Friday, February 4, 2011


As many of you might already know, either through private correspondence with me or, more likely, through this post at Steve Quick's blog, my eldest sibling Cathy died a week ago; and that indeed is why I have not been around of late. Her funeral was yesterday, Thursday, February 3.

Cathy was 60, a decade older than myself. My mother was all of 22 when Cathy was born and she always said that she didn't get to see Cathy for nearly a week after she was born. It was evident even to a naive young mother that there had been some serious problems with Cathy's birth and it's probably not overstating the case to say that we never really found out exactly what those problems were. It seems clear now that it was a complex of things that went wrong because whenever someone in my family sets about trying to describe Cathy, he inevitably starts off by asserting: "I have never met anyone else quite like Cathy ...."

I feel guilt over Cathy's death for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the ones expressed in the paragraph above; because that is how people, myself included, typically begin when they talk about Cathy — they start with an attempt to describe her unique oddness. It's not meant to be a judgment, but it sounds like one; at the very least, it comes off sounding condescending. Cathy certainly had to deal with more than her share of condescension in her lifetime.

But trying to describe Cathy accurately is a fool's mission because it can't be done; but it is also somewhat heart-breaking because Cathy's "oddness" was always the thing that defined her for others. In the same way that you might describe someone who is, say, a college professor as "a brilliant intellectual" or someone who loves music as, well, a "music-lover", Cathy, to others, was always, first and foremost, uniquely and quintessentially odd. I think it is safe to say that, though aware of her own strangeness, Cathy would not have chosen to describe herself in that way. Why would she? For she was also a music-lover and brilliant in her own way and many, many more things in addition.

And so instead of continuing in this vein, I will to the best of my ability attempt to describe Cathy in terms approximating those she might have used to describe herself.

First of all, she was an incredibly compassionate soul. This could manifest itself in strikingly unique ways. From her early teen years, for example, she felt what some might call an inexplicable sense of solidarity with the Polish people — even going so far as to subscribe to a Polish language newspaper when she was around 15, despite the fact that she didn't speak or read a word of Polish. In 1965, it was not as easy as it is today to find a Polish language newspaper in the US, even if you were Polish; but Cathy somehow found one. As I have mentioned on more than one occasion, my family is nearly 100% Irish — there is not, as far as we know, a drop of Polish blood in our veins. Cathy, however, was obsessed with the Poles nonetheless, possibly because she could identify with them over the way they were ridiculed and mistreated. (That is mere speculation on my part; I highly doubt Cathy would have said that that is why she cared about the Poles.) I don't know if this is unique to my era or my geographic location or any of the other particular circumstances of my childhood, but when I was a kid, Stupid Polack Jokes were all the rage, and not just among us Micks; Poles were one of the designated scapegoat ethnicities; I have no idea why. I guess Cathy saw this as a cruel and arbitrary analogue to the way she was routinely treated for being so strange, but, again, that is mere speculation on my part; the mistreatment she was subjected to on a daily basis went into overdrive when she got to public high school because even back then, in the mid-sixties, teenagers were teenagers, which is to say they could be casually cruel and insensitive especially to anyone deemed in any way different. In any case, for whatever reason, Cathy became a great and obsessive defender of the Poles, and woe betide the person who was insensitive enough to denigrate the Polish people or — Heaven forfend! — tell a Polish joke within Cathy's hearing. She would rattle off the many accomplishments of the Poles and hound the offending ethnically-insensitive person with questions as to why he thought the Poles inferior. (The hounding could last for, literally, hours.) This was genuine; she really wanted to know; and for the persons on the receiving end of Cathy's relentless inquiries, enduring the onslaught was all the more difficult because Cathy was truly confused by their sentiments, she really was looking for answers; and when she got like that she simply had no "off" switch.

My brother started to date a young woman of 100% Polish extraction right around the time that the world got its first Polish Pope. He's been married to her now for over 25 years.  Cathy — herself possibly more Catholic than any pope — was in heaven. She declared my sister-in-law a saint, entirely bypassing the usual three-miracles beatification/canonization qualifying process. She was serious. (I love my sister-in-law, but she is no saint. My sister-in-law would agree more with my assessment than she would Cathy's. Perhaps her other-worldly humbleness is one of her miracles. I also once saw her get a really bad grass stain out of a white shirt, so that could be miracle number two. But that's it, miracle-wise.)

Cathy was also an artist. For years, she would commute from our home in Northeast Philadelphia to center city, usually to Independence Mall, to do her portraits of tourists. She would charge a dollar. That is what she charged back in the 1970s when she started doing portraits and that is what she charged over thirty-five years later when she was still doing her art work in downtown Philadelphia. She lacked fine motor skills; her hand-eye coordination was, let's just say, less than optimal. And yet she always managed to capture something essential in her subjects. While not technically refined, her art work was good, she had a genuine talent that couldn't be taught and came through despite her physical limitations.

