Volume 2 Issue #6
Yesterday was my sister's 61st Birthday and the first June 11th I can remember when I won’t be able to call my sister to wish her a happy birthday and hear her say, “We’re the same age.” We celebrated her remarkable life at the Lyndale Park Rose Garden on the shores of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, her home since 1998. Friends and family gathered from around the country. Those unable to attend can find a copy of my comments from the celebration below.
This issue is dedicated to my sister’s writing. Beth was an extremely private person and she crafted her work purposefully. We started this literary magazine together so she could tell the truth about living with cancer. The pieces excerpted below are what we hoped would be only the beginning of a long collaboration. The fifth piece is something she called Angel Stories. A year before she died she was hospitalized with Covid-19 and voice-recorded a series of memories while in isolation.
She is so dearly loved and missed.
(originally published in January, 2022 - the very first issue of Starry Starry Kite)
In August 2000, I couldn't have told you when I was last sick. Vegetarian for 15 years, training rides every morning, lunch hour runs, weekend hikes in the mountains. Nearly every snowy hill in America had met my snowboard, and I’d been teaching yoga since 1985.
Then I returned from a sea kayaking trip in Alaska, where the final 5-mile crossing left me panicked and confused. Why was it so hard?
My friend Yvonne, an ER doc, looked at my white lips in horror. “Your hospital, or mine.”
It wasn’t a question.
In the ER, my shockingly low hemoglobin prompted a bone marrow biopsy, leading to a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a malignant cancer in my bone marrow and blood.
The oncologist delivered the news to me without emotion. I left his office unconvinced; this guy didn’t know me. But after weeks of exhaustion, I agreed to begin chemo. I also juiced like crazy. And drank horribly bitter root tea, slurped miso soup, and promptly vomited all of it.
Chemo further decimated my low blood counts. Friends asked if I was getting restless without any exercise. Were they out of their minds? Everything was now exercise. Brushing my teeth was a workout; climbing stairs was absurd. I used to run for hours; now I couldn’t make it around the block.
I remember lying in a hospital bed for chemo, incensed. Hadn’t I eaten my damn broccoli? Some gentle souls who are diagnosed with chronic illness provide us with a model of gracious mortality. Not me. I was bewildered and terrified; didn’t I run a marathon just last year? I lay awake, soaking my sheets with night sweats, imagining every heartbeat sending cancer cells all through my body…
(originally published March 2022 in the third issue of Starry Starry Kite)
You’re an egg, and the egg doctor discovers that the yolk isn’t quite right. So he drips a toxic liquid through a tiny pin-hole in your shell to fix the yolk. It will make you pretty sick, but don’t worry too much about that, he says. You concede, because you’re sad to hear that your yolk is problematic. The drops go in, and sure enough, you get sick. And you think, this sucks. But I better keep going, or I’ll lose my precious yolk.
Eventually you realize that the drops have destroyed your yolk. But your shell is intact, so you appear to be a fine egg. An admirable one in fact, for staying positive while this terrible poison wreaks havoc. The destruction isn’t so much the internal organs or the endocrine system or the hormones, which are, incidentally, totally fucked; it’s really your psyche, your soul and your sense of yourself as an egg of any worth at all.
Periodically I step into the bathroom to vomit, or shit or both. I realize that the sink is a better place to vomit, reserving the toilet for lower elimination. If I happen to be in the kitchen, that sink also works nicely. I can balance myself on the counter’s edge, toes still on the floor, and retch directly into the drain, which is shaped like a + sign. Or an x. Depends on your angle…
The Laundromat was packed. I stuffed my clothes into an oversized washer, added detergent and pushed in a dozen quarters. Seeking relative calm, I settled into a plastic orange chair next to a table piled with clean clothes where a very pale young woman and a wiry young man were folding.
“Isn’t it amazing what you can figure out from someone else’s laundry?” she asked, handing him the button that had just popped off one of his shirts. He blushed, pushed the ragged athletic sock he was holding back into his pile. She grinned kindly.
They had just met.
“I mean, take my slippers; they say oceans about me,” she bragged, presenting an otherwise unrecognizable handful of purple rags. He smiled, and visibly exhaled. Clearly relieved that she wasn’t judging him, he reached back in for his sock.
