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 Murah 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, Emma, and Joe, 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 everywhere, 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, eight 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 learned about our "royal lineage." Beth loved a good story and would never let something as inconvenient as the 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, to just go for it.
To be sistered, especially to such a remarkable person as Elizabeth Castronovo, is to be blessed with grace every day.
I don’t remember a single day of my life before September 20th of last year without my sister. That morning I woke up in her bed on Aldrich Avenue after dropping into it past 1 AM 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. 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 from the course: 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, the silly and the sweet. This is a time and place for us to be vulnerable, raw, witty, and irreverent.
Today we get 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.