Last lessons

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The post below was originally written on November 5th, 2013.

This morning, I searched my site for any unpublished posts, wondering if I had anything half-written lying around on here waiting to be completed. I didn't even remember writing this (admittedly my memory hasn't been amazing lately thanks to the brainfog), and only now vaguely recall deciding to sleep on this one before posting it, feeling a bit nervous, or like it wasn't my place to write it.

Julia was born the same year as me, 1980, and her husband James recently reminded us on Facebook that it would have been her 34th birthday last week. I guess it's fitting for me to find this now...


This morning I woke up with majorly bad stomach cramps, and generally feeling awful, and have been in a haze of brainfog ever since. It happens. I ate a couple handfuls of dry cereal, which was about all I could stomach, and drank some herbal tea. Then I pulled myself together best I could, and Bruno drove us out to Coquitlam. I'm very grateful that even on my worse days, I can usually still pull it together and put on my "normal person" face for the most important things, especially when Bruno lets me lean on him that extra little bit. 

It feels a bit weird to write here about this, but I want to remember how I'm feeling right this moment, and be able to look back on it. I thought maybe these thoughts were worth sharing, maybe they'd mean something to someone else as well. That, and the person I'm about to talk about has on several occasions told me how much she loved when I wrote about friendship, and encouraged me to keep being open about my feelings on the matter. Now she's becoming part of the writings.

Julia NelsonSo, Coquitlam. We drove out to Coquitlam to attend the memorial service for my friend Julia, who I mentioned in my previous post. I guess I felt a bit awkward going to the memorial, as I am not even sure when the last time we actually hung out in person was, but I didn't consider for a moment not going. Between crafternoons early on and all of our emails, Facebook messages, and failed attempts to get together, she had become someone I considered a friend.

I first met Julia in May 2008 (now I'm certain of this, I suspected it was at DrupalCamp Vancouver and skimmed the group photos on Flickr - evidence found!) Someone introduced her to me as I was one of the camp organizers, and I was super excited that librarians had come to the event so we started chatting. Who doesn't love librarians??? We hit it off and kept in touch after that, and over the next couple years, invited each other to various gatherings and bonded over a shared love of knitting, music, and books.

Then, we kind of lost touch - I don't think (maybe aside from occasional Facebook contact) we really talked for most of mid 2010 until late 2012. I figured life had just kind of happened, and was sure we'd run into each other again at some point.

Then one day, out of the blue she commented on my blog - a really lovely, empathetic, supportive comment. I was so glad to have heard from her, and we wrote each other back and forth a bunch over the next few months. It felt like finding a long lost friend, and I guess it was in a way... Something had shifted over the missing couple of years, and we seemed to have had some shared experiences that allowed us to connect over more than mutual interests. 

We kept trying to make plans over these few months, excited to hang out again, but either I'd lost my voice again or was feeling too crummy, or she had gotten busy with life and work - things just kept coming up, and we kept putting it off.

Then, next thing I knew she'd got this crazy kidney infection and was home sick on antibiotics, then a few weeks later, suffering from really bad back pain. She had sadly (we thought) joined the club of having weird chronic health issues, so of course I'm the gal to talk to! We were still messaging back and forth, and then at the start of April, she just disappeared for a couple weeks. I figured maybe she got better and gotten busy. But when I heard from her again at the end of the month, the real reason was surprising and awful... Leukemia. She had found an explanation for her sudden health issues, but as much as she seemed very matter of fact about it, it was a scary one.

She suggested since now she was also going to be home sick and having to take it easy for the foreseeable future, that we could really have time for some super low-key hangouts. Unfortunately, between my often not easily being able to stray far from home on my own, and her suddenly being in chemo and having to avoid contact with potentially germy people, we chatted a bit more online but never did manage to hang out again. 

She had a bone marrow transplant from one of her sisters in late summer, and for a while things were looking up. Then suddenly a couple weeks ago, she relapsed and got really sick really fast, and then that was it, she died. It's terribly unfair and sad, but somehow it sounds like she felt at peace with what was happening (which is almost unthinkable to me, but I still have a lot to learn and come to terms with when it comes to health and mortality). She was without a doubt surrounded with immense love from her family.