I listened in on their conversation while flipping through an old copy of The New Yorker. They were unusually forthcoming with one another about their lives, perhaps because folding one’s underwear in front of a stranger is revealing…
(Beth wrote this tribute to her sweet dog during the pandemic.)
Our mini-schnoodle Carly is seven pounds of pure devotion. She greets (or threatens, depending on your perspective) all visitors to our home with insistent, cheerful yips. She seeks out warm laps, down pillows and fleece blankets. Dinner time for Carly is as close to heaven as life on earth gets. But she will drop everything for the chance to chase, trap, and test her squeaky ball.
She does not pout or sulk; she has never known a sour mood. Her go-to mindset is one of eager anticipation. She practically speaks each morning when she greets me. Oh, wonderful! You are here. I am here. It’s going to be a great day! I’m so happy to see you! I love you beyond measure!
Carly’s tail is a barometer for her emotions. When we head out for a walk around the lake, it is fully up and curled into a perfect letter C. When she is frightened, it is tucked all the way down between her legs. It’s quite a study in honesty. Imagine if human faces were so indicative of the person within. We would always know exactly where we stood with one another.
We picked Carly up from the breeder on a beautiful May morning. At just 8 weeks old, she fit into the palm of my hand. She had curly, jet black hair, as soft as a kiss. Her eyes were sparkling onyx jewels. On the way home, she trembled under the girls’ delighted inspection and nervously piddled on the car seat.
From the beginning, I had the job of training her…
(Beth wrote this after our younger brother was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2022. She listened in on his doctor visits and sent him one actionable tip every day for a month.)
1 - Picture yourself extremely old, and very happy.
2 - Sleep. Sleep some more.
3 - Your body is the boss. Listen up.
4 - Sugar is cancer’s favorite food. Starve it.
5 - When friends ask how they can help, say ‘Surprise me.’
6 - Laugh and/or cry - every day.
7 - Tell the shark cartilage advocates to fuck off.
8 - If a therapist doesn’t get you, get a new one.
9 - Medical professionals love well-educated patients.
10 - Ask lots of questions. This says, “I’m actively engaged in my care.”
11 - Know your nurses’ first names. They are critical advocates.
12 - Learn so much that they’ll ask if you are a physician.
13 - Give your body every possible advantage in this fight.
14 - Be with people who love you as much as you love them…
(Beth voice-recorded this series of stories for Olivia when she was hospitalized with Covid in September, 2021.)
Two people were once crazy in love with me. Did I tell you this?
They both sent enormous floral arrangements to me at my office on the same day.
The man was the one you saw water skiing in the picture book.
But the woman, Linda Faye, had been my snowboard instructor in Telluride. She sent a floral arrangement that was completely over the top – over four feet tall. She was good friends with Martina Navratilova and was a caretaker for her ranch in Colorado. She had come out to visit me here, and we went for rides on my motorcycle at night.
Linda Faye died of ovarian cancer about 10 years ago.
When they sedated me earlier, I heard her laughing.
I looked over and saw her on the chairlift next to me.
I know if this goes south there’s a good friend waiting for me there.
Shortly after my second husband walked out, when I was still living in DC I got Raille, a tiny black and white kitten who fit in my palm.
She was just seven weeks old and followed me around the house. She didn’t exactly meow; it was more like a croak-squeak - very cute.
I was devastated that he had left but she slept on my face at night - all kitten-smelly, and I drenched her in my tears.
I am so glad I went through that because it showed me that I could survive any heartbreak.
Raille never ever once left the apartment -- even when the window was open. She would sit on the sill and watch for me coming home from work, grad school, yoga classes, Chinese lessons.
Then one night I went to a clogging event (kind of like square dancing).
I remember I was wearing this crop top and a skirt that I loved. I met this boy Mickey and we danced together. He was very tall and angular and had a very expressive face. He had a big beautiful smile, nice skin, and long eyelashes. Every time we were set to pick partners somehow he was always right there. We could do this one dance step that involved putting your arm around each other’s waist and looking into each other’s eyes while you circled each other very closely. Mickey’s fingers were so gentle but sure on my waist. Every single time I got this little jolt of ooh! We get to do that circle eyes thing again!
Anyway, it was kind of a magical evening, and I came home feeling like I was going to be okay after all.
