Catherine Malatesta, a junior at Arlington High School, wrote her Student Council campaign speech from a bed in Children’s Hospital: "I would like your vote for Student Council President because I am strong and I am not afraid to fight for the good of our students and to challenge the norm. Thank you."
She won the election, though she didn’t live to serve her term. The vanishingly rare cancer was diagnosed between field hockey and crew seasons. She’d been readying for the glories of eleventh grade — a choir trip to Italy, the promise of a lead role in the class play, lots of sports. Instead, she told her father and mother Jennifer, God had a plan for her.
"What strength she had to have as a 16 year-old junior to say, 'I got this. God has a plan for me. We’re going to figure this out,' " Jennifer recalls.
She kept up with AP classes, taught in her Sunday school when she was able, took a lesser role in the play.
"It was Herculean, really Herculean," Jennifer recalls. "Literally she’d have chemo on a Thursday, she’d hole up in bed Friday trying to sleep off the aftereffects, and then, she’d have play practice all day Saturday."
Prom was a worry from the moment of diagnosis. Who, she asked her mother, would take a girl without hair? She was in the hospital for two weeks beforehand, gathering strength.
"Literally we left at 8 o’clock the night before the prom." Jennifer brought in a glam squad. The gown was tailored to size. The wig was styled.
"And, you know, the whole army of Arlington High in terms of principal and nurse were all in the wings," Jennifer recalled. "She said to me, 'I want to do what everyone else is doing, I want a normal prom experience.' And she did."
For years, Catherine had walked in the cancer benefit Relay for Life. Weeks after Prom, she spoke before an assembly of hundreds at Arlington High School, encouraging everyone else instead.
"I like to think I raised a really strong daughter," Jennifer says.
After Catherine died, her mother found a journal. There was one entry. She wrote of fragility: “I’m sure most people have forgotten how beautiful air tastes, but once you’re in the hospital for days, a breath of fresh air is like a magical touch."
Then, she wrote of strength: "I’m going to get out of bed and put on my wig or hat, even if I’m feeling sick as a dog, with a smile on my face, hoping and praying I’m inspiring someone else to get out of bed on a tough day. And hopefully we can both find happiness in something, even if it’s just the taste of the air."
Catherine Malatesta died last August in Boston. She was 16 years old.
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