It was also easy to see in what esteem Cathy held you when she did your portrait because, if she liked you, that would definitely shine through in her art. Cathy, for instance, would always portray Teh 'Bride with stunningly high cheekbones, close to a super model's heroine-addict's chicly starved-looking face. Teh 'Bride does indeed have high cheekbones, but they are not quite as high as Cathy saw them. But that is how Cathy saw them, how she saw Teh 'Bride.

Cathy's utter love of the city of Philadelphia was unmatched. No politician running for the office of Mayor of Philadelphia could pretend to love the city as much as Cathy did. There is — or was, at one point — a board game out there called "Philadelphia" — and no, it is not just a "Philadelphia version" of Monopoly. I'll bet none of you knew that; but Cathy did and she owned it —  as far as I know the only copy ever sold. She didn't play board games and even if she did it is unlikely she would have found anyone willing to play the game of Philadelphia with her; I have no idea what the object of the Philadelphia board game was — whether to Achieve Independence or Experience Your First Coronary From Eating Too Many Cheesesteaks — but Cathy owned that game because Philadelphia was part of her personality and she would support any- and everything that promoted her city. I sometimes think she didn't know where the city ended and she began.

Philadelphia, when I was growing up, was like the Polack of American cities: close to New York City, but obviously (to everyone else) inferior to it and just sort of a joke. I remember Lily Tomlin's appearing on SNL back in 1975 when NYC was on the verge of defaulting and her ending her monologue with a "cheer" for New York that ended with a gratuitous slap at Philadelphia. This was typical for the time: Philadelphia as dependable punchline, ostensibly funny in and of itself. This irked Cathy in the same way that anti-Pole sentiments did. She was Philadelphia's biggest booster in her uniquely obsessive way.

It is the final cruel insult to Cathy that she was not allowed to die in the city that she so loved. It is yet another thing in this whole ordeal the mere thought of which brings tears to my eyes. She wasn't even vouchsafed that.

Cathy lived with my Dad until just about two years ago. Dad was the perfect roommate for Cathy because he not only loved her, he was singularly equipped to ignore her obsessions and compulsions: He was the one person whose nerves Cathy's relentless obsessions couldn't fray on a regular basis. It was always hard for any of us to get Dad's full attention; but this attribute of his worked in his favor with Cathy. Living with Dad, Cathy had someone she could talk at for hours on end when the need arose (and when it did, she had to do that; she couldn't help it), and Dad could endure those verbal assaults by barely noticing or acknowledging them, by occasionally vaguely agreeing with whatever she said. ("Pop doesn't always listen to me," she would sometimes complain.) When you talked to Dad on the phone, asked how Cathy was doing, he would just laugh and say, "She's a character!" — the equivalent of calling Antarctica in mid-winter "a bit nippy".

But a couple of years ago, Dad wrapped his car around a tree and broke his pelvis in the accident. He was in his mid-80s at the time and, though the fracture healed, he hasn't walked since. We had to find an assisted care facility for him, which is where he now lives happily enough, less than two mile from our old home.

But this left Cathy alone.

My youngest sister lives in East Lansing, MI. Ultimately, she insisted Cathy be sent out there to live with her. This was very compassionate of Liz but, in retrospect, was probably a mistake. On paper, East Lansing should have worked out — Liz's home had a private area in the downstairs for Cathy and the town of Lansing is both cosmopolitan and quaint: MSU is there, which is where Liz teaches, so it is a college town with a lot of activities; but it is also a small town, easy to get around in, and pretty picturesque.

Lansing, however, is not Philadelphia. That's an obvious statement of fact but that fact meant a whole lot more to Cathy than it would to anyone else reading that sentence. For her, life in Lansing was an exile decree: She endured it but never lost sight of her long-range goal of returning to Philadelphia. This should have been foreseeable, and to a certain extent it was; but for what I'll just call "reasons of family politics", it was essentially ignored and Cathy was sent to Michigan. (My bother drove her out there. When he and I drove out to Michigan ourselves a week-and-a-half-ago, he said as we hit Ohio, "It was at this point when I was driving Cathy out here that she began asking every 10 minutes, 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'" "So you're saying I'm a better travel companion than Cathy?" I asked. "Slightly," he said.)

And to be honest — Cathy living on her own in Philadelphia? This, too, was not a very realistic scenario unless some arrangements could be made. Arrangements that Cathy probably never would have acceded to. But it was never tried.

