May 8, 2013

On Loss

Ask any expat or traveler what their biggest nightmare is and it’s most likely having to fly home due to the death of a loved one. That was my biggest fear—probably my only fear—and the reason for my blog silence the past 2 months.

My best friend Julia lost her battle with cancer.

Ever since she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer last year, it’s been an up and down battle with accepting Julia’s diagnosis, supporting her through doctor’s appointments and chemo and trying to keep up a normal life despite knowing that someone we love so much was up against such a scary disease. In the beginning, we were all able to keep it together pretty well—we embraced the situation and kept friendship and love as the biggest priority. I barely ever cried in front of Julia when we talked about it. I didn't want to scare her. So when I flew back to California a few weeks ago after things took a turn for the worst, I tried my hardest not to cry in front of her. I'd wait until she fell in to her brief sleeps to let the tears escape my eyes and make room for more.

In the last weeks, it wasn’t just the doctors saying "there’s nothing else that we can do" that scared us, it was also the dread of not knowing what the future held and the threat of a ticking clock. How do you squeeze in a lifetime of friendship into a limited time frame? After several days of worrying, not knowing, waiting by the phone and just not being there, the poor prognosis was finally given. By the point I had already bought my ticket to go to California, I just had to be there. Before boarding my flight, my friend Smitty called and told me a time frame had been given too—a short one, an extremely short one—and at that moment I had never been happier (or sadder) to be on a plane home. Not knowing what was ahead. Not knowing what I’d see. But knowing that 17 hours later I would be able to be with Julia, to hug her, help her and give her one last boost to keep fighting no matter what those doctors said.

The night I landed, I beelined straight to the hospital with our two other best friends—Traci and Smitty. I walked in the room and Julia was sleeping but eventually she opened her eyes and looked at me: “oh my gosh Rach…you’re here.” I grabbed her hands and smiled. I slept in Julia’s hospital room that night and for the last few days she was in the ICU. I helped her get up or call the nurse when needed and kept her company throughout the night. My mom came everyday too...Julia was like a member of our family ever since we became instant best friends at 15. My mom also wanted to help her parents ask the difficult questions and wanted them to know that they weren’t alone in this. 

In her last few days at the hospital, nurses prayed for her and revealed small details of what was ahead. A priest also visited, I assumed he visited the oncology ICU unit a lot. Social workers from palliative care and hospice came offering their services. Julia’s doctor came and delivered difficult news—things that a 27 year old should never hear. After 8 hours of these people coming in and out, she was finally discharged. Later I found out that, thankfully, Julia didn't remember the things they had said.

Once she was home, we would sleep next to the new hospital bed in her room. Each day we were hopeful. We kept up her eating and did small walks outside. Then it was clear that she was declining fast. I mean we were just lounging on the beach in Costa Rica 6 weeks earlier! I won't say she was physically on top of her game in Costa Rica but she was still herself. But actually…maybe it wasn’t as sudden as we all thought: I can't deny the fact that things steadily declined ever since August. The lack of positive news since August was probably why I spent my commutes to and from work for the last 6 months letting tears silently fall down my face on the metro. I allowed those 5 stops to be my time to cry, my moments of weakness.

During those weeks I spent with her at home, there were so many ‘I love you's and ‘you're my best friend's. One day, I was leaning over Julia’s bed holding her hand when she put both of her hands on the sides of my cheeks while we took turns saying ‘I love you’ over and over and over. There were also things like ‘I'm so glad you're here’ and responses like ‘there's nowhere else I'd rather be.’ When I told her I wasn't in town indefinitely but only for 3 weeks she said ‘what am I gonna do without you? ‘But I told her I'd be by her side for those 3 weeks and I was…that even with my years in Amsterdam, we always always always remained best friends despite the distance. 

Over her 2-3 weeks at home before I had to fly back to Amsterdam, I saw cancer slowly take her body while her spirits were still high. Julia’s speech started slurring and her breathing became difficult. Along with her parents, Traci, Smitty and I helped calm her throughout the night since the worst moments for her were throughout the night.

My parents tried to shield me from watching my best friend be taken by cancer. Pleading with me to spend a night at home in my bed--and I did a few nights. Watching someone die from lung cancer is supposed to be one of the worst things. But I refused to peel myself away--I didn't want her to feel alone, we did everything together and I didn't want to be without her, no matter what things I would have to witness. Best friends forever. No matter what.

When Julia had visitors, I gave them privacy. At first I’d sit in the living room and wait but I could hear them talking to her and it made me sad to hear that in a way they were saying goodbye and they were scared. Or maybe they were getting used to how different she looked since the last time they saw her. On those afternoons, I’d walk across the street and get a sangria (or 4) for happy hour or sit outside her house, finding a sunny, warm spot on the curb. On one of these days, I read Dax Shephard’s post about watching his dad die of small cell carcinoma, the same cancer Julia had. His post made me laugh and made me feel like I wasn't alone.

