Lives that end too soon challenge our sense of justice. This is not because we have some naïve assumption that only the good die young. Rather, as Catherine V. Cauffield once observed, “it’s because of our tendency to think that the value of a life can be measured just in years.”
When Catherine’s own life ended on December 12, after a long, brave struggle with breast cancer, she had spent only 46 years on an earth she had grown to love and taken into her soul. She grew up in Long Beach, Sacramento and Berkeley, California, and in Cincinnati, Ohio; worked in Grand Canyon National Park as a young adult; and then moved to upstate New York, where she became a very successful and highly skilled chiropractor. But none of this happened in a linear fashion, and the turns of her life reflected a character that was always restless at its core.
One of three children of Joyce and Sam Cauffield, Cath honed -- early in her life -- a legendary skill for getting in – and out – of trouble. As a teenager, she attended the Sterling Institute Forestry School in Vermont, which she was thrown out of for rowdiness and insubordination. Years later, near the time of her death, she reflected that “even the great outdoors could not always contain me. Looking back at my life, I sometimes wish I’d been a little more boring. Then I wouldn’t have been so much trouble to others.”
As a young adult, Cath eventually “found” herself, and her sense of self, working and walking in the Grand Canyon, discovering there a deep, boundless, time-carved landscape that resonated with and fed her own curiosity and sense of wonder. Out West, in the Canyon in Arizona, at Moab in Utah, in the pages of naturalist-writer Edward Abbey, and in her protests against the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, she learned who she was and what she cared about. And while she labored days as a dishwasher in the West’s national parks, she also found that, without any formal training, she seemed to know intuitively how to heal injured hikers whom she met on the trails.
This revelation about her healing, medical skills was not without family roots and role models. Cath had a maternal great grandfather who had been a homeopathic physician, a maternal great uncle who had been a surgeon, and an admired uncle, Ed van Buskirk, who had worked as a chiropractor. But before she herself became a doctor -- and afterwards as well – Cath always worked with her hands. At various times in her life she was a housepainter, a carpenter, a landscaper, a lamp maker, a cook. Even after settling in Ithaca, taking her degree from the New York Chiropractic College, and opening a private practice, she became a certified citizen tree-pruner in the city. Why? “I loved pruning. It was succinct. You lay out your tools, rope yourself into a tree, make cuts, go to it. What’s not needed, or not healthy, falls away. I love cleaning up other people’s mess and helping things grow.” And she loved the hand tools of her different trades: brush, saw, trowel, pliers, shovel, ladle, knife. It was only natural, or at least in her nature, that in her choice of a profession – healing the human body – her hands themselves became her tools.
Cath was an extremely intelligent person, and gave careful thought to what she embraced and rejected during her four and a half decades. She was a vegetarian and an agnostic, a reader, an animal lover, and an avid cyclist, recycler and gardener. Indifferent to contradiction, she hated those who hated, and sometimes wanted to kill those who killed. She was fiercely loyal to those who had shared her life and her struggles. And she deeply loved her partner of 11 years, Sarah M. Smith who nursed Cath with endless tenderness throughout her illness. Cath is also survived by her brother Charlie Cauffield and her sister Margaret Christman.
Some people lead lives that leave a distinct legacy, one that is embodied not in money, or a building, or anything material, but in the connections they have forged. And Cath created such a legacy of relationships. Her great capacity for love came out in the variety of her passions – passions for friendships, for healing, for Sarah, for the American landscape, and for plants and animals, both wild and domestic. And she was gracious. Even in the final weeks of her life, she would ask caregivers how they were feeling, and apologize for inconveniencing them. It could have been Cath who the poet Anne Sexton had in mind when she wrote, in her poem “Courage,”
when you face…age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Cath’s honor can be made to the Catherine Cauffield Fund, the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance, Hospicare or the SPCA.
Services will be held at the Ithaca Reform Temple, Tikkun V’or, 2550 N. Triphammer Road, Ithaca, on Friday, December 15, 2006 from 3:00 to 5:00 P.M. There is limited parking, so please carpool. A Shiva service for family and close friends will be held Saturday, December 16, 2006 at 222 Bryant Avenue, Ithaca, from 4:30 to 6:30 P.M.
Page Submitted By: Joseph L. Sibley, Director