I would like to introduce you to a very special lady, quite inspirational in truth. Her story is now one of the most memorable periods of my life and as I look back I know I had a very special privilege that will stay with me forever.
She was so special, that I have been almost afraid to tell you about her, in case I cannot find the words to do her justice! Let me try to portray her in the light of those who had the privilege to know her.
As a young woman, Catrina had left school and gone on to study and then attained a full-time job with a generous salary within a local business. She had achieved all of this and yet she felt her life was in vain. She did not feel that her career was rewarding. She knew of others who had been involved in voluntary projects and saw the fulfilment and satisfaction that they manifested.
So Catrina gave up her job and began to get involved with voluntary projects. She met her husband Darren and together they became immersed in volunteer activity. They received extensive training and then moved to Africa, where they have lived and worked in several countries.
They lived a life of giving…and were joyful for it. They touched many people. Many new babies born in the areas they worked in were named Darren and Catrina.
I have visited one African country, Ghana. But I have family and friends who have lived in various African lands. Those who have lived there do say that their way of life is quite different in many respects. They have had to get used to a different climate, different food, a different language in some cases, to frequent visits from local wildlife, numerous bouts of malaria and other unpleasant illnesses, power-cuts, difficulty in obtaining needed equipment. They love Africa and say it is in their bones now, but, they have found themselves facing challenges which they never imagined.
There were occasions that were overwhelmingly challenging. The roads in places are almost impassable especially after weather damage. One of the hardships they experienced was when a team of workmates, who were travelling by bus, were involved in an incident. Fifteen of their friends were killed. Darren had to go and identify the bodies and make arrangements for informing their families.
For years they would come over to England for a couple of weeks to visit family and friends and were emanating joy and purpose in life. I met them when I was seventeen. They made a profound impression on me. I wanted to have a smile like that! For the next fifteen years, I eagerly read every letter and e-mail that was circulated detailing the adventures of Darren and Catrina and accounts of the inspirational people they met out in Africa.
I have mentioned before that I worked as a full-time volunteer in an infirmary caring for patients who were terminally ill or had dementia or were now dependant on nursing care. However, we also had occasional temporary patients who were volunteers working overseas who had come back to England for some surgery or specialist medical treatment. I noticed Catrina’s name on the list of scheduled visitors.
At first, I was just very excited at the thought of seeing her again. I could never have imagined what was ahead for Catrina. She was coming to England for some tests. She had still been working full-time as a volunteer the week before their flight to London. But for about a year she had noticed something was not quite right. I could fill pages detailing the drama that unfolded over the next few days.
I am going to fast-forward to the afternoon I was with Darren and Catrina in hospital and they had just been told the news that essentially nothing could be done. Catrina had cancer pretty much everywhere you can imagine. That is the only time I saw Catrina cry. I am going to step outside of the room and retain her privacy.
For the next six weeks Catrina was a resident of our own infirmary. A room was adapted for her needs and she had the best possible care from our team of volunteer nurses and care assistants. I told the girls before they even met her, “This one is really special. You are all going to fall in love with her very quickly and it is going to be very hard to see her go”. How right I was!
Catrina was full of life right up to the end. She was full of joy and full of giving. The girls who cared for her were completely bowled over by Catrina’s ways. As soon as the carers walked into her room, Catrina would turn around any enquiries as to how she was that morning into an opportunity to get to know everything about the carer. She would find ways to get to their inner heart very quickly. Everybody has memories of the personal advice and encouragement Catrina gave them during her last few weeks. She busied herself with writing letters and e-mails to people she knew and loved, many of whom were back in Africa. It think it must have grieved her to think she would not be able to go back to her home in Africa one last time. She would not dwell on it. She was going to use every precious moment to keep giving. Her beautiful words to others will I am sure be treasured for many years to come.
She was one incredibly popular lady. Many phone-calls came through switchboard for Catrina. She had scores of gifts posted and a constant queue of visitors, some of whom traveled for hours to be able too see her. As Catrina started to weaken and tire out more easily we had to limit the numbers of visitors so she could rest and be on her own with her husband Darren.
There was a large team of girls involved in the shifts in the infirmary. Due to the support we had, I was still able to go away with my family on a trip we had arranged to the Lake District. We stayed in Penrith and one day walked across a large range during which thick cloud descended and made us become quite lost. It ended up being a rather long walk and we were all rather achy that evening. So the next day we wanted an easier walk and I suggested a trip to Keswick and Derwentwater. The first fell I ever walked up was Catbells I have always been extremely fond of it. It is a lovely friendly introduction to the Lake District and fell-walking for those who are not used to it.