That night, for the first time I didn’t drench Raille with my tears.
The next morning when I woke up she was on the window sill, just quietly looking at me. She was 10 months old and she hopped out of the window. I thought, well that’s new.
A few minutes later I suddenly had this dull sense of dread, and I jumped out of bed.
I looked down in the street, and she was lying there very small and still below my apartment. I ran outside and gathered her small warm body in my hands. She looked up at me as I sobbed and wailed over her.
I think she was telling me, “Okay then, you got this now, kid. Bye for now.” And then she died.
There was no blood.
She was one of my angels. She arrived to get me through that, and then she left to go and help someone who needed her angel-kitteny-smell on their wet face. I think Raille and Linda Faye are snuggled up next to the fire at a chalet waiting for me. She is purr-croak-squeaking very wisely.
Please don’t worry that I’m only thinking about death. My angels just come close to the veil, and I can see them when I’m scared or struggling. They reassure me.
When I was very sick in 2012 and vomiting bile and feeling like I could not do chemotherapy anymore I was lying in bed one night. I had a powerful sense of several luminous beings hovering above me, telling me over and over that I was deeply deeply loved.
Since that night I have felt even more peace and calm about what awaits us on the other side, and I am certain that they have become protective of you as well.
Do you remember that heavy rainstorm very late at night on the highway? You weren’t wearing your contacts and a huge semi truck drove alongside us way way too close. Our angels picked up our car and moved it over just enough to keep us safe. They were saying, “Oh no, it’s not yet her time. This one is going to do some truly remarkable things.”
They will be ready to shepherd me across the veil when it’s my time, and then I will join them. We will all be YOUR angels ready to intervene when you need help.
About the Author
Diagnosed at age 38, Elizabeth Castronovo lived with cancer for 22 years. With a loving community of family and friends, and through many tears, much laughter, and the solace of writing, she clung to the thread of sanity through pain that would have crippled most of us. She maintained a daily sense of awe by taking long walks around the lake with her dog. I miss her every day.
June 11, 2023 11:00 AM Lake Harriet Rose Garden
Thank you all for being here today.
Thank you to Miranda Bryan, director of the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies for organizing the wonderful music this morning. Thank you to the quartet of young musicians: Meiling Mathur and Cecil Mummy on violin, Mahay and Muraah Hsiung on viola, and Robbie Holzman on cello.
For those of you who may not know, I’m Linda Castronovo, Elizabeth’s sister.
You might be thinking, and maybe you’ve even said it out loud -- Beth would have loved to be here on her 61st birthday -- in this spectacular place on this stunning day, with beautiful music, and surrounded by all of us -- a gathering of so much love.
I know that Beth is here. Nothing could keep her away.
She was always confident that there was more than this physical reality. She didn’t buy into traditional images of heaven and hell, but she knew there was more. “We’re the stuff of stars,” she said often. She knew that death meant a return to “the cosmic soup.”
Of course, she wanted to stay in physical form as long as possible, but she was never afraid of dying. Even when she was pretty certain COVID might take her down almost two years ago, she wasn’t afraid. She was gutted at the thought of leaving Olivia and Joe, of course, but she was also pragmatic. She doled out instructions from her hospital bed in isolation. One text after another pinged our phones. Pay the utility bill, return my library book, reserve Olivia’s ticket to Italy, remember the bank passwords. She made her end of life wishes very clear.
She made it back from the brink so many times in 22 years, maybe we all believed that nothing could take her body down; that sheer willpower, dogged determination, and unshakeable persistence would keep her going.
Beth’s energy was a spectacular presence. She was lit from within, as they say, a shining sun that seldom dimmed. She was full of love and light and zesty passionate curiosity. She used her body to the last possible minute -- tapped into universal energy just like when she was on a motorcycle, on a snowboard, flying in her dreams, and when she was surrounded by those she loved.
She loved nothing more than planning a gathering. She instigated our annual tradition of sibling reunions so the cousins could be together from four corners of the country. She was happiest when we were all together – sitting around a beautiful – hours-long – meal sharing stories from the past or our favorite books, movies, and podcasts.
She loved simple moments too. She was grateful for changing seasons, a gentle breeze, a starlit sky, every tree, every bird, every bite of fresh fruit.