"Celebration of Life"

Now, onto the lessons. "Celebration of Life" - that's what the heading on the program for the memorial today said, and it couldn't have been truer. I haven't been to many memorials and didn't know what to expect, walking into a packed church and sitting down next to one of her good friends, who was understandably pretty shaken up. I don't think any of us had stopped hoping she'd make a valiant recovery even then, it was just too cruel that such a superb person was suddenly gone. But the memorial was really beyond anything I could have imagined, as far as how positive and inspiring it was. And I guess it was Julia's doing, as she wanted to impart us all with some last lessons. She'd apparently been able to give a significant amount of input into what the spirit and message of the day would be, and it all pretty much boiled down to this: live and love with passion and an open heart... And be a good person.

It's funny how you can know someone in a certain context, and know they're a great person. Kind, empathetic, supportive, generous, smart... But then when you get to see them within the context of their entire life - their family, their community, their childhood, their spirituality - you really see this full technicolour version of who they are.

It was inspiring, and I have to admit at points heartbreaking, seeing how completely lovely her family is - how strong, how positive, how supportive, and how genuinely engaged in each others lives you could tell they are. They're the kind of family I've always really admired, and even been jealous of. It was a real gift to get a glimpse into their lives and history together.

And it was truly fascinating to get an understanding of Julia's beliefs, and her spiritual and literary interests in a way I hadn't before. I suddenly felt so lucky to have gotten a couple book recommendations from Julia over the past year. I now realize the importance of seeking out and reading these books, as I know that if she recommended them to me, they must be very special and she must have thought they'd really bring me some kind of understanding and peace.

September 29th was the last time I really heard from Julia. (Other than when she briefly thanked me for sharing the info about donating stem cells that her sister had posted on Facebook a couple days later - I'll share that link again - all you have to do is swab your cheek to be put into the system. Donating can certainly be uncomfortable and painful temporarily, but it could save someone's life!)

But what she posted on the 29th was in response to a link I'd shared - an article by my friend Sarah about being a good friend by being a good listener. Julia responded with this video, and a reminder to read the books she'd recommended by this woman, Rachel Naomi Remen. (Pardon the cheesy intro/outro, the message is worth it!)

Watching this again, I can see that Julia was exceptional at this. It was also confirmed during the memorial today, where she was commended for her ability to make whoever she was talking to feel important and interesting, and more critically, heard.

The parting message Julia sent to all of us today, through the quote and passages she'd chosen to leave us with was strong. It was to embrace life and love, and to make the absolute most of it no matter what your circumstances are, or what happened in your past. To keep learning and letting go, and stay focused on the possibilities that life holds rather than the bad stuff that's happened.

I took one more lesson away - not to put important things off too long. Despite all the obstacles, I know if I'd made just a little more effort, we would have turned all those well intentioned plans to hang out into actual hang outs. I think I do that a lot - put things off, some times for good reasons or things out of my control, sometimes really out of fear or feeling stuck - and I'd like not to do that so much in the future.

Now, reading back through the messages and emails and comments we exchanged over the past several years, I can see that that was her message all along - to make the most of life and it's possibilities. Her encouragement and empathy towards me (and I'm sure everyone in her life) had been there all along, in between health talk and knitting plans - whether it was about coping with my chronic illness challenges, my recent struggles with friendships and rebuilding a sense of community, or nervously deciding to follow my heart and allow myself to pursue my love of art. She called me brave, and told me I was on the right track, and that meant a lot.

If her parting message is to embrace life, then I must accept my life as it is, and put to rest much of the pain and fear that's come from my past. I must move forward and focus on all the possibility life holds - because despite the realities of my health and the restrictions it puts on my life, I am alive, I've probably got many years left (knock on wood), and there are many things that I can do and can still look forward to. Sometimes it's hard to remember that when I am having a hard day where I feel sick and isolated. I think I have to finally really grieve the life I hoped for, and what had been expected of me, and the many things I've had to give up, so I can find the life that is possible for me. The great life that I feel I have been meant for all along.

I'm so sad that I didn't get to spend more time with Julia, or get to know her more - I have a feeling every person in that church today could say the same. Still, I'm glad that I was able to get to know her as much as I did.

She posted this Pema Chodron quote on Facebook in September, one of her final posts and I think it says a lot:

We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.

In case anyone else is interested, the book recommendations she'd sent me were How to Be an Adult (David Richo) [EDIT: I later read this book and wrote about it here], My Grandfather's Blessings (Rachel Naomi Remen), and Kitchen Table Wisdom (Rachel Naomi Remen). 

Sending so much love to everyone who knew her and loves her.