I have been over that fell many times. I like that you ascend rather quickly and are rewarded with stunning views over the lake below.
When I returned to London, Catrina wanted to hear all about my family and my weekend away in the Lake District. She asked me many questions about Keswick and about Catbells. She seemed to be fascinated by it. She made me go over and over the route to get to the base of Catbells and how the path climbs quickly. I told her of the little island I always look out for where we have had adventures on holidays as a child. She seemed deeply curious about Catbells and Keswick.
A week later I was caring for Catrina. Darren had been invited to go for dinner with some friends. Catrina wanted him to accept the invitation because she was sure they would be good for him. He was glad I was there and Catrina kept reassuring him that she was very pleased to have my company. Catrina asked me to put some music on selecting specific songs from her laptop. She also asked me to shave her legs. She told me they were really getting on her nerves. I remember the first song on her playlist. She told me Africa was in her bones and she considered it her true home. True enough, she was sad at the thought of all those she loved so dearly and the shock news they had received of how ill she was.
Whenever I hear the soundtrack to Out Of Africa I remember Catrina. Another song that was on her playlist….
….well, I cannot listen to that song at all anymore without ending up sobbing on account of Catrina.
The next day was the first time I saw Catrina was struggling. I had helped her wash and dress. She was expecting some important visitors who had lived out in the same area of Africa years before. They had helped to arrange for Catrina to be cared for within the infirmary. Catrina always used to apply her own cosmetics or make-up. She had not had any difficulties until that day. I left her room for a moment to put the towels we had used away and make something for her to drink. When I came back poor Catrina had completely missed her eye-lids with her eyeliner. She had drawn thick brown lines a centimeter or so below her eyes. She seemed a bit confused. I helped her to adjust her make-up before her guests arrived. When they asked how she was, she told them that she was starting to find it really hard to concentrate which was frustrating because she had so many letters to write.
The next day Catrina took her last breaths.
After the Doctor issued a death certificate, I helped to prepare her body before the undertakers took her away. Catrina had told us what to dress her in. We tried to comfort Darren who was distraught. To see Catrina who had been so full of life and joy and unselfish giving lying there completely lifeless was very odd.
Hundreds attended Catrina’s funeral. Many others who were unable to travel linked in from other countries using an internet service. Hundreds in their home town in Africa gathered to watch a broadcast of the funeral service.
After the funeral, Darren spoke to me and my best friend Marta. He had a letter from Catrina. Inside there was a photograph of the two of them from years ago. It was a photograph they had taken during their honeymoon. Darren asked me if I knew where the location was. As soon as my eyes settled on the photograph I was startled with surprise. Why, it was Catbells!! The two of them were together on the top of Catbells looking down over Derwentwater. I knew that view immediately. Sure enough their honeymoon had been up in the Lake District and they had walked up one and only one fell, Catbells.
In the letter were specific instructions from Catrina about what she wished Darren to do with her ashes. She had written him one of the most beautiful love letters I have ever seen. She thanked him for the life-time they had shared. She had lived, she had really lived. She could not imagine any other life than the adventure they had shared. Her expressions of love for him were deeply moving and as you may well imagine, Darren, Marta and I were all sobbing as we poured over Catrina’s letter.
Darren carried out all of Catrina’s wishes. He returned to Africa which is just what she had hoped. He still lives the same life of joy and giving. When he returns to London he makes sure he comes to see the little team of carers who he says are like his sisters. We certainly did keep an eye on him for many months before he left England and we have kept in touch since.
Catrina is very much alive in our minds and hearts. She was a trail-blazer. A life full of life, full of joy and full of giving. She wasted none of it. She kept on loving and kept on giving right to the end. She is remarkably memorable for every good reason. And whenever I have been to Catbells or even see a photograph… I see Catrina. I see Catrina smiling and laughing. There she is in our hearts, inspiring those who had the privilege of knowing her. Her ashes…floated off in a breeze over Catbells… her honeymoon memory of the man she had shared her life with.
That is just a few pages of the story of Catrina…whose life could fill many thousands of pages. That is just a short shapter on Catrina and Catbells.
Sleep tight Catrina…xx You are unforgettable and inspirational.