Even though Julia started slipping away, she would still come back every now and then and make a joke or laugh. Those were bittersweet moments. One I’ll cherish the most is watching our favorite movie Finding Nemo again for the millionth time. The scene when the baby octopus accidentally inks was one of our favorites and when that scene came Julia cracked up laughing and then we all did. That scene is the very reason we started calling each other "Ink.”

I'd give her hand massages to help her sleep, Traci scratched her back and tickled her forearms and Smitty whispered words of friendship and support. Together with her parents, we were her biggest supporters—we also wanted to support them because while it was so hard for us, it was certainly even harder for them. Then the day came for me to say goodbye. It was my time to return back to Amsterdam.  I had said lots of things over that week so she knew how much I loved her, how she was quite possibly the most important person I had known. Ever since we met 12 years ago, she showed me how to live life and I felt like my life started the day I met her.

I knew it would be the last time I would see her and listening to her parents silently cry behind me, maybe they knew too.

The last words I saw her speak to me were "I love you, Ink". Even despite her decline and the signs that cancer spread to her brain, she never forgot the nickname we had for each other. After a long trip back to Amsterdam and a 12 hour layover, I was back—questioning, dreading, not understanding, and trying to put my head around all the things that had just happened in California and scared for what was next.

Thanks to Traci, I got to speak to Julia on the phone for the couple days after I got back. They were short, simple conversations and even more ‘I love you’s now mixed with ‘I miss you’s. Then Julia stopped speaking. One day later she stopped breathing and was taken to the hospital. And 18 hours later she was taken off life support and died peacefully surrounded by her parents, stepdad, Traci, Smitty, Smitty’s mom, my mom, my twin sister and two other friends. 

After hearing that Julia stopped breathing, I felt numb, scared, helpless. I was in and out of sleep throughout the night given the time difference and the only thing I could do was sit silently on the couch waiting for a call. I got the call and just like that Julia was gone.

I've always felt so lucky for the unwavering friendship we had. Which led us to trips all over the place, contagious laughter and a deep friendship that transcended highschool, college, summer-long trips and the distance between Amsterdam and California. After all, my first trip to Amsterdam was with her and probably the very reason why I loved it so much--that trip was unforgettable (and that's an understatement).

Speaking on the phone with Smitty after Julia passed, we cried and I wished I was there so bad that my heart ached. I was afraid that with me living on the other side of the world, that I’d have regrets about not moving back as soon as she was diagnosed. Fortunately (after getting pep talks from other friends), I have no regrets. I had made every attempt since her diagnosis to be there, to assist with fundraisers in Amsterdam and California and keep reminders in my phone of every single doctor’s appointment and every single chemotherapy treatment. In the 13 months from her diagnosis to the day Julia left us, I flew to California 5 times when I had no such plans to visit California during that year: first when I flew out at the last minute to be with Julia the day after she was diagnosed, then to surprising Julia when I flew out for a long weekend and a roadtrip with our friends, then to me flying out yet again and us being able to escape to Costa Rica for Julia’s birthday. Then 3 weeks after Costa Rica, I flew out yet again to be by her side (thanks boss). As Dax Shepard says in his post, somehow the universe accommodates hard times such as these and ‘pockets of time opened up here and there.’ The same happened for me. 

I flew back to California for the fifth time for Julia’s funeral only a few days after we had shared our last hug and I boarded a plane back to Amsterdam. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase yet. But soon I was on a plane again and my twin sister and other friends (a few of them also bridesmaids as Julia was) were there to greet me at the airport.

Those days all meshed together. When I got up to the podium to repeat a verse, I could tell the church was so packed with people that they had to open up the back room. In all of the days since Julia’s diagnosis and especially the days surrounded her passing, I received an incredible amount of texts, emails, messages and hugs from so many people. A lot of these messages were the only things that got me out of bed in the morning and I’m so thankful for all of the support. After her funeral, friends from highschool came and gave me hugs. I was overwhelmed with sadness and joy at the sight of these people—with tears in our eyes, we looked back on some of our favorite memories of her. Some friends mentioned how Julia and I were rarely in one place without the other.  Friends of Julia’s parents whom I had never met hugged me. Friends of mine who barely knew Julia showed up to give support. My brothers and sisters came too—Julia was one of the few friends who knew all 7 of them quite well and often my twin sister and Julia paired up to play beer pong at my house during the holidays. And there were lots of sweet, endearing words from Julia’s parents—two amazing people that I will always check in on and be there for. One of the greatest feelings was hugging Julia’s dad after the funeral and hearing him say ‘you’re my daughter now’—it’s a privilege and an honor.

Julia and I have a favorite beach spot where we always watched sunsets. Naturally it only felt right that, on the day of her funeral