On Nov 29 Catherine White Holman, my friend of 17 years, was killed in a plane crash.
It seems unreal to me still, even as I write these words. She was so beloved by so many. How could truth be so cruel, so unfair and brutal?
The last 12 days have been a blur of tears and grief and joy and old friends and buried hatchets and community.
Catherine was known for her enormous heart, and the evidence that her heart is still beating in all of us is everywhere: the amazing army of friends and family who gathered immediately; the crowd of souls who sent so many condolences that it crashed the website; the hundreds of mourners who lined the candlelit streets and filled the WISE Hall for an eight-hour wake the likes of which even this Irish Catholic kid has never seen.
All of this shone a light on how much she brought to this world, and just how much she will be missed. All of this is a sign of the passing of a truly remarkable woman.
This year was grief-heavy for me. My beloved gran Florence passed away in May, and then Catherine, who truly was one of my very favourite ladies in the whole wide world.
I have studied loss these last few months and pondered the giant questions of life.
I am told that Catherine did not believe in a life after death, and this is something I never discussed with her. I know for certain that my gran believed in heaven, and if there is anything resembling a great reward in the sky, then I know of no souls more deserving than these two women.
The Catholic sisters at my gran’s funeral confessed to me that they looked to Flo when their own faith wavered, as my gran’s never, ever faltered.
Catherine leaves behind thousands of people who she helped find a doctor or housing or treatment or simply just listened to, people who have sworn that she saved their lives. If you ask me, if they both are not angels right now, then there is no such thing.
As for afterlife, I know what I would like to believe, and I know what I feel. There is no evidence of a heaven, but I do see traces of an afterlife every single day. I believe that people live on in the people who live. It’s as simple as that.
My gran lives on in me every time I recycle a Ziploc bag, every day that I work hard, every time I reach out to care for my family, every time I remember to be grateful, every time I remember my scarf and gloves, every time I eat the leftovers instead of letting them go to waste. Every time I eat a raspberry hard candy and stuff a used Kleenex into my jacket pocket. Every time I light a candle, she is there in me.
Catherine helped me through some rough times. Several years ago, I dragged a friend of mine off the streets and kept her home with me for a couple of weeks while she cleaned up and tried to get into a recovery program. Everyone else told me I was crazy, that my friend was a drug addict and a fuck-up and that I was just enabling her, keeping her from hitting bottom. Everyone told me the best thing I could do was nothing, and let my friend eventually help herself.
So I went to see Catherine. She showed me into her little office in Three Bridges and busted out a fresh box of Kleenex.
I explained to her that I had been calling every morning for 13 days to try to get my friend into detox, and by the time a bed finally became available, I was informed she was too clean for detox and now she was on a 60-day waiting list for a bed in a treatment house.
I told her I could barely sleep because of the stress, that I was afraid to leave my house in case the people my friend owed money to caught up with her, that I was afraid of being robbed or worse.
She took out a binder and told me to call this place and talk to this guy, not that guy but this guy, to tell him Catherine said so.
She told me who to call and where to go and what to do. And then she let me cry at her little coffee table for an hour. She told me I was a good friend, that I was doing the right thing, that everybody needed someone who wouldn’t give up on them.
She knew my friend too and loved her at least a little, I think.
She told me that if the roles were reversed, my friend would do the very same thing for me, and that no one would ever get clean without someone who believed that they could. And then where would we be?
So. This is what I know about an afterlife. Every time you remember to smile with your whole damn face, Catherine lives in you. Every time you welcome a stranger to the party. Every time you laugh with your whole body, every time you love with your whole heart.
Every time you dress up in your finest. Every time you flick your long silver hair and get that twinkle in your eye.
Every time you cry at a good story. Every time you drink tequila and smoke on your porch in your chair. Every time you wink at a cute butch. Every time you ride on the back of a motorcycle. Every time you stick up for the underdog, the unlucky, the disenfranchised, the addicted, the people whose family forgot them, the undervalued and the misunderstood, Catherine lives in you.
Every time you keep the peace, keep the faith, keep on keeping on. Every time you sing in the truck. Every time you fuck who you want where and how you want to without fear or shame or reservation, Catherine White Holman will be smiling at you from somewhere. This I know for sure.
Somebody told me at the memorial that the only way we could make up for losing a heart the size of Catherine’s is to put all of ours together.
My friend and neighbour saw me in the hallway of my building the other day, puffy eyed and numb. He said something I would like to remember. Something I will repeat.
He said, “I never know what the right thing to say is in these times, but I’m almost always around, and I got two ears to listen.”
I reckon that’s a pretty good start.