Biff America: An online message in a bottle
I’m not sure why Cathy Casey chose me to share her secrets with. Actually I do know – it was because she knew we would never meet.
Cathy lived a fiercely private life; one of both success and tragedy.
Born into a home wracked by mental illness she beat the odds of dysfunction to become the first female vice president of an established Boston bank. Defying her parent’s assertion that the most a woman could aspire to was to be a wife and homemaker, she began her career as a receptionist in that same bank, which 30 years later would promote her to second in command. During that time she sent herself to college, cared for and buried both her parents, took care of a brother and mentored countless young people.
She fell in love only once, but deeply, to a good man who died an untimely death. Following that tragedy, Catherine, by her own choice, lived a very private and solitary life.
Cathy and I grew up together but were never friends; I doubt we said more than 20 words to each other. She was the shy girl in home-economic courses and I was a loud jock with an undeserved bravado. I remember her as painfully shy, wearing clothing and eyeglasses that appeared to be purchased by someone older. But mostly I looked right through her.
As she got older and successful I can only guess that her shyness was replaced with a compartmentalized privacy that kept her professional life separate from her personal one.
There was a book written about a little boy who found a letter in a bottle that washed ashore. The author, assuming only a stranger could possibly read it, wrote of his lost loves and his pain and victories in a very personal, poignant manner.
For two years, Cathy and I shared our secrets via the Internet. That was our bottle.
Our re-acquaintance was happenstance.
On weekends she would shun most social invitations to spend her time perusing various Boston book shops and cafes. It was in such a store where she stumbled upon something I had written mentioning my mother. She then wrote me a short e-mail reintroducing herself and saying, that years ago, she knew my mum and offered some insight that was both revealing and thoughtful.
I actually asked a friend to scan an old high school year book photo so I could remember what she looked like. After that we exchanged a few impersonal letters reminiscing about our home town and mutual acquaintances.
After those few cursory communiques, we began writing on a more personal level. She told me horror stories of her early life and upbringing and I told her secrets I’ve only shared with my wife. There was a certain connection of family dysfunction for both of us; some of my family had emotional issues and she had two family members institutionalized for similar reasons.
For the next two years we wrote each other about once or twice a week; sometimes a few paragraphs, sometimes a page or two. She would inscribe in a composed and dispassionate manner about events in her past that were neither.
About once a month she would send me a box of books when she was done reading them and I would send her flowers, when I thought of it.
The July before last I sent her some roses on her birthday with a card that read, “You have lived a life of compassion and accomplishment – you have much to be proud of.”
About three days later she wrote to thank me for the flowers and kind words and, it seemed almost as an afterthought, she mentioned that, on her birthday, she learned she had stage 4 cancer. She added that she had seldom been sick but she was having some issues that she thought she should have checked out and the doctor gave her some very bad news and a not optimistic prognosis.
For the next 8 months we wrote more regularly. She wrote of her treatments and her frame of mind. At first she was cautiously optimistic – not to be cured but rather to have some good days during the years she had left.
Most of her coworkers assumed she had retired early – very few knew that she was terminally ill.
The Christmas before last she wrote that she was determined to enjoy herself for she feared it was her last. On New Year’s day she told me she failed; that did turn out to be her last Christmas.
We would write each other mostly about day to day events and books we were reading, but somewhere in the message the elephant in the room would be mentioned. Before I knew of her illness I would sometimes complain about my job, injuries, or political battles. After I learned of her situation, she shamed me with her lack of self pity.
With a matter-of-fact dignity she told me that she decided to stop treatment and let nature take its course; she said she guessed she had only weeks left. A few days later she wrote to remind me to retire early and to remember to appreciate my life, wife and all the good things.
I wrote her back, immediately telling her how much I admired her and thanked for her insight and honesty. I told her I would never forget her and perhaps someday we would meet. I’m not sure if she ever read that letter and I guess it doesn’t really matter.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s book “Steep, Deep and Dyslexic” is available from local book stores or at BiffAmerica.net
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