When Cathy was 12 she had thyroid surgery which left her with a noticeable scar on her neck. Never one to be satisfied with the boring truth she embellished the origin story just a tad. In her version, she was so panicked after seeing a chicken being beheaded for the first time that ran into a barbed wire fence, nearly decapitating herself in the process. Much more interesting, eh? That’s Cathy in a nutshell. Lean in and be entertained by a born storyteller and entertainer.
Memories from childhood: Ukrainian/Polish immigrant family; food=love; chickens, horses, snowmobiles; my grandmother & her sisters were talkative & funny, claimed it was because they ate hemp seeds all their lives; kicked me out of the house when they wanted to have adult talk & play cards.
I first met her when she moved to Gabriola Island about a decade ago. Shortly after that I asked her and another ferry friend if they’d be willing to volunteer helping demolish the old deck on the cottage we were renovating so my 88 year old mother could come live with us. I couldn’t pay them, but offered copious thanks and a nice lunch. She came not once, but twice, to pry up the old dry lumber that was secureded by overly long spikes. My mum was there on one occasion and thereafter, always had a soft spot for Cathy.
We ended up car-pooling or commuting on the ferry several times a week for six years. Even if Cathy was feeling a bit down she never failed to keep our little group waiting for each new yarn. As you can imagine she can turn the most mundane event into something engaging. Cathy’s one of those folks with an expressive face, the ability to do impressions and great timing. Long stories were never boring, just filled with details that helped paint her picture. There were a few tears over romantic woes, but mostly she kept us in stitches and made the monotony of traveling back and forth, day in and day out something to look forward to. Sadly, our schedules changed and she stopped commuting. No one has quite been able to fill her shoes.
Our paths have crossed not just personally, but professionally as well. I’m a Health Promotion Educator working in the field of HIV, Hepatitis c and Harm Reduction. The non-profit I work for runs an opioid replacement clinic for folks with substance use and mental health issues. Cathy is a nurse with the local health authority working with a lot of the same clientele. She’s been a nurse for almost 25 years, but started work life on a different career track.
She earned a diploma in Biological Sciences and worked with the fisheries department in Alberta. Cathy had grown up in Edmonton, but like many prairie folks found herself drawn to the west coast. Landing a job with the Department of Fisheries in Victoria, she spent the next five years working with fish: tagging, undertaking census and population studies. Her work took her all over Vancouver Island (the largest island off the west coast of North America), which required living out of a VW van. In between contracts, she scored a job at the local dump directing traffic (and scavenging treasures when no one was looking).
When her English girlfriend had to return home, Cathy followed. Although she worked at a community centre, Cathy spent much of her time at the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp, which was established in 1981 to protest cruise missiles being stored at the Royal Air Force Base in Berkshire. She was just one of thousands of women who spent time at various camps in an effort to bring global attention to nuclear weapons. The Camp attracted up to 70,000 protestors on some days and was finally disbanded in 2000.
Two years into her English adventures, Cathy heard from a friend who’d been collecting her mail that she’d finally been accepted into nursing school. It had been so long since she’d applied it probably wasn’t on her radar, but Cathy packed up her life and moved back to Victoria. Four years later she was a nurse at a local hospital in the medical surgical unit, but longing to work in the psych ward. A practicum placement in adolescent psychiatry piqued her interest, but it was a difficult field to enter.
In 2001 she moved a couple of hours north to be closer to her grandmother, who lived with her for a year before going into care.
In 2010, after eight years of working on a crisis team and commuting for an hour each day she opted for a change. Gabriola is one of several gulf islands visible from parts of Nanaimo. She wondered about ‘the place with the trees’, decided that’s where she wanted to live and spent a week in her VW van camping here before taking the big step of relocating. She’s still got a VW van – not the one from long ago, but a vintage one just the same.
She bought a small home that was made in the 1970’s by hippies that dragged salvaged logs from the beach for building materials. Having been in her house a couple of times I don’t think it would pass current building codes, but it is funky and cute.
When I met Cathy she worked on an interdisciplinary team focused on homeless outreach. Many government departments have historically been siloed, shunting clients from one place to another. Cathy refers to her program as ‘when mental health and substance use got married’ – the twinning of inter-related services in order to streamline care.
For the last four years she’s worked on Gabriola in a similar role. A city nurse would do patient intakes for referral, which is impractical in our small community of 4000 with limited services. Sending folks off island isn’t user friendly either. Her job is a bit of a catch-all: counselling, crisis intervention, collaboration with other service providers and offering an empathetic ear. Even with our small population we’re not immune to some of the issues found elsewhere: substance use, domestic violence, anxiety and mental health concerns.
