Traveling prom dress sisterhood honors friend lost to cancer

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ARLINGTON >> "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" now has a real-life version: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Prom Dress.

The last time many of Catherine Malatesta's friends saw her, she was wearing a huge smile and the deep blue, shimmery dress at her junior prom. Four days later, battling a rare cancer, she went into the hospital and never left.

Now, four of Catherine's friends are honoring her by wearing that dress to their own proms, a gracious gesture her mother named after "Traveling Pants." And, like the pair of jeans in the books and movies that magically fits four teenage girls of different shapes and sizes, Catherine's dress works for all of them, with only temporary hemming for two of the girls.

"When each girl tried it on, it fit each one of them beautifully despite all having very different body types," said Catherine's mother, Jennifer Goodwin. "It is uncanny."

There won't be any scheduling conflicts; the girls go to different schools, and their proms are on different dates. Another friend of Catherine's already has asked to wear the dress to her prom next year, while Catherine's seventh-grade cousin has asked Goodwin to save it for her prom, years down the road.

"It's a way of keeping her with me," said Jillian Danton, 17, who wore the dress to her junior prom at Arlington High School in April. "All of us being able to have this piece of her is healing."

Catherine was a bubbly girl with an easy self-confidence and a silly sense of humor. She loved to act in school plays, taught religious education to first-graders, gladly debated anyone on any topic, and was the life of the party.

"Everyone knew her as the nice girl who made people laugh," said Carly Blau, a friend from summer camp who plans to wear the dress to her senior prom next month at Beverly High.

Catherine played field hockey and was on the Arlington High crew team. In autumn 2014, she told her parents she was having some pain in her shoulder. They thought it was an athletic injury, but after doctors' visits, they got the diagnosis: Catherine, 16, had epithelioid sarcoma, an aggressive cancer.

She started chemotherapy the day after Christmas, then had radiation, then simultaneous courses of both. She also participated in a clinical trial. But the cancer had spread to her lungs and spine. She died Aug. 2, a little over two months after her prom.

The idea for the traveling prom dress was born when Catherine's mother called Jillian about three months after Catherine died and asked if she would like to wear it to her prom.

Two months later, Goodwin invited some of Catherine's other friends over to pick out something to remember her by. The girls saw the sleek blue prom dress hanging on her closet door.

"One of us said, 'We should wear it to our proms,' and we all said, 'Catherine would love that,' " said Emma Schambers, who plans to wear the dress to her senior prom in East Greenwich, R.I., on May 13.

The gown has a halter-style neckline that covered the port Catherine had for her medications.

Catherine had lost her hair, so her mother bought a wig that a hairdresser styled into an updo that framed her face with a braid. A makeup artist evened out her skin tone, which had been dotted by acne caused by her treatments.

Photos from that night show a blissful-looking girl with a glowing smile, even though she was frail after being released from the hospital just the night before.

"She looked at me and said, 'Mom, for the first time in a long time, I actually feel beautiful,' " Goodwin said.

Through months of grueling cancer treatments, she had been forced to miss out on some important things in her life: the lead in a school play, a choral trip to Italy and a counselor's job at summer camp. She pushed through, never complaining, her mother said.

Some weeks, her mother drove her to school for a 7 a.m. chorus practice, then picked her up to take her to Boston for cancer treatments. After a nap, she'd head back to school for afternoon classes. She ran for student council president and won.

Lauren Hourican, a close friend from Arlington, recalled going to school dances with Catherine and watching her do "an absolutely insane kind of dancing." She plans to wear the dress to her senior prom May 20.

"She'll be back out on the dance floor where she belongs," she said.


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