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I like to tell stories about family and friends who have died
as a way of honoring them and celebrating their lives, and as
a way to keep memories of them alive. I share them with you in
hopes that they will remind you of your stories that you need
This story is about a woman who was my best friend for 15 years,
and who died in a car accident in 1994. This story tells about
our friendship, Cathy's death, and my life afterwards.
I've tried, but I can't remember when I first met my friend Cathy Chalek. It was some time in 1978, probably at a Newcomer's Club activity at the company where Cathy, her husband Carl, and I all worked. Undoubtedly Cathy and I shared some laughter then, as we did whenever we were together. As we continued to meet, our friendship started to grow, in much the same way as cloth is woven: who we were when we met formed the base threads of our friendship, and our shared experiences were the threads that wove our lives together.
We found that we had many base threads in common: we had both been called C/Kathy as children, studied psychology and French in college, married right after college to men getting Ph.D.'s in chemistry in the Boston area, moved directly from Boston to Schenectady, NY, and we both worked for the same computer group. I was surprised when I discovered that she was another psychology/French/computer scientist. We also read mysteries, did counted cross stitch, and were about the same age, Baby Boomers. However, we were not identical.
Physically, we were different. Cathy was of average height while I'm a few inches taller. Her dark brown hair was usually fixed in a sleeker, off-the-forehead style than my light brown curls with bangs. We both wore glasses and had big grins. But her grin came with a dimple on each side, and I think her dark blue eyes twinkled more than my green ones.
Our interests weren't identical either. I have a son while Cathy had no interest in having children. She had cats, and I'm allergic to them. I enjoy growing plants inside and outside, while Cathy had a black thumb. Although we both read mysteries, I borrow mine from the library while she attended mystery conventions and collected first editions. Nevertheless, we did have enough in common for the fabric of our friendship to begin.
We ate lunch together almost every day in the cafeteria at work with a group of friends and colleagues. One thing we enjoyed doing there was teasing each other. We teased each other no matter where we were, but it was especially delightful in front of an audience.
Several times when I was pregnant, Cathy flashed her smile with the double dimples, and with a wicked gleam in her eyes, said: "Kate, I think I'll organize a 50-50 raffle. You'll get 50% of the money; the winner will get the rest along with the right to name your unborn child. Sounds good, huh?" But she never did that.
Often after my son was born and I teased Cathy, she threatened, "Kate, for Christmas this year, I think I'll buy your son a set of drums!" But she never did that either.
One thing she did do repeatedly, whenever the subject of age came up, was to announce to the lunch table:
"You know, I AM younger than Kate."
"Not by much, Cathy."
"Kate, you were born in 1950 and I was born in 1951."
"Dear, you know I'm only slightly more than 6 months older than you."
"But Kate, that rounds up to a year."
"But Cathy, you have more gray hair than I do."
Once she replied: "But Kate, you have more wrinkles than I do."
I always assumed that the look she saw on my face, amid all the wrinkles, prevented her from repeating THAT remark again.
After about 8 years, a fitness center opened at work, on the lower level of the property. So several times a week at lunch time, Cathy and I walked together, to and from the fitness center. Those walks, unlike our times at the lunch table, were private, and we could talk about anything -- problems with a computer program, or a colleague,or personal matters.
Those were also times when I plugged into Cathy's network. Cathy served as the hub of a large network of friends, providing support and information to everyone in that network. She shared information -- not breaking any confidences, but passing on information when it was ripe enough for friends -- to let people know when someone got a new job, or had their job eliminated, or was expecting a baby, or had a grandmother who was sick. Then friends could rally round.
We also spent time in each other's home where we inevitably worked on our latest needlework projects. Cathy specialized in counted cross-stitch and needlepoint, while I specialize in counted cross-stitch and knitting. We even went through a counted cross-stitch binge together until we had to stop. As Cathy said, "You can only make so many counted cross-stitch projects for yourself before your house starts to look like a needlework shop." After that, whenever we heard that someone was getting married or having a baby, we'd say, "Oh good, I can make THEM something in cross-stitch!"
I'm lucky enough to have two counted cross-stitch gifts from Cathy. One was a decoration for my son's nursery, a picture of a teddy bear being carried off by balloons. I had known about that gift, but Cathy made me another one completely on the sly.
While my husband and I were having a new home built and while Cathy was listening to all the ensuing difficulties at the lunch table, on our walks and in our homes, she was making an exquisite house warming gift. Her gift was a picture, 22 stitches per inch, finer work that I do, of three of my favorite things: an old-fashioned wooden chair, a patchwork quilt and some wild flowers. This lovely picture hangs in my bedroom now.
A few years later, I decided to make a sweater for Cathy, one that would last the rest of her life. That's not impossible. I have a 25 year old sweater, but it's worn around the edges and elbows. For Cathy's sweater, when I started each edge, I used two strands of yarn,like the Aran Isle knitters did, to prolong the life of the sweater. Cathy picked out a lovely shade of rose heather yarn. Whenever I pulled out that project, while waiting in a doctor's office, for instance, someone always exclaimed, "Oh, isn't that lovely! What are you making?"
I proudly replied, "I'm making a sweater for my best friend."
Unfortunately, I have never completed that project. I had finished the back and most of the front of the sweater when Cathy's husband Carl came into my office one afternoon. Now that wasn't unusual, he worked just down the hall from me. What was unusual was the way that Carl looked: his face was almost haunted, and his whole body seemed deflated. My heart began to race; I couldn't imagine what had happened. Then he spoke: "Cathy's dead -- she was killed in a car crash."
The next thing I remember was Carl kneeling in front of my chair. We hugged each other while tears streamed down our faces.
"How am I going to live without her, Kate?"
"I don't know, Carl, I don't know. And where I am going to find another psychology/French/computer scientist?"
As I said that, I could almost feel a jagged hole torn in the fabric of my life. My spirit was drawn to that hole and was cut on each jagged fragment. Then my spirit was sucked through that hole to the black void beyond.
It's been over four years since that day. When I look at the fabric of my life now, some sections are more tightly woven; some are more richly embroidered. There are some new sections, too. A number of these changes are directly due to Cathy's death.For example, I'm closer to Carl and to mutual friends with whom I had lost touch, except via Cathy's network. I'm glad these changes have happened, but I used to feel guilty about them. My mind is very logical, so I reasoned that if I was happy those changes had happened, was I also happy that Cathy had died? Luckily, I mentioned this to a neighbor who put my mind to rest: "There's no need to feel guilty. It's just a case of good coming from bad."
When I look down to that hole that was created on the day Cathy died, I see that the edge isn't as jagged. My spirit doesn't go there as often, nor does it stay as long. But that hole is the same size as it was on the day Cathy died, and I think it always will be. When I look at all the fabric surrounding that hole, I can see it's a little faded. However, I can still recognize the patterns very well. I can still remember what it felt like having Cathy as my friend.
Copyright © 1998 by Kathryn Eike Dudding. All Rights Reserved.