I know now that we never get over great losses: we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures … We tell the story to get them back, to capture the traces of footfalls through the snow. Gail Caldwell
There are people you meet that leave an imprint on you, even if you didn’t know them for very long or don’t see them very often. There’s something about them that draws you to them, keeps you close and makes you miss them after they’re gone, sometimes in a deeper and more profound way than some family members or other friends.
Teresa and I met the first day of graduate school, standing in line to pick up our class lists. She said something funny, and we bonded instantly. Teresa was whip smart, but never took herself too seriously. She was usually game for anything and had an amazing ability to find the humor in any situation.
Hanging out with Teresa was never boring. During our first year in graduate school, we designed a group project for a management class that had us analyzing indigent burials (“A Dying Public Service?”) and interviewing local funeral directors.
After graduation, we lived in different places but stayed connected — the kind of enduring friendship where you pick up right where you left off, no matter how long it’s been since you were last together. One of my favorite memories is having lunch with Teresa in Berkeley on a sunny day. We sat outside, and Teresa showed Jimmy, who was about 18 months old, how much fun it is to smash strawberries on a picnic table with your fist.
After Jimmy was diagnosed with brain cancer and began fundraising for LIVESTRONG, Teresa was one of the first people to support his efforts. She donated every year and loved being part of his team.
When Teresa herself was diagnosed with cancer, the bond between us deepened. Like Jimmy, Teresa refused to let the cancer define her or get in her way. She continued to work, spend time with family and friends and take the most amazing trips to places like South Africa, Botswana, Iceland, Patagonia, Easter Island, Argentina and the Galapagos Islands.
Although I haven’t seen Jimmy since he was a toddler living in California, I feel that I “grew up” with him to some extent because of the wonderful messages and photos you sent so regularly. I feel like I connected with him in a different way in 2011 when I was diagnosed with cancer. And now, as I struggle in ways that he struggled, I value even more his attitude, courage and determination to fully live each day.
When we spent time together, even after Jimmy died, Teresa wanted to talk about the “hard stuff”. She wanted to know how I was coping without my sweet son, and she wanted to talk about her own treatment, prognosis and side effects. I think she knew her time was getting short, and she didn’t want to waste it on trivial or unimportant stuff. We still had plenty of laughs and lots of political discussions and debates. But we also talked about the physical impact of cancer treatment, who leans in and who can’t hang, death and dying and why it was so important to embrace each day, no matter what it might bring.
Your email this week about Jimmy came the very day I scheduled my first appointment for Round 3 of chemo. Thinking about Jimmy’s fight and the courage and strength with which he endured it gave me the biggest boost in energy and confidence. Jimmy made all of us realize how precious life is and the importance of living it well. I will remember this always.
When I think of our final visit, I regret the questions I didn’t ask and the answers I don’t remember. I would give anything for one more conversation or to hear Teresa laugh one more time. But then I remember the beauty of that last get together. How radiant Teresa was, dressed in a lovely new blouse with flowing sleeves that hid how thin she’d become. Although the cancer had stolen her appetite, she still joined me in eating some of the treats her friends had delivered. Despite her discomfort, her attention was focused on me, on being together, on acknowledging how close death was and yet enjoying every minute at the same time.
I will never forget the way her smile lit up a room and the way her laughter brightened the darkest day. Her kindness and willingness to help others continues to inspire me to try a little harder, even when I don’t want to. And when the pain of missing her hurts too much, I think of her with Jimmy, smashing strawberries with their fists and laughing.