It seems impossible, ridiculous really, that we are bidding goodbye to our dear friend Catherine today. Just five days ago we had no idea she was even ill.
We got the news late on Sunday night, that she’d taken a turn for the worse, that she’d been on life support, that she was going to die.
The word “shocking” isn’t nearly accurate. What word is? There is no word for this feeling. There is no poetry for this. One moment, not a thought about her. The next, she is nearly gone.
We had just spoken not a month prior. She called me the day Gov. Dayton signed Minnesota’s gay marriage bill into law. It was May 14. I still have the voice mail.
“I got absolutely no satisfaction today at 5 o’clock when the governor signed the bill for gay marriage,” she said. “I was sitting with every redneck, unemployed factory worker in town at a bar in Minneapolis and nobody cared. I made them turn on the local news so we could see it happen. … So anyways, I’ve got no one to celebrate with. And you can come back to Minnesota, and you can get legally married! So I’m very happy. Nobody else seems to be around here, so I just thought I’d give you a call and share my joy. That’s all I’ve got to say. Hope everything is all right with you guys. And kiss Mukau. Bye bye.”
Catherine loved that cat. She was terribly allergic, and she had to wash her hands every time she touched Mukau, but she just could’t resist. I sometimes thought the only reason Catherine rented the other half of her duplex to us was because of the cat. Oh, and she kind of liked us, too, maybe.
Whenever we went out of town, Catherine happily volunteered to keep an eye on her and make sure she was fed. Against her best judgment, she would usher Mukau through her door, let her stand on a chair, put her forepaws against the glass on the fish tank, and become mesmerized by their flashing forms, her tail lashing with excitement.
Jeff sat up with her till all hours every Sunday night until they finished the New York Times and LA Times crossword puzzles. They waited all week for them to arrive. In her laundry room in the basement they’d take turns, each running through as many clues as they could before trading puzzles for the other to try.
Jeff is a journalist, and words have always been an important part of his life. And sometimes Catherine just needed to have some space at the end of the week to gather herself. It was the perfect activity for both of them, at once a team and a solo effort. They could work through the clues together or study the puzzle alone, silently — chatting like sisters or sitting quietly as the mood struck them.
Of course I called her back immediately. I couldn’t leave her hanging, no one to celebrate the good news with. She had been such a big part of our lives in Minneapolis.
And so many things had happened to her and Wain since we left. It was always so hard to hear about it from a distance. We made it back to visit as often as we could, always putting a high priority on our visits with them, hitting the old haunts, discovering new ones, but we were so separated from the really bad times.
The medical and marital roller coaster of Wain’s kidney transplant and two subsequent liver transplants, the fundraising and belt-tightening to keep their heads above water, no vacations, so much work all the time — they were just about wrung out. But Catherine kept on shining her bright flame. With each medical hurdle, Wain seemed even more full of life.
So when we spoke last, it was wonderful to hear her tell me about her new business in a new location, her new clients. She was making good money again, and things were looking up. There might even be a visit to Philadelphia in the near future. The next step would have been to decide on some viable dates. I knew our friends would love our visitors from Minnesota. Ole and Lena jokes would pour out as fast as the champagne.
How could I have stretched my imagination to guess that that could be the last time we were to talk; that I would end up with a voice mail message on my phone that I don’t think I can ever delete; that we’d find ourselves unable to travel to pay our respects and say goodbye to our friend?
So now what? We go on living? Doesn’t seem fair somehow.
Grief can be like turning the dial of a lock. Memories turn over and over through the day. And when you hit the right combination, it opens you up. Those memories of good old Nordeast Minneapolis — the happy years on Lincoln Street — they come flooding back.
I turn up a picture of her house, all covered in snow, tremendous icicles draped from the southern slant of the roof, and I can’t believe she’s gone. I see our wedding photos, and there’s Catherine holding court at the bar, and none of this makes sense. I see goat on a restaurant menu, and I laugh to myself for the Dane who cooked like a Jamaican. I grab from the cabinet a tiki cup we bought the first time we checked out Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge. I remember her getting loopy on rum cocktails, and I wonder how Wain is going to do without her. There is a picture of Mukau I wanted to send her, and now I realize it’s too late. It really is just too late.
There is so much to admire about Catherine. She was a strong, honest, moral, respectable and loyal friend, the kind of person we are taught to model ourselves after. She knew how to have fun — and when she got going, no one had more fun than her — but she was always in control. You knew when she was joking and you knew when she was serious — you always knew where you stood with her.
Everyone says she was so full of light, so full of life, so full of warmth. She was so full of all of these things and more, she had to give some of it away. She was the kind of person to call you up just to share her joy because there was so much.
That joy, that light, that warmth, that life — that’s the stuff we get to keep forever. How lucky we are to have been loved by Catherine Rose Jensen.