Yvonne Brutger, a long-time friend, couldn’t be here today. She is off adventuring on a rafting trip on the Green River through Desolation Canyon in Utah. She writes: Elizabeth and I met on a backroads bike trip, so celebrating her life on a remote raft trip seems appropriate. I can hear her laugh and say "ABSOLUTELY! go on the raft trip!”
Each night on our bike trip she asked me to sing "It's a Wonderful World.” If on June 11th you hear strains of that song floating in the ethos, you will know I am singing to Elizabeth. You might even hear her say "You have such a great voice, Yvonne!!!." (I don't, but you know how Elizabeth would always go out of her way to make you feel special and loved.)
Yvonne sent us a voice mail message she had saved for 20 years. Beth left her this message on October 11, 2000 (just a few weeks after her diagnosis and during her first round of chemotherapy. ((Play the Voice Mail from October, 2000 ))
That is so Beth, right: "Life is just grand."
Maybe you feel her in the wind, maybe you see her in the birds, maybe you hear her laughter in your memory, or feel her hand on your shoulder, a shiver over your scalp, or goosebumps down your spine.
You can be sure, if you think of her, she is with you. She’s free now to be everything, everywhere, all at once, and we all know that she will take that freedom to the limit. Death may have changed her form, but nothing is going to slow her down.
In a minute I am going to turn over the microphone to those of you who want to share a memory, a story, or a few words of remembrance, but first a reminder to her more recent friends that my sister had many names. You’ll hear some of us refer to her as Beth, some as Elizabeth.
A very few of us….and here I am looking at you, Gaye Lynn Sharp, Traci Shindell, and my brothers, cousins… We knew her as Bethy.
She never liked this diminutive form of her name, a constant reminder of her status as “little sister.”
We all know, of course, there was nothing ever little about Elizabeth.
Some of her names were given to her, some she chose. Her birth name, Mary Elizabeth Sherman, was changed when our mom remarried at age 5 to Mary Elizabeth Smurl. When Beth married for the first time she became M. Elizabeth Curtin, and then Beth Dugan, and finally she officially changed her name to Elizabeth Castronovo, 8 full syllables, a nod to our paternal grandfather.
To say that she embraced our Sicilian heritage is to vastly understate her enthusiasm for the 25% of our DNA from this small Italian island. She researched our ancestors and traveled to Palermo to see the family villa (which sounds more luxurious than it actually was). She made sure we all got copies of what she had learned about our quote-unquote royal lineage. Beth loved a good story and would never let something like an inconvenient truth get in the way.
A few years later, I followed her lead, happy to share a family name with my sister.
There’s that word again: Sister. I don’t know what I did to deserve such an amazing sister, but I am eternally grateful to have been sistered with Beth.
Sistered: it’s the term carpenters use to describe the process of nailing a supportive timber beside another. Sistering involves attaching a newer, stronger board right up against a weaker one to lend strength and support.
Maybe I benefited Beth a little through the years, but I was the older, failing timber that needed sistering. I leaned on her so many times in the midst of break-ups and job challenges. She was always there on the other end of the phone: sometimes nursing Olivia, sometimes while getting an infusion, sometimes running errands, preparing a meal, or planning one of her many school and community projects. We talked several times a week - for hours - while I walked in the woods near my home and while she walked around Lake Harriet. She was always willing to listen, to problem-solve, to cheerlead, and generally lend me her confidence that I could do anything, that she believed in me, that I could do it.
To be sistered, especially to such a remarkable person as Elizabeth Castronovo, is to be blessed with grace every single day.
I don’t remember a single day of my life before September 20th of last year when I was on this planet without my sister. That morning I woke up in her bed on Aldrich Avenue after dropping into it and sleeping like a stone. I opened my eyes to glowing red numbers on the digital clock: 6:11.
I smiled through tears as a wave of energy like nothing I had ever felt before started at the soles of my feet and moved into and up through my body. It felt like chills, but not the little shivers of goosebumps. This was a tsunami of sensation, chills on steroids. It circled through and around every nook and cranny and settled in my chest. My heart burst open with light and love. It was unmistakable. As unmistakable as the hands of the hospital clock moving on their own just as her body stopped breathing the night before.
