My aunt died this last week. I wrote something for her funeral, and I’d like to repost it here.
I first visited Alaska when I was only a year old. In fact, I celebrated my first year on this planet with my Aunt Cathy and Uncle Cliff. Apparently, I cried the whole way there. (Sorry, guys – I know how it is now that I’ve traveled as an adult.) I returned when I was fourteen, and every summer for several years thereafter. These short summer visits that I spent between Fairbanks and Central were some of the highlights of my young adult life. Not only did I get to experience the adventure and thrill of traveling far away from home to the Alaskan wilderness, but I got a chance to spend some time with Cathy before she started to decline in health. These moments are priceless and unforgettable; a testament to the days when I was a child, where spending time with loved ones seemed eternal and time was so easily taken for granted. Taking long walks and engaging in activities like mini-golf or fishing not only represented traditional summertime ways of passing time, but they represented normalcy. Things like fishing, ATVing, and camping are all typical all-American ways of bonding that, as a child, one doesn’t consider to be ephemeral. This is something we do, and we do it every summer, together. And so it will be forever, right? Well, not exactly. But growing up has taught me to cherish these moments precisely because they are fleeting, and because when someone you love passes away, these are the times you want to remember. These are the moments when you truly remember living for what it is: Simply being alive, full of love, light, and laughter. I would like to take the time to share a few of my favorite moments that I shared with Cathy, as she was when she shared her love for family with me.
One of the most unique experiences I had in Alaska was going with Cathy and Cliff to an old gold dredge, where we did some fishing. I had fun panning for gold with Cathy, but the best part was exploring something I’d never seen before. I’d never had the chance to see such an enormous piece of machinery up close, and I had no idea anything like this even existed. Like my dad, I’m fascinated by machines (remember Megan and I naming our snowmobiles after our giant robot shows?) and my sister and I came up with creative ideas for stories, comics, and settings for our projects. As trivial as it seems to just spend a day fishing and exploring an abandoned dredge, it had an impact on me. It is one of my favorite (and quirkiest) stories to tell.
Another moment I loved was talking with Cathy around the campfire at the cabin in Central. She was genuinely interested in my life, which, at the time, was full of normal teenage troubles – boys, school, and being a nerd. But she listened to me, and even though she’d never really played a video game in her entire life, she wanted to learn about a game series that was very special to me. When we returned to Fairbanks, we went to a pawn shop where we snagged an amazing edition of the game. For the nerd in me, it was a triumph for my collection, but it also meant that she was excited to learn about my hobbies and interests. She sat down with me to learn about it when I brought it back, and it meant a lot to me that she cared about things that I cared about – even if it was out of her normal activity circle.
My family, Cathy included, has always been supportive of my artistic endeavors. She encouraged us to draw on some tarps she had set up for temporary walls in her “at-home Hilton” while she and Cliff were remodeling, and she encouraged us to use her computer to create webpages for her black lab, Ruger. (Rudytoottoot.com.) Even today it means a lot to me that everyone has been so supportive of both me and my sister, and I truly remember Cathy as a compassionate, kind, and loving person. These moments I shared are only a few, but they represent what I spoke of earlier: The simple things, the little gestures that translate into actions of love. I loved Cathy very much, and I am happy to recall these memories to honor her. She will be missed, but she will be remembered for her impact on my life. I am so happy I got to share the times I did with her.
Edit (7/16/12): My sister also wrote something that I’d like to post here. It is very touching. Thank you!
Cheez-Whiz and How to Tell a Story
There is nothing I could write or say that would be capable of capturing who Catherine Hendrickson really was. Everything I write here seems too shallow, too distant, from the wonderful human being she was. I can’t seem to find a way to talk about her that feels true. I have a thousand stories about her, but it feels like a book could be written and it would still fall short. One of the things I remember most about Cathy was her warm and friendly personality. Whenever you were around her, it was difficult to feel sad or upset. She always had a story or joke, though sometimes she’d forgotten she’d told you, and you’d hear her laugh her way through telling it three or four different ways. A particular story about Cheez-Whiz and coolers always comes to mind; after all, the Cheez-Whiz must have tipped over and sprayed all over the cooler, as there was Cheez-Whiz everywhere when they got to the campsite. It must have tipped over. But Cathy’s stories were worth hearing more than once, because she had such fun telling them.
She had a great sense of adventure, and I’ll always remember visiting her in Alaska, and all the experiences she helped us have. Watching us play our video games, even giving them a try herself, laughing at the mistakes she made, but always willing to try again. Staying in her garage during the remodeling of her house, surrounded by luxurious blue tarps (on which she suggested we draw). Exploring an old dredge, peeking into all the dark corners and feeling like we had discovered something no one else had seen, sitting on the slippery banks to pan for gold and mostly finding just mud. Getting ice cream for ourselves, and a bowl for the dog, because well, we couldn’t just not share with Ruger, now could we? Arranging flowers we’d picked together in the field, admiring the colors and the beauty of the wilderness in Alaska, in between jokes about beans and their musical qualities. Riding 4-wheelers, Cathy narrating from behind the camera, giving each scene her particular dramatic flair, regardless of what season it was, or whether it was a beautiful sunset or just the regular afternoon. Sitting around the campfire, talking and laughing about nothing in particular.
There are so many good stories, so many ways to tell them, and it feels like I could tell them all repeatedly and in different ways, but they still wouldn’t be able to capture the person that Cathy really was, or explain the value of those memories for me, and the people who knew her. But most of all, what I remember and what I will treasure is her kindness and her generosity. Cathy was a joy to be around, and every time I saw her, I knew I was welcome and loved, which was how Cathy treated every person in her life. She cared about all the people she knew, in a very real and palpable way. I feel lucky to have known her and seen her capacity for love and happiness, and I will miss her. I will always have these stories to tell about her, and while I will never be able to tell them the way that she could, they will be an important part of the stories of the people who knew Cathy. They will always be a way that we are connected, even if I can’t tell them quite as vivaciously as Cathy could.