That kind of work can be heavy and takes it’s toll. In our field there is some expectation that we undertake some kind of self-care to avoid burnout. So what does Cathy do to keep the metaphoric wolves at bay?
For her 50th birthday she didn’t go bungee jumping or sky-diving but undertook something equally as daring: clown school. Yup, she trotted off with her then-partner, Vee, to Costa Rica for two weeks of workshops hosted by Patch Adams. You remember him, the unconventional physician played by Robin Williams in the movie version of his days at med school. The basis of Patch’s philosophy is caring for and connecting with others, rather than just performing in order to ease suffering. The student clowns learned exercises in how to do that even when working with folks that don’t speak the same language, then volunteered at community hospitals and a psychiatric ward.
The test of her mettle was when they went to a prison packed with 600 female inmates on a sweltering tropical day. They were crammed into a giant open outdoor pen and Cathy found herself standing there, all of her fellow clowns had melted away, busy with their own performances. She stared out at the tough looking prisoners and made one of her signature clown sounds. A guard responded and they ended up doing an impromptu duet that had all the women in stitches. Note to self: if I’m ever in a bind with some rough looking characters bring Cathy along to divert potential disaster.
Five years ago she started going to Witch Camp, an annual summer gathering of 100 like-minded folks interested in social justice and environmental issues. Each year they choose a meta-theme to explore. This year’s was to have been Baba Yaga, an Eastern European folklore character who is both a mother-nature figure and an evil villain who enjoys eating those who fail to complete her tasks. Tales involving her usually take place at her hut which stands on magical chicken legs, with a rooster’s head on top and surrounded by a fence made of human bones. Unfortunately, like most things camp will have to take a hiatus due to Covid 19.
Another summer highlight has been the Comox Music Festival. She’s volunteered with a team of crisis nurses in the safe harbour tent to ensure the safety of people under the influence. One of the perks is a preferred campsite and backstage passes. One year, my partner and I hosted some WWOOFers from New Zealand. After they had spent 10 days volunteering with us Cathy invited them to park their van in her driveway and camp there. They all ended up going to the music festival together. Nancy and Stef are both musicians and had brought their guitars with them. After spending the day volunteering in the food tent they played music around the campfire each night.
Cathy has intermittently talked about getting chickens, but she’s had a busy life with work and social activities off island. Like lots of folks adjusting to changes due to the pandemic she decided to take the plunge and get a flock of her own. She asked if I’d come to her place and give her some advice about converting an existing shed on her lot. It’s an long wood structure that is divided into three sections, each with it’s own entrance. She chose the 8’x10’ end unit, closest to the garden. It already had windows and a door and was an easy conversion: it’s now one half coop and the other half supply room. I didn’t mention that it will also come in handy as an infirmary for future patients.
Pounding the fence posts was a little more difficult. A few friends formed a work party and enclosed an irregular-shaped 25’ run with an automatic door into the coop. She ordered it online after she’d had a couple of drinks. Cathy quipped that they should have breathalyzers on those sites as the next day she was hit with buyer’s remorse. When I dropped by to chat with her she’d only had her four pullets for less than a week and already had a change of heart, deciding an automatic door was a good thing.
Five days into chicken keeping and there’s not much to report just yet. She’s got what she hopes are all pullets: Columbian Rock, White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red and a bantam and is planning to add an Orpington. She asked me a few questions about what was normal and what to expect. Cathy’s still in the new chicken mum stage and is just getting used to behaviours like watching the pecking order play out. I assured her that although it looked like harassment it was quite gentle by chicken standards and everything would work itself out.
Cathy’s got three fantastic brothers, “all of them not so keen on my chicken idea, but then they haven’t met them yet. I’ve only had them a few days and I love them”.
Clearly Cathy has a full life: a busy job, lots of friends and family, volunteer work, a garden, a dog and now chickens but one thing is missing – a partner. I thought I’d take this opportunity to play matchmaker. As you can see, she’s quite a catch for a discerning woman interested in a rural lifestyle with a quirky storyteller. They say food is the way to someone’s stomach; I don’t know if Cathy can cook, but I do know that laughter is one way to someone’s heart. In which case, she’ll keep you both entertained and appreciating what life has to offer.
Additional credits/photos courtesy of Cathy, Wikipedia & The Guardian.