At the start of 2020 my sister Catherine was diagnosed with a return of a cancer that we thought had been cured four years ago. The doctors were not able to find a treatment that could help her, but she bore the pain and discomfort with great patience. She died on October 31st. Here is the text of the tribute I gave at her funeral on November 16th.
My very first memory is of a newborn Catherine coming home from hospital with our mother, Beryl, to the terraced house on the Spotland Road in Rochdale where we lived while the vicarage was being prepared. It was in Rochdale that we learnt that Catherine would go through life with learning disabilities. As I grew older, and after we had moved away from Rochdale, I became conscious of the prejudice that disability could provoke – but as school friends visited our house, Catherine’s gentle kindness and her joyful happiness helped them to see that disability was not something to be feared or laughed at, but something that brought its own love, strengths and specialness.
Catherine has had a profound influence on me. I have learnt much from her and a friend wrote how ‘she seems to have a kind presence’ in me; I hope that is true. I’ve had messages from friends across the country, and in France, America and even Australia. Catherine loved it when my university friends came to stay and Pam, widow of my best friend Dave, wrote: ‘Cathy was a lovely soul. I remember her singing and happiness when we visited you.’
After moving to the village of Felsham in Suffolk with our parents, Beryl and Harry, Catherine’s influence spread through the community. I have been conscious going through the messages we have received that people in the village clearly loved her and also, to quote Beryl’s friend Elizabeth, her own ‘deep sense of security, knowing she was loved’. The vicar, Sharon Potter, described how ‘it has been a privilege to be involved with Catherine’ while Richard Stainer recalled ‘such fond memories of Catherine’. A special memory for many is caught by the former vicar, Simon: ‘her spontaneous, enthusiastic joy and shrieks as she skipped up and down the aisle before a service’. She also enjoyed theatre visits with Beryl, especially to the opera and Stratford – and above all the ice cream during the break!
Stowmarket Community Hub became a central part of Catherine’s life. Team members there recall ‘Catherine’s beautiful keyboard playing and her willingness to take part in a variety of activities both at the Hub, the local leisure centre and out in the community’. At the time, ‘Catherine was the only learning disabled person ever to be accepted into the Stowmarket Art Club and have four paintings on show at the annual art exhibition at the URC church in Stowmarket. Her landscape of a poppy field was accepted by the Town Council.’ Her remarkable self-portrait is on the right.
Roy, for many years her key worker, describes how her artistic talent stood out: ‘Her ability was always there and, in time, she developed a confidence and style all of her own, enhanced by the transition from working on paper to canvas. She was always happy, choosing whichever subject she wanted to work on, never worried about trying something a little more challenging, applying herself with her usual patience and eye for detail. The results speak for themselves, her legacy, a remaining source of pleasure and amazement, not only for myself but for everyone involved at the time. An inspiration.’
Over 20 years ago a vital new chapter of Catherine’s life opened as she moved to Combs Court. I have become increasingly conscious over recent times of just how much Catherine was loved and valued by everyone at Combs – and also of how much she enriched their lives with her kind, gentle sunshine. When Beryl broke her leg in Cambridge in 2017 it was the ever-helpful and capable Catherine who tidied the hotel room and did the packing – and when we asked her where she wanted to spend the night she made it clear she wanted to return to Combs. So I’d like to close by quoting some moving words from Wendy, who stood close beside her throughout her illness.
‘Catherine was a kind, loving person and her artwork was amazing. She will be a great loss to us all and we will miss her dearly. We are one big family with a hole in our hearts now.’
Beryl requested that one of my songs, ‘Tenderness’ be played at the funeral. Here it is: