It is impossible to summarize a person’s life in writing. But I would like to tell you a little bit about one of my heroes – my big sister Catherine.
She had red hair. She taught me to read. From the time she was a little girl, she loved horses, piano, and books. And really cheesy 70s pop songs. She was kind, gentle, and unassuming, and she was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Just fiercely intelligent -- and not in your face about it, either. She spent a lot of her time in high school tutoring me and my younger sisters in math and science, and never once complained about it. She was a patient teacher and our biggest champion. And then she went out and made a near-perfect score on her S.A.T.’s and headed off to study pre-med at Princeton. We weren’t surprised. Just proud.
She was also kind of a goose. Always losing her car keys, always finding crumpled dollar bills in her jeans pockets, and taking great delight in it. She was sort of like an absent-minded professor. That’s why I’ve always loved this photo of her, proudly accepting some award she no doubt deserved, yet cluelessly holding it upside down in the photograph. My sister in a nutshell.
Catherine met her loving husband Edward in college, and after completing medical school, they got married and settled in New York City, where they had their son Hallam. Man, did they love that kid. He was their light. They’d go on adventure walks, play in Riverside Park, and god knows how many hours they spent at the Natural History museum. They loved that place. Catherine was a devoted, loving, and hands-on mother. And also a bit of catastrophizer. She was constantly worrying that Hallam would get hit by a cab, or kidnapped by strangers, or, as we used to joke, picked up by a twister. It all came from her deep abiding love for her son, and of course nothing ever happened to him. She, however, was a different story.
Catherine was 34 when she was diagnosed, working as an endocrinologist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where she had once been the Chief Medical Resident. We were devastated. As a physician, and with her keen mind, she knew better than all of us what she was up against. And yet she handled her illness with such grace and determination that she became our rock, instead of the other way around. There were moments of doubt, to be sure. No one can suffer that much pain without having them. We were raised in the Baptist church, but in her heart, I think my sister was a scientist. She told me one time: “You pray to God in a storm, but you keep on rowing.”
And she did keep on rowing. Over the course of five long years, she endured chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries, much of it taking place at the hospital where she worked. Some of her physicians were her former students, and she was a teacher till the end, patiently helping nervous interns start her drips or sternly correcting the attendings if they missed a medication on her chart. They loved her for it, and in a way, I think it helped her too. One of her colleagues wrote an article about it, which you can find here: CASES; In the Death Of a Doctor, A Lesson.
The night before she died, Catherine woke up in her hospital room, and composed hand-written goodbye letters to her friends and family. She hadn’t given up; she just knew. I will forever be in awe of the courage it must have taken to do that. Her body was wracked with pain, her mind was dulled by the morphine, and yet there she was –-- reaching out to others. Offering advice. Giving reminders. Helping us get through. I still have my letter. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.
Grief is a funny thing. It’s been over a decade now, and I still think about my sister all the time. Maybe it’s because breast cancer won’t leave my family alone. My mother is a survivor, and my two younger sisters have undergone screening, and taken preventive measures. But probably it’s because I can’t help feeling there’s unfinished business. My sister truly believed that to whom much is given, much is expected. She was a healer. She helped people. And that’s what I want this Foundation to be about: helping people. She wouldn’t want it any other way.
-- David Hudgins
Catherine Tuck died on May 25, 2001. She is buried on Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee, in a cemetery dedicated in her honor.