Every so often, someone very special graces your life...someone whose presence and approach to living are so different, in a good way, that you can't help but be changed for the better.
I met Cathy McKeen during the spring of 2002. Her son, Tom, and I were dating, and one day early in the spring of that year he introduced me to his parents. I immediately knew something was very different about his mom -- something very good, yet unique. Her welcoming smile brightened the room, inviting me into her beautiful home outside of Colorado Springs.
Cathy's smile was infectious and I soon learned that she gifted that smile on almost everyone she met. She was perhaps the most genuinely happy person that I had the gift to know up to that point in my life. Her warm energy filled the home, and everyone there seemed caught up in her happiness, too. It was obvious that she loved her family and enjoyed spending time with them whenever she could.
She was also very present with each person, in each and every interaction. What I mean by that is that when she interacted with someone (even a "someone" with four paws), I noticed that she gave her full attention. It might sound odd if you are used to doing five things at once and don't have time to really pay attention to the person in front of you, but her presence in conversation showed me that she valued me as a person, as she valued everyone.
Cathy also practiced love, forgiveness, and living life fully every minute that she could. I don't remember that she ever said an unkind word to, or about, anyone. Perhaps she occasionally did in private, but never in front of me. She believed in, and practiced, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and kindness on a daily basis, as a part of a normal life. I had never met someone so present, so centered, and so gosh darn happy before!
I wanted what she had, and in the years to follow she inspired me to learn what happiness meant in my own life, which included what it took for me to live fully and in alignment with who I was as a person. She also inspired me to be active in the enjoyment of being alive, no matter my age or physical condition. Her son says that she packed more living into her 67 years on this planet than most people would fit into two or three lifetimes. I would completely agree.
Meeting Tom and hanging out with his family, but especially his mom, changed the way I looked at being active. I didn't have a choice, really. His whole family "played" in the outdoors much more than anyone I had met to that point. They rock & mountain climbed, hiked, camped, kayaked, canoed, ran trails, and mountain biked. While I was somewhat active in the outdoors, I knew that I was (at the start anyway) no match for these folks. But I wanted to be, and with Cathy as my example, cheerleader, and sometimes-teacher, my athletic abilities improved bit by bit. She helped me relearn climbing again after many years away from the sport. She encouraged me with mountain biking, and inspired me to take up trail running for a time. We occasionally hiked together, too.
But Cathy was a bit more gung ho than taking on your basic trail running or cycling. One year, around the time she turned 60, she decided that she would bike up north to see her father. That might not sound like a big deal at first...until I tell you that she lived near Colorado Springs, Colorado, and her father lived near Seattle, Washington. Yep, that's right! That summer Cathy got on her road bike, packed up a little trailer to tow behind it, and proceeded to bike from Colorado to Seattle to see her Dad. She made a 1,400+ mile trip in about 30 days. Wow, what an inspiration! Who said that grandmas need to spend all of their time in a rocking chair on the front porch?
To top it off, a couple of years later she did another cross-country cycling trip, this time from Minnesota to Maine. And let's not forget a biking tour of Italy in there as well. Witnessing this fireball of a woman simply getting out and doing the things she enjoyed inspired me to do the same, as it did many others as well. I marveled at her energy and joy in giving to others when she lead rock climbing or hiking trips for the Colorado Mountain Club. She believed in living life as much as possible, here and now, because you never know what was coming around life's next bend. And she taught many others to live life fully, too.
Cathy became a trusted friend over the years I knew her. As women will, we had many deep conversations about family, friends, love, forgiveness, children, grandchildren, parents, spouses, politics, geology, biology, gardening, and the state of the world. Simply by watching the way she lived her life, Cathy opened my eyes to true compassion, love of family, gentleness, forgiveness, being of service (volunteering), and fun. She began to show me that the circumstances of our early lives did not have to determine our fates. We could think, plan, and make choices that would allow us to improve ourselves and situations. Life doesn't guarantee us a happy ending, but we can choose happiness and joy in each moment. It's up to each one of us to create that for ourselves and help others along the process when we can. Unfortunately, I didn't fully integrate these lessons until the accident that almost ended my life, years later. I can be a slow learner at times.
In 2011, Cathy began to feel ill and visited her doctor for help. She thought at first she might have a food allergy, but many tests revealed a terrible diagnosis: a genetic form of cancer, the same one that had ended her own mother's life at a young age. Cathy was now facing a fight similar to the one her mother had faced. It was a wrenching diagnosis for all to hear. A woman so healthy and alive as this, now facing longterm treatments for a very serious disease. How could this be?
In true Cathy form, though, she tried to maintain her fighting spirit and positive outlook (at least to outsiders). She spent the additional time that medical treatments gave her with her family and friends, and made a special effort to be with her grandchildren. But after close to three years of treatments, her health was getting worse and she and her family knew the fight was almost over. She entered hospice care about the same time I had my bicycling accident, in early 2014.
About a week after I arrived home from the hospital and was still feeling like a broken doll, Cathy sent me a handwritten letter that I continue to treasure. At the time I didn't know she was in hospice, although I did know her health was deteriorating. Her letter was positive, upbeat, and encouraging, though:
"...Walking with a full body cast has to be a challenge but you have probably found, like me, that walking is your mental salvation. It has been hard at times to focus on what I CAN do and not on what I can't. Keep in mind that bones heal and you will recover...I am glad you have your sisters there to help out. Mine has been wonderful. Jim [Cathy's husband] has been doing all the work but Jane [her sister] keeps me entertained...Take care of yourself and mend well..."
Just a few weeks after I received the above letter, Cathy became bedridden and then semi-comatose. Within a few more days, she passed away, and her soul began its next big adventure.
Remembering Cathy makes me realize, once again, that life doesn't necessarily guarantee us a happy ending, but we can create that sense of joy and happiness for ourselves no matter the circumstances of our early lives. Also, focusing on what we CAN do and not on what we "can't" helps to pave the way for being truly happy.
Those memories also prompt me to think about the concept of legacy. What is it that we truly leave for others when we pass on from this life? For some of us, it might be a business we've built, a structure we've engineered, or perhaps songs we've written. But for most of us, the legacy we leave behind is a bit more ephemeral: it's how we treat others, the ways we raise our kids, the love that we share, the messages of encouragement or inspiration or kindness we pass to others, and being of service.
Cathy's legacy is immeasurable. The number of people her life touched in a positive way is huge. She has family, friends, former co-workers, students, and acquaintances who can tell you how she helped or inspired them. She left a very large, very real legacy of love and inspiration for many. This was simply my story.
Other posts about Cathy:
A Gift From Cathy
An Angel with Four Paws
All text copyright Nancy Rynes, photo copyright Thomas McKeen. You may link to this page, but please do not copy it without my written permission.