As I drove up to the house I thought about 19 years of walking in those barn doors. I wondered if today would be the last time I would see her. Each day as I walked out I would think it again. Until it was true. I had, we all had, plenty of time to prepare. Sometimes cancer is good like that. No matter how prepared you are though, death is so god damn final. Catherine lived well beyond the few months they gave her 3 and a half years ago. And man did she live well. She told us all that her life was so full and she had no fear of dying. She lived every moment full of laughter, intense love, and happiness. I am not sure I will ever meet someone again who approached every person she met like they were potentially her new best friend.
I learned more from this woman than I could ever write in a single blog post. She taught me what real acceptance, for yourself and for others truly is. Not that fake - you should be nice to everyone you meet- kind of thing. Catherine saw through people. She saw that every single person had a story and that it was important. That we should treat each individual like we would want to be treated. She had friends all over the globe.
What solidified that for me, yet again, was the end of her life. I watched as people poured into her home. Those that I knew and people who's names I had heard over the years. They brought food, hugs, warmth and tears. They sat with her and held her hand. We told stories and laughed. So very many people. There there were a few new people too of course. Ones she had just met, but she had so much of an effect on them that they needed to come say goodbye as well. She left us completely full of love. Given back to her by all of those she gave it to so freely herself.
The whole family enjoyed the story of how we met. Catherine and Bob had come to an anniversary dinner at a restaurant and I was their waitress. Catherine said I had amazing cheekbones and she would like to sculpt me since she was a sculptor. (UH?!?!) Fortunately, my close friend was the manager there and he grew up with her sons. He told me they were wonderful. I went to her home and the rest is history. A few years later they formally adopted me as my god parents. We always joked that Catherine 'picked me up', typical of her ability to make friends with people while she shopped at the grocery store.
For the last 19 years I spent holidays decorating the house with Catherine, helped the family throw the big holiday party with the legendary chocolate cake!, went to countless dinners, sat and talked for hours, learned more things than I could ever recount, was part of her sons lives and weddings, and named my daughter after her.
Catherine's sculptures are a story unto themselves. She created a nativity, though she would say she didn't create it, that it came through her. This nativity was unlike anything most of us have ever seen. It takes place in a homeless shelter with people from every walk of life. People with all kinds of disabilities, a gay family, a mixed race family, a drunk, many more, and an empty chair for you the observer. It was her way of showing that it didn't matter who you were, that you, we, are all part of one big family of humanity. There are a few portraits of the nativity on her site here Catherine Stakel . com <- click on her name.
She continued to work until her last days with her project of creating a sudoku of humanity. Those busts are so captivating that as the woman from the funeral home walked through the studio she asked about them because the were so amazing.
It is so hard to stuff this relationship into one blog post. But I felt compelled to write. I wanted to share, my thanks, my loss, and her gift with others. We are all part of humanity and these are the things that connect us together. We, as a race, are all the same in some ways no matter where we live. Our connection to each other is through understanding and kindness. Again, something that this mother figure taught me so well.
Catherine gave me so much. But the one piece that may be the biggest for me is about family. That family are the people you choose. That there really is something called unconditional love. I try every day to live up to the person she taught me to be. And while she is not with my physically she will always stay with me. In her mystical presence.
I am truly beyond grateful that I still have my father figure, Bob, to take care of me. And her amazing sons, their wives, and their 5 children. They are all part of her and I am lucky to part of this family.
If you knew her (or not) this was one cause that she felt strongly about. A school in Bangladesh (that she visited) and which has grown over the years. If you feel so compelled...
In lieu of flowers contributions can be made to Catherine’s favorite cause:
The Bacha School
c/o Sr. Miriam Perlowitz
P.O. Box 317
Maryknoll, NY 10545
I will see you in my dreams, sweet Catherine. - Jen