Tomorrow is the birthday of a dear friend of mine who lost her battle with cancer several years ago. Julie was my boss when I worked at RealNetworks, over twelve years ago. When we worked together she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery, radiation and chemo and never missed one day of work. Can you imagine how tough you have to be to do that? When I was told by the head of the department that Julie was coming to be my new boss, she said, "Don't worry you'll love her. She's the toughest woman you'll ever meet. I once saw her wrestle a giant salmon to the floor of a fishing boat in Alaska."
A salmon's strong, but nothing like cancer.
One day, a couple of weeks after she started chemo, she poked her head into my office. “Time to go hat shopping,” she said. I grabbed my bag and we walked down 1st street to the hat store, her brown hair coming out in clumps and drifting into the breezes off Puget Sound. We bought her a hat that day, a wool knit in purple. That night she shaved off the rest of her hair. A week later she’d given up on the hat, said it was too hot, and walked the halls of RealNetworks with her bare scalp, proudly, like the warrior she was. She looked so good I thought it might start a trend.
We both left RealNetworks around the same but stayed in touch. We were training for the sixty-mile cancer walk when I got pregnant with my oldest daughter. Oh, the funny stories she told me during those walks. I never walk Alki without thinking of her and a few stories I can't post on a blog. The last time I saw her I was six months pregnant with my second daughter. She was seven years cancer free by then, living in Bellingham, working at a company she loved. Her children were almost grown. She looked so good, so healthy, so alive. I thought she was in the clear. After we had our coffee and our updates that day, I had to go back up to my office. I waved goodbye, one hand on my pregnant belly, as the elevator doors closed on her face, smiling at me. That was the last time I ever saw her.
She told me that day that she had her yearly cancer checkup coming up in a couple of weeks. I was to learn later, at her funeral, that soon thereafter the doctors had given her less than eighteen months to live.
Her daughter told me she’d promised them she would live long enough to get them through high school. She kept her promise. She outlived the expectations of the doctors by at least two extra years. That’s how she rolled. Tough, determined. And in those last years she went all over the world, inhaling as much of life as she could before it was time to say goodbye. She was at work two days before she died. The employees were devastated when they got the news. She hadn’t let on how sick she was.
In the several years before her death, we’d exchanged emails and updates over Facebook but hadn’t gotten together in person. She never once mentioned she was sick again. But when I got the call from her daughter, I knew. And I was shaken to the core. There were so many things I would have said, given the chance.
I saw today on Facebook that it listed her birthday as tomorrow. I clicked over to her page, so happy her children have left it up. There were a bunch of messages from her friends and her kids - how much they missed her, how often they think of her. It made me cry, those messages, and thinking of this world without her. I know she’s someplace good, probably chuckling at my sentimentality. But I miss her. I know she would have gotten such a kick out of my book and would have been at the party toasting me, telling all her friends about it.
I can only imagine how much her kids must miss her. Of everything about her, I remember how proud she was of them the most. When we worked together they were little and she often entertained me with all the funny stories and sweet things they did and said. I remember thinking - I hope I’m a good mom like Julie one day.
She was a great boss. A terrific friend. The very best mother.
So tomorrow I will think of her and send her happy birthday wishes, knowing that she made the world a better place by being in it. I hope when I’m gone someone will be able to say the same of me. Meanwhile, I'm here, shedding a few more tears over the friend I miss.