonlit night in the Trent University wildlife sanctuary, she asked me if she could kiss me. The 5-year plan went out the window.
And I became part of her caring community, and she mine: we found a way to merge our weirdo into a strange kind of weirdo conglomerate.
We were never married.
Catherine told me, shortly after we met, that we could be together as long as it worked.
In family lore I describe her as telling me we could be together “as long as we dug each other,” but I don’t actually think she said it that way.
So “as long as it worked” formed the bedrock of our relationship. An active statement, a living statement.
And we did continue to dig each other.
Just two years after meeting we picked up and moved to Prince Edward Island, expecting to stay for 12 months, maybe 18. We bought a house, found more work, Catherine built herself a studio, we developed friendships. And we kind of forgot to leave.
We’d never talked about having children. Until we did: on the car ride home from Christmas in Ontario in 1999 we kind of spontaneously agreed that we wanted to have a child. Three days later, Catherine was pregnant. (Classic Catherine: once you make a decision about something, why dilly-dally!).
And so two became three. And we became weirdo parents.
Oliver, it turned out, was the perfect child for us: my friend Dave hit the nail on the head when he wrote, just yesterday:
I think their family is a miracle. Each of the three members in it are so different from each other, and yet each is uniquely qualified to communicate with the other two.
Lord knows what would have happened if we’d been cursed with a non-autistic child. It wouldn’t have worked out at all.
Oliver interviewed Catherine just before Christmas and asked her to sum up the last decade: almost all of the things she mentioned involved us travelling somewhere.
Some couples, some families, cannot travel together: often the first long trip shows fault lines that are never recovered from.
In our case, though, travel turned out to be something we were really, really good at, and all three of us enjoyed immensely. So we did a lot of it.
Three weeks in Thailand when Oliver was still nursing. A month in the south of France. Two weeks in Portugal, two weeks in Denmark, a summer in Berlin, a trip to the old country to tromp through Croatian graveyards, two weeks in Italy picking olives, a week in Oslo with my parents. Berkeley and Vancouver Island and Montreal and Thunder Bay and Regina for family weddings.
We made friends. From away. Imagine!
Friends in Sweden and Germany and Denmark and Italy and Portugal and the US and the Netherlands. Artists, writers, crafters, coders, thinkers, filmmakers. Friends who, despite the distances involved, we’ve forged strong links to. Many of them are watching us here today, from afar, on the web. (Hello friends!) And they’re joined by friends who wanted to be here but, for reasons of health of family or being snowed in up west, could not. (Hello other friends!)
It turns out that although by all appearances Catherine and Oliver and I had nothing in common, we did:
Curiousity turned out to be the engine of our family, and Catherine was the most curious of us all.
We had a lot of conversations over our years together that started out with me saying “Catherine, what would you think about going to …” and I don’t believe she ever replied with anything other than “of course, when do you want to go?”
The last trip Catherine took was with our friend Cindy, to Spain, in the fall of 2016. Technically she wasn’t able to travel: having incurable cancer means it’s almost impossible to get travel medical insurance. But she decided she’d just hold her breath and hope for the best.
After time in San Sebastian and Seville together, Cindy travelled onward and Catherine decided to remain in Bilbao for an extra week. She went out for tapas every night. She toured art galleries, went to art openings. One night she found herself at a fashion conference running her fingers over some material: a woman approached her and said “you look like you know what you’re touching.” What followed was an invitation to visit her studio, introductions to her vibrant group of friends, and a week immersed in a world so much both like, and unlike, her own.
Catherine’s curiousity was always getting her into scapes like that.
Those weeks that Catherine was away in Spain were difficult ones for me and Oliver, both because she was gone, but more so because Oliver had started high school that fall, and that proved to be a source of all-consuming anxiety for him. Every day I would drop him off at school and then drive home with tears streaming down my face because he was under such enormous stress. Our home life became a twice-daily father vs. son battle: convince him to get up in the morning, and then convince him to go to bed at night.
Finally, after one particularly stressful evening, an evening that that involved a lot of yelling by me and protesting by him, I stopped, sighed, and simply said “Oliver, please tell me what I can do to help you.”
“You need to be more like KD,” he told me.
And that was all we needed.
He carefully described to me what “being more like KD” meant. And I did what he told me. And that was the start of the way back to each other that we needed.
“You need to be more like KD” is advice we would all benefit from following.
Patient. Kind. Accepting. Calm. Generous. Daring. Colourful. Iconoclastic. Brave. Inclusive. Witty. Wise. Bossy, by times.
Catherine’s cousin Wendy said it well when she wrote me this week:
I reflected on my memories of Cousin Cathy: she was always older and cooler in every way. Most of my memories were at the farm, the cottage or visits to Toronto and involve my young self looking up to her with curiosity and wonder (you can show sheep? you can dye your hair red? you can be a glass blower? Art therapy is a thing? And so on). I am so grateful for these memories and the impact they had on my world view.
Who among us could not tell some version of that same story?
When Catherine and I were discussing this event, just two short weeks ago, she reiterated her wish that it be a secular one, and said there was no need to ask clergy to speak of things religious. Let me jump through a loophole in that arrangement and, for the first time in my life, quote the Bible; from James:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Living with cancer is hard. Treatments that kill you so that cancer doesn’t. Side-effects that have their own side-effects. Constant pain. Constant pain meds. Radiation. Enough calls to 911 that it became kind of commonplace. Birthdays and Christmases spent in hospital.
But despite all this, Catherine persevered at living like nobody I’ve ever seen. She refused to use the language of war: she wasn’t battling cancer, fighting cancer, defeating cancer. She was living with cancer. Beside it. Inside it. She neither let it define her, nor limit the possibilities she considered. She sought to offer comfort and support to others living with cancer, worked to spread the word that “palliative care” means “living in comfort,” not “about to die.”
It would be a lie to say our last five years wasn’t punctuated by stress and sadness and worry.
But that’s not all it was: we laughed, we ate, we celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, went to friends for supper or drinks, to Richard’s for fish and chips, to Star Wars on Christmas Eves. We also did the laundry. And took Ethan the Dog for walks. And paid taxes. Catherine made art, some of the best art she ever made.
Catherine opted to take the living part of living with cancer very seriously.
Catherine had a hard last month of her life: for a week after New Year’s she was in thrall of her pain medication, hallucinating, with tremors, unable to communicate clearly. But she found her way out of that, with a change in medication and a move to the Palliative Care Centre. And for a week and a bit, though she was tired and fragile and clearly edging toward the end, we could talk to each other again.
One night she was clear-headed enough to tell me how she felt:
“I feel content,” she said, “which surprises me. I didn’t expect to fell content. But I’ve done most of the things I set out to do in this life.”
She was, indeed, mature and complete and not lacking anything.
Catherine did not believe in God.
But I think she did God’s work.
Catherine and I may have, really, had no business being together.
But I am so thankful that we found our way to each other despite that.