So Cathy lived in Michigan for two years under circumstances that became increasingly untenable for her and for my youngest sister Liz and for Liz's six-year-old son Colin. I am skipping over a lot of family politics and grief and discussion and, of course, a period of Typical Irish Family Shunning, here. But for the last six or so months, when Cathy would call us, she would talk about two things: the Michigan winter weather, which frightened her (she had slipped a few times on ice); and her determination to come back to Philadelphia and live on her own. She was unrealistically optimistic about the latter topic because, again, she did not view herself as others did.

The opportunity to come back to Philadelphia never came to pass because two weeks ago, Cathy slipped going down the stairs inside Liz's house and fell and broke three vertebrae in her neck. She lay there, conscious but unable to move, until one of Liz's friends who had a key to the house happened by. She alternately pleaded for help and said, "I don't want to be a burden."

The original prognosis was good, or so it seemed. But it turned out that whoever it was in the trauma ward who had told my sister Liz that the doctors, after emergency surgery, "expected a full recovery", simply didn't know what he was talking about. And when it became evident how dire the situation was — Liz was calling us and outright claiming that Cathy was not going to survive — my brother and I decided to drive out there and see what the situation was for ourselves. We didn't want the burden of making a life-or-death decision to be put on Liz alone.

When we got there, we quickly saw that the situation was, indeed, as bad as Liz had said. In 1992, my sister Laura, who was a year younger than Cathy, was in a car accident. Because extraordinary measures were mistakenly taken to keep her alive, she did not die until six years later — those six years being spent in a persistently vegetative state with no chance of recovery. She wasted away and finally died of pneumonia in 1998. From that time on, all of the rest of us had DNRs written up and we made it clear that we did not want extraordinary measures taken to keep us alive in the event of a catastrophe such as Laura's.

Cathy's catastrophe was remarkably similar to Laura's, with the unspeakably cruel difference that Cathy, though doped up on drugs for the pain, was fully aware of her situation. Her eyes, when we saw her, were a mixture of confusion and utter terror. I lasted less than three minutes with her in her hospital room before I had to run out into the hall where I had a total emotional breakdown. When I had composed myself sufficiently to return, I lasted less than a minute before having to scurry out of the room again.

There was no hope. It was like what had happened to Laura all over again.

We arranged to have Cathy transferred to an extremely beautiful hospice in Lansing. They would manage her pain but take no extraordinary measures to intervene once the inevitable occurred. Cathy looked more comfortable in her hospice room (a private room, called "Walnut", because the rooms in the hospice were named for trees rather than given sterile numbers); it's possible this was merely because they were giving her more pain medication. I don't know. I know I was able to stay in the room this time. I didn't think I was seeing that look of terror in Cathy's eyes anymore.

Cathy died at Noon last Friday.

I mentioned above that I feel guilt about all of this for a number of reasons. I can't mention them all (I think you can imagine many of them) but I feel compelled to mention just this one:

We have not told my Dad that he has lost a fourth child. And we have no intention of telling him.

My Dad's short-term memory is essentially gone. Last Sunday, for example, Ian, Teh 'Bride and I went to visit him; we left after about 45 minutes. Less than two hours later, my brother came for a visit and, having noticed that I had signed in a few hours previously, asked dad, when he saw him, "Anyone been to visit you lately, Dad?" To which my Dad answered, "No, not lately." When asked if anyone had called him, he answered: "Yes, Cathy."

Dad gives you the answer he thinks you expect. It would be common, normal, for Cathy to have called and so when asked if she had, he said "Yes" because he couldn't remember. Perhaps he actually thinks she did.

To tell any father that he has lost yet another child, a fourth child, just seems to me to be cruel beyond words. I can barely think about it without giving in to a feeling of profound despair. But if we told my Dad about Cathy's death, he would grieve as he has for the death of my brother Frank, as he has for the deaths of my sisters Virginia and Laura — it would be an ineffable grief, an inexpressible sorrow compounded and intensified by the griefs that preceded it. And the next time we visited him, he would ask about Cathy and have to be told about her death again. And again. And again. Each time, it would be new to him, he would experience the loss all over again.

We simply could not do that to him.

I feel enormous guilt over this because Cathy was his eldest child and he felt especially protective of her because of her afflictions; and of course I feel he has a right to know what happened to his own child.

But he also has a right not to be tormented on a daily basis for the rest of however many days or years he has left on this earth. And the desire to spare this man who has experienced more emotional pain than any other person I know or can even think of — the desire to spare him this additional emotional suffering overrode, we reckoned, his right to know what happened.

We simply couldn't do that to him.

