'She was always bigger than life'

This weekend, Carla Morat of New Era will be remembered at a Celebration of Life that promises to be just that—a full blown toast to life, the kind of all-out party that the honoree would have reveled in.

The memorial will be held on Saturday, Sept. 14, from 4 to 7 p.m., at the Playhouse of White Lake in Whitehall, a venue that was dear to Carla’s heart. Formerly the Howmet Theatre, it was her old stomping ground, where she starred in many plays in her student days and proudly saw her kids exhibit the same love for music and theater that she’d had since she was a child. There’ll be continuous live music, performed by old high school friends. Another friend, Sue Pekadill of Pekadill’s restaurant, will provide the light appetizers. There’ll be a slide show, and probably enough reminiscences to fill three days instead of three hours. Most importantly, there’ll be a lot of laughter, because joy and an infectious sense of humor are an integral part of Carla’s legacy. As her daughter Maggie notes, they want people to celebrate her mother’s life, not mourn her death.

“We ask that people attending not wear black, because my mother didn’t want this to be a sad event. On her deathbed, she specifically asked for it to be at the playhouse, a place she loved dearly, and to have it be happy and almost concert-like. People will also have the option to donate to a cause that was important to her: research for graft versus host disease, which was one of the illnesses Mom had in later years; the Playhouse at White Lake; and the Pink and Green Bowl.”

In the communities of New Era and Shelby, there was perhaps no one more beloved than Carla Morat. This beautiful, sparkling woman with the ever-present sense of humor and drive to help others was well-known for her support of various programs and causes, in particular the Pink and Green Bowl.

“I saw on the news that Rockford High School was doing a Pink Arrow Bowl for breast cancer awareness,” she explained in an interview two years ago. “They raised money for Gilda’s House, named after Gilda Radner, in Grand Rapids. And I got the idea to do a Pink and Green Bowl, pink for breast cancer and green, the color for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.“

Carla suggested the idea, and the superintendents of Shelby and Hart schools enthusiastically supported it. The schools’ football teams raised money, and the first Pink and Green Bowl was held in 2008 in Shelby. Eventually all the sports teams from both schools would participate, selling jerseys, obtaining sponsors, and wearing the name of someone who had either lost their battle with cancer or was still in the fight.

In partnership with the Oceana County Community Foundation, the Pink and Green Bowl sponsors scholarships to students planning careers in some area of the health sciences. Over 25 graduates of Shelby and Hart high schools have been awarded the $500 stipends.

The “green” of the Pink and Green Bowl held a special significance for Carla. She herself was battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease that attacks the lymph system, along with another cancer and attendant illnesses. To her delight, she lived to see the 10th anniversary of the Pink and Green Bowl, in 2018. Then, in December of that year, the remarkable woman everyone expected to beat the odds passed away. She was only 50, but in her grueling 12-year fight with the immune system’s most formidable adversary, she made sure she packed in a whole lifetime—primarily because of her children.

“She held on as long as she could for her kids,” Jane Morat, Carla’s mother, recalls. “She survived so many crises. But she said that she heard a voice, telling her she would pull through because she had to be there for her children. And she did. They were her babies.”

Today, her “babies” are grown, and remarkable in their own right. Frank, her eldest, was an honor student at Shelby High and recently graduated from Harvard, where he was awarded a full scholarship. Although Carla wasn’t alive to see him receive his diploma, she was undoubtedly there in spirit, because when he was accepted to that hallowed institution, there wasn’t a prouder mom on earth.

“It’s so wonderful,” a friend remembers her exclaiming, when she received the news. “He’s a pretty remarkable kid. And to think he got into Harvard!”

As the oldest, Frank is the only one of the children who remembers his mother before she became ill.

“Because Gia was only six, and Maggie three when my mom was diagnosed, they never knew her when she was healthy,” the tall, thoughtful 22-year-old says. “But I remember her when she was well and full of life, and I watched her decline. So when she died, it wasn’t the beginning of my grief, because I’d really been grieving my mom for years.”

For Gia, now 18, and Maggie, 15, Carla’s passing has been more difficult to deal with. For most of their lives, they had been their mother’s chief support. The three shared a unique bond, the girls taking care of Carla, who in turn inspired them with her optimism and courage, qualities that would sustain them through her illness and death.

“For the last few years, Gia and I were spending a lot of physical and emotional time taking care of Mom,” Maggie recalls. “We cooked all the meals, and took her to all of her doctors and hospital appointments. In the process, we had the chance to get so close to her, and learn everything she had to give to us. She was a fantastic mother.”

“It’s a big struggle, the grief,” Gia admits. “My mother had a heart, a soul and a drive like no one I’ve ever seen. She put her cancer into remission when it had only a 10 percent survival rate. She was battling two cancers when she put on the Pink and Green Bowl, the biggest fundraiser Shelby ever had.

“She was dealt the shortest straw anyone’s ever had. But she managed to raise three children while dealing with so many problems, financial and otherwise. And she was always giving to others.”

It follows that others happily gave to her. “We’re very blessed by the community and I am very grateful for the support they’ve given us over the years,” says Frank. “All of these people who came out of the woodwork to help us. People would just come over and mow our lawn. We wouldn’t even know who they were.”

“Before she died, this church paid for and put up a new garage door,” Jane recalls. “And friends came and put up a deck for Frankie’s graduation.”

And then there were the Ya-Ya Girls—a group of Carla’s oldest buddies from her school days. They were on hand every moment, providing physical and emotional support, especially when it came to caring for the kids when Carla was in the hospital for long periods, a job grandparents Jane and Dan Morat, had taken over.

“Mom had these best friends from high school, and they got together to give my grandparents a break,” says Maggie. “And they took care of us. We were great friends with their kids, who were our age.”

The Ya-Yas were literally there to the end, standing faithfully at Carla’s bedside when she took her last breath. And they have been instrumental in helping with their beloved friend’s Celebration of Life.

“It’s a big thing, how much the community has been affected,” Gia observes. “How many people were at a standstill after Mom died. I know she’d be proud of what we’re doing with her Celebration of Life, and how it will help others. When we were putting it together, we thought, ‘Here’s a woman who loved to fundraise. So why not make it a memorial and a fundraiser?’ It’s kind of nice to be filling her big shoes.”

Among the causes people can donate to at Saturday’s event, graft versus host disease is perhaps the most important. While battling both non-Hodgkins and an even more deadly cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Carla underwent a series of bone marrow transplants that caused her to develop GVHD, a life-threatening condition in which donor immune cells mistakenly attack the normal cells.

“So little was, and still is, known about GVHD that had there been more research available, my mother might still be alive,” says Frank. “So at her memorial, we’ll be raising money for the Lemon Holton Clinic at Spectrum in Grand Rapids, where she was treated.”

“GVHD is very, very under-researched, “ concurs Maggie. “So we want to do something to help this clinic. My mother was always a guinea pig, which is why we want to fight for more research there.”

Meanwhile, Carla’s memory lives on in all sorts of places, expected and unexpected. Like this year’s Oceana County Fair, for instance, where a golf cart for disabled transportation bore a sign reading, “In Memory of Carla Morat.”

“They asked me if it was OK to dedicate the cart to her,” Jane laughs. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? If you had a banner in her honor over the whole fair, she’d be thrilled! Carla loved the spotlight. She never missed a chance to be on stage. At the Howmet, her picture was everywhere. She was always bigger than life.”