Let’s Talk About Cathy

Steve Wishman
April 7, 2020

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been posting comics featuring a new character—a senior services referral agent who I’ve named “Cathy.” (I put Cathy in quotes here because her name and appearance are fictitious. I don’t even remember the name of the actual referral agent who approached us.)

click HERE for the full-size comic

What really surprised me is how her first appearance elicited an immediate, visceral response from my readers. People do not trust her and even express contempt for the character. I don’t know if it’s because of how I’ve drawn her or if people generally don’t trust people approaching them with binders during emotional moments. Maybe it’s simply because I gave this strip the title, “Cathy.” Maybe that implies foreshadowing. I don’t know, but it’s been really interesting to think about, especially in terms of visual storytelling.

The truth is (spoilers) that Cathy was not disseminating bad information. She pointed us in the right direction to get Mom’s legal and financial situation straightened out so that she could apply for financial aid (Medi-Cal) and expect to afford assisted living at all. To that end, Cathy was valuable. But I often compare her to the taxi driver who waits outside the drunk tank every morning, handing out business cards for DUI attorneys to every unfortunate soul who catches a ride with him. Cathy’s help ended the second she introduced us to these services, and later we would find out that the places she referred us to didn’t even accept the assisted living waiver she told us we would need. It appeared she was only in it for the referral bonus.

So does that make Cathy a nefarious character in this story? If you weigh the good with the bad, I would say we were fortunate to learn the things we learned from her. I believe Cathy felt she was providing a helpful and positive service for people. Was it perfect? No. Did she stop answering my calls shortly after telling me to call her if i had any questions? Yes. Can I label Cathy a villain? Absolutely not. As my wife likes to say, “she’s doing her best, even if her best is a little shitty right now.”

Cathy, like many of us, is a mixed bag of altruistic and selfish intent. In The Hero’s Journey, she might qualify as the Threshold Guardian. She stood at the entry point to a zone of magnified power and was the first cog in a network of gears that we became stuck in for a very long time. When we finally emerged from this abyss, we could look back and say “that was truly horrible” but nearly everybody along the way had good intentions. It’s worth reflecting on that, especially in this crazy time. Systems are complex. We have to remain compassionate for others. Everyone is just trying to do their best, even if it's a little shitty right now.

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Steve Wishman

Steve Wishman is the founder of Zen and the Art of Caregiving, and author/illustrator of How Mom Died, a webcomic/memoir chronicling his experiences as a caregiver for his mother at the end of her life.