Cathy's musical tastes were very eclectic. I'm not sure if she had an especial liking for Carly Simon, though I know Cathy liked her. So I can't say the choice of song below is because it's what Cathy would have chosen. Rather, it's for me.

I don't especially like Carly Simon either, and I assume this song ended up on my iPod because Teh 'Bride downloaded it; I know I didn't. But for whatever reason, it came on during my run this morning. And as I listened to it, I thought about Cathy and my eyes welled with tears and a lump appeared in my throat that no amount of concentrated swallowing could make go away; and I of course indulged these feelings by listening to the song over and over again because there is something about Carly Simon's typically slightly off-key singing that makes the song seem more poignant and sad and painful. And even though none of us has time for the pain, pain won't be reasoned with and it will find you and demand your attention and force you to make time for it. And you should.


  1. G, once again my thoughts and prayers are with you. Thank you for sharing a bit about your sister with us.

  2. My heart goes out to you and your family. I am so sorry.

  3. G, I am so sorry. I can't begin to imagine the greif that your ntire family must be dealing with right now. Thank you for sharing that touching tribute to Cathy.

  4. G, I can't even imagine.
    I was really hoping for something like this from you, as the obit really didn't share Cathy's story at all...and while now I probably only know about the first 2 pages of Cathy's million page story, I appreciate your thoughtful sharing of it.
    We're thinking about you and your family.

  5. Anything I write will just sound so trite, but I wanted you to know that what you have written about your sister is so beautiful and moving that I can't stop crying. My heart goes out to you and your family, G.

  6. My condolences. You've written a lovely tribute. The circle of life continues but the memories will keep her alive.

  7. I am so sorry for your loss. You have written a beautiful tribute to your sister.

  8. Extremely saddened by your news of the loss of your sister. Losing a family member just plain sucks. What you wrote of Cathy was beautiful and touching. May she now rest in peace.
    Thoughts and prayers to you and your family.

  9. A beautiful post about your sister, G.

    I'm so very sorry.

  10. Hey buddy, I've been worried about you. I just had a feeling something serious was going on - not like you to drop off like that for so long. I'm really sorry about your sister. That's an intense situation and I can imagine how difficult for you and your family. Will be thinking about you ..... thanks for letting us know what's been going on.

  11. Oh, G. - I am SO, SO sorry. I don't even know what to say. Your family has experienced so much loss. Thank you for sharing some of your memories of your sister, and for inspiring everyone who reads this post to really cherish their time with their family. Hang in there, G.

  12. I also would like to thank you for sharing your memories of your sister with us. You make me want to go call all my brothers and sisters.

  13. I would've liked Cathy. More, I would've liked being from a family that cares as much as yours (I don't even know the addresses of two of my siblings). As for not telling your father: it's a reasonable thing that's difficult; my mother's little brother died a few weeks before she did and her Alzheimer's was so advanced that she couldn't tell day from night or know any of her children except me, but she could tell that I was upset and I told her why - she understood, completely, including knowing that she couldn't go to the funeral and she remembered the fact of her brother's death, beyond all odds - it was unbelievably hard on me (but the right choice in that one case).

    Take care.

  14. Once again, I am proven an insensitive asshole. That kind of loss is unspeakable, and having to make that decision for your dad was very difficult. I'm so sorry you have to go through that.

  15. Hey bud - just checking on you. I know it will take a while for you to get back in the groove - just letting you know I'm still thinking about ya.

  16. Glaven,

    That, I think, is the first time a blog post made me cry. It was beautiful honesty. I'm so sorry about your loss and this really hard situation. I can't help thinking about your dad, though, as you are. I feel that if he has the capacity to grieve and somewhat understand then he also should be told. I understand not telling someone with end-stage dementia, but it doesn't sound like he is there.

    I wish your family the best - I hope you have shown them what you wrote about Cathy.

  17. I just want to hug you. If it helps with the guilt, as a trained dementia professional I agree completely with the decision to not tell Dad. If you want to chat about that more (what to say if he asks about her), let me know. I'll get you my email.

    Beautiful post. (I'm proud to be one of your sibs.) xxoo

  18. Three people clicked that link to my site. That makes a grand total of referrals from this site of... 3.

  19. I have a sister-in-law whose brilliance is locked inside by mental illness (she was her HS valedictorian before her illness manifested itself). Her names is Kathy, amazingly. Our whole family does a similar "stutter-step" when the subject of "Kathy" comes up with others. I can't imagine what will happen if she dies before her mother does (not an unreasonable possibility). So my heart goes out to you regarding the pain and guilt that you feel here.
    I wish you and your family the best and thank you for sharing. Ann
    PS--and when you are ready, please keep sharing YOUR brilliance through writing.