Beth was a force of nature, unstoppable and persistent, single-minded and dauntless. Nothing was going to get in her way when she set her mind toward a goal. She didn’t say (like our mom did), I’ll contact you from the other side. She didn’t need to. We’d talked about death many times. She was unafraid, sure she would be up for this next adventure of freedom and flight.
In the days that followed, I opened my eyes to the clock precisely at 6:11. Hello, Beth. Sometimes I woke, but kept my eyes closed to see the light show behind my lids. It was different every day: dancing light, swooping light, geometric shapes, a collage of words, colliding numbers, or a spidery web of interconnecting light. When I finally opened my eyes to look at the clock: 6:11. Hello, Beth.
I started asking the light show yes or no questions. A yes was vibrant, pulsing, remarkably vivid. A no, an instant disappearance to darkness. I tested it again and again with obvious questions: Is my name Linda? Am I dead? Am I awake? Am I dreaming? Are you my brother? Are you my sister?
Then a few weeks ago, I had a dream. I was on vacation, walking down a narrow street past a small open-air café. I thought I heard her voice, and I turned to see her sitting with friends. She was showing them a leather purse, pointing out the details she liked about this particular style, darkened edges that would hold up to wear.
“Beth,” I said. “Is that you? Is it really really you?”
She got up from the table without a word and wrapped me in one of her famous hugs. The words formed in my mind; they didn’t come through my ears.
“It’s me.” She said and held me tighter. “It’s really really me.”
Turning it over…
I’ll leave it there for now. I want you all to have a chance to tell a story, share a memory, and honor my sister’s brave journey through this life. There is no pressure, of course.
For the past five weeks, I’ve been enrolled in an online grief course through The Network for Grateful Living. Each week has been an incredible healing experience, but one of the main takeaways has been that grief is a universal human experience, but one we’re given almost no instruction in how to manage. If we’re lucky enough to inhabit our bodies for almost any length of time, we will have to face the loss of someone we love. Maybe we don’t talk about it because grief can make us feel vulnerable, and vulnerability is uncomfortable. Another takeway: Grief is Love. The instructors of the course explained that grief (like love) is an emotional experience; it's physical, spiritual. It's social and relational too. Grief is a universal human experience that can be so overwhelming that the only thing big enough to contain it is a supportive community.
So, please, as you feel ready, come up to the microphone to speak. We’re holding this space safe and sacred, a place for the comedic and the cosmic, a place for us to be vulnerable, raw, witty, and irreverent.
This is a time for us to grieve and celebrate in community. We’re allowed to lean on each other, to sister each other. Undoubtedly, we will both laugh and cry. We’ll smile through tears and bask in the love we share for Beth. She wouldn’t want it any other way.
After the Sharing…
Sally Sampley, an important lifelong friend, visited with all of us last fall when Beth, Joe and Olivia drove east to launch Olivia at Northeastern. She couldn't be with us here today. She writes:
Less than a month before she died, I was blessed to once again witness the remarkable way Beth celebrated life. Through pain and uncertainty, rising above the difficulties of luekemia, she could always give a hearty laugh and a great smile as she rejoiced in the moment. What an example for each of us! This is the most important page I think we all should take from Beth’s book!
Knowing Beth’s passionate love of nature and how she felt such a part of it, Sally asked that we share a poem as we remember and celebrate her today.
Immortality by Clare Harner
(orginally published in The Gypsy 1934 Do not stand By my grave, and weep. I am not there, I do not sleep— I am a thousand winds that blow I am the diamond glints in snow I am the sunlight on ripened grain, I am the gentle, autumn rain. As you awake in morning’s hush, I am the swift, up-flinging rush Of quiet birds in circling flight, I am the day transcending night. Do not think of me as gone I am with you still—with each new dawn. Do not stand By my grave, and cry— I am not there, I did not die.
Thank you all for being here today. Thank you for creating and being a part of this supportive community today and going forward.
We’ll head back now to the house at 4448 Aldrich Avenue for food and drink and more sharing. Beth made many photo books over the years, and Peter put together a slide show of pictures sent in by many of you. It’s been great, bittersweet, really, to revisit all the iterations of Beth through the years.
I am reminded all the time that she is still with me -- just in a different form. Still, I miss her every day.
I don’t want distraction from grief. It’s okay to miss her.