How does one heal from a devastating loss?
It’s a question that Catherine Gallagher has been asking herself again and again.
Should she dive into her work? Channel her energy into exercise? Should she just let herself cry? Scream? Try to forget?
When Catherine lost her sister, Bernadette to cancer in May 2013, and her son Christopher to a heart condition a mere three months later, the devastation was all she could feel.
“I didn’t know what to do. Life was bewildering. I felt paralyzed,” she said.
By her doctors recommendation, she went back to work, and tried to live life as normally as possible.
Catherine and her son Chris had made plans to take an Alaskan cruise together. The two were incredibly close. “He called me everyday,” she recalled, “even if just to check up on me.”
She raised her children in Chilliwack, but as they all grew up to pursue their various careers, she moved up north near Fort St. John.
When they weren’t on the phone, Chris would send her thoughtful notes, as well as his beautiful poetry. “He wrote so beautifully. He was a gifted young man,” she said.
As she looks back through those letters, she notices the somewhat confused way the last one was written, sent to her the morning of his death.
Nearly a year after his passing, Catherine held back tears as she boarded that Alaskan cruise ship, embarking alone on the trip she had promised to take with her son.
But her experiences on that cruise ship were the ones that started her on a path of healing.
On the very first night, she heard the exquisite sounds of a violin. As she followed the music it grew louder and louder, and she found herself in front of world-class Romanian violinist Cristian Herki, accompanied by a pianist.
Cristian played his 200-year-old Italian violin with sensitivity, agility, depth and artistry. Catherine returned to listen to him every evening on that journey, and the sheer beauty of each performance soothed her spirit a little more.
She reminisced of her own musical career as a pianist.
She first started playing the instrument at the age of five, taught by a lady with long fingernails, she recalled.
“I learned all my life,” she said. She moved from Hong Kong, to Indonesia, to Holland. She took lessons in New York. Soon enough, she had her degree in music.
She played her first professional gigs as a cocktail pianist at Chilliwack’s Empress Hotel and Wellington venues. From there, she was invited to play in Vancouver, where her reputation grew.
She was a teacher full-time during the day, but she played piano and sang in the evenings, and worked on her Master’s thesis in any time she could spare. “In the summers, I went on the road,” she said. ‘Have piano – will travel’ was how she promoted herself, she recalled with a laugh.
She was a professional musician for 20 years, until she stopped playing altogether in 1996.
But as she drove through Vernon on her way home after the cruise that sparked such fond memories in the midst of such a painful step, she listened to Cristian’s CD on repeat, and was moved by an overwhelming urge to be part of the music he played.
She contact Cristian and he sent her the sheet music. She spent midnights awake re-learning the musical notes that she abandoned early in her career to play by ear.
As her fingers remembered the music her mind had forgotten, she shared her story with Cristian, and the two decided to perform special concerts together to honour the lives of Bernadette and Chris.
The two rehearsed with dedication, side-by-side when they could, but more often over Skype. Catherine challenged herself to harness the note-by-note precision and timing necessary to perform intricately as a duo. With work and discipline, they performed their first concerts together to the delight of their audiences.
Now, they embark on another series of concerts that bring to the fore the healing power of music.
Cristian and Catherine will join the Chilliwack Metropolitan Orchestra (Met) on May 28 to perform A Journey of Healing.
Cristian has pieced together a diverse program, extending from the baroque era to the 20th century. Met Artistic Director Gregory Douglas Johnson has chosen joyous, uplifting music sure to enchant the spirit.
They’ll be playing selections from Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, the Beethoven Overture from Fedelio, a well-known Romanian waltz by Ivanovici, as well as the Intermezzo from Hary Janos by Zoltan Kodaly, to name a few.
The entire Gallagher family, whom each have deep roots in Chilliwack, will be in attendance. Christopher’s father Joseph Gallagher, a retired SFU professor, will read poetry. Christopher’s siblings, CBC radio host Margaret Gallagher and actor Patrick Gallagher, will be co-hosting.
Through the transcending language of music, balancing energizing and upbeat programming with soft, poignant moments, the audience will journey through an evening of tears and laughter.
After losing someone you love, nonetheless two, Catherine admits that she may never be the same person she once was.
“Some days I’m healed. Some days I’m not,” Catherine said. But she’s patient in the process.
Through the demands of practicing and the deep satisfaction of the music itself, her healing takes place quietly, at its own pace, with its own tempo, its own ebbs and flows.
The Met performs A Journey of Healing at the Cultural Centre at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 28. Tickets are $25 for adults, $15 for students, available at the Centre Box Office (9201 Corbould St.), chilliwackculturalcentre.ca, or by phone at 604-391-7469.