Catharine Parker-Littler’s life story has been a series of incredible twists and turns.
She currently lives on a luxury 36ft catamaran in Plymouth Marina. For most people that sounds like living the dream – and in a way it is – but it was not Catharine’s dream.
She and her husband Chris had a five-year plan to move from Yorkshire, sell up, buy a yacht and live out their retirement years sailing around the Mediterranean.
But tragically, that was not to be. Catharine recalls how it all started back in 2013 with an offhand remark.
Her husband was a martial arts expert who was recovering from a shoulder injury when they went away for a short break on the east coast of Yorkshire.
Catharine said: “We were sitting like two old people in our green camping chairs looking at the view when I happened to say, ‘Chris have you got any unfulfilled dreams in your life?'”
That was when he revealed that he had always wanted to sail around the British Isles. While Catharine didn’t fancy being tossed around in freezing waters north of Scotland, they came up with the compromise idea of a life sailing around the Med.
A woman of action, Catharine immediately got out her laptop, started a spreadsheet and they began working on a five-year plan.
That plan was sailing along on course when, devastatingly, in the middle of it all, Chris was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer of the stomach and the oesophagus. In a 13-hour surgery he had his oesophagus and three-quarters of his stomach removed.
“The only anchor pulling him forward was this dream,” Catharine said. “We kept the dream going. The surgeon said he had never seen anybody recover quite as well as Chris did – he was helped by the fact that he was a super fit athlete.”
In 2016 he had had a massive course of chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery and miraculously CT scans over two years showed he was clear of cancer.
‘Internally it was shabby and ripped, with no proper beds’
Chris retired from working as a senior probation officer and they chartered a catamaran in Greece for 10-day trial run. Chris skippered a crew of eight around five different Greek islands.
“It was stunning – it was beautiful,” Catharine remembers.
They returned, put their house on the market, with Catharine able to carry on her high-powered career working remotely from the boat.
The went to France and bought their luxurious 36ft Fountaine Pajot catamaran and brought in back to Plymouth for a refurb in 2017.
“Internally it was shabby and ripped, with no proper beds. I was the homemaker and set about researching how to equip her.
But within a month of bringing the boat to the Marina in Plymouth, Chris had pain in his side which was first diagnosed as a fractured rib from banging about on the boat: “We weren’t too concerned when we were told it would take about 10 weeks to heal. We just thought we would take things slowly.
“But I started to notice that instead of healing it was getting worse.”
A month later he was on morphine for the pain and was sent back to the Bradford Royal Infirmary.
“Three weeks later they sat on the bed and told us it was terminal cancer and he had weeks to live,” Catharine said.
He died after six weeks in the hospice – with Catharine constantly beside him – on February 13, 2018.
Afterwards she was cocooned by friends and family as she tried to come to terms with her loss and grief and trauma.
‘To be honest – I wanted to throw myself in the sea’
It is what happened next that makes her story even more remarkable.
This petite little woman, widowed suddenly in her early 60s, admits that when she came back to her catamaran, which had been locked up for months and cared for by the marina staff, she never thought she would stay.
“To be honest – I wanted to throw myself in the sea,” Catharine admitted. “I kept putting off coming back but I knew I needed to make a decision.”
But for the second time in her life – during periods of overwhelming suffering – she describes how the course of her life has changed dramatically after an almost supernatural experience.
“For about three hours after getting here with my sister I cried and cried and cried,” she said. “Then I went into the bedroom. Whilst I was in there one of these experiences happened to me again. It was an overwhelming, irrational, almost supernatural feeling of love – like a really, really strong sense of ‘You will be alright’.
“The feeling of wanting to jump in the sea had gone. I came out and my tears had dried up, my puffy eyes had gone – my sister took one look at me and saw that I looked totally changed. She hadn’t wanted to leave me – but after that I somehow knew everything was going to be alright. I still have my sad and lonely times.
“It is still raw. And I have my amazingly supportive church family at Redeemer Church in Plymouth around me. I encourage anyone in deep grief to find a church.”
Catharine had a similar experience when she was young and had suicidal thoughts after life took a few wrong turns.
“My life was very different from what it is now.
“I had been thrown out of nursing school and I was pretty much a wreck. Sometimes you are with the wrong people and I had gradually gone off track.
“I went and sat in an empty church and started crying – I even thought I might have to end my life.
“Then it was like a movie. I thought I need to tell someone and this priest came in. I had never opened up as an adult to anybody. It was like I was living a double life.
‘Reach out, there are so many groups out there that can help’
“I probably whispered ‘Sorry’ to God and this incredible love came over me. I had never experienced it in my life. I thought ‘This is better than being on drugs’ – just an incredible euphoric feeling and every day since I have had it.”
Catharine become a Christian and went on to have a high-flying and varied career – firstly going back to get her nursing qualifications and then travelling the world working in child health, as a midwife, helping refugees and immigrants. Together with Chris she set up an internationally pioneering website. At the time they employed about 45 midwives and ran ‘Ask the Midwife’ online from 1999 until 2009 – long before the NHS launched their own Choices website.
Now she lives a simple life – keeping up with repairs on her boat by looking up You Tube videos, cooking on board for friends, family and grandchildren and challenging herself by learning to sail the catamaran out to sea once a fortnight.
It was on one of those trips that Plymouth Live first heard of Catharine – when she raised a Mayday call after spotting a young man falling from the Tamar bridge.
The young man was taken to Derriford Hospital and his mother later revealed that he has since been moved from intensive care and is recovering.
The mother of the man said: “Reach out, there are so many groups out there that can help.”
Catharine said: “I’ve been praying for him, his family and the two boys who helped.”
Catharine contacted Plymouth Live after the man’s mum put out an appeal to find the two young men who rescued her son.
She said: “I am a woman of faith – I have always got hope and I have a lot of strength which I know is not my own.”
Catharine continues to work for charities remotely from her boat and is also helping with the new Open Doors International Language School project teaching English to refugees, asylum seekers and immigrant groups in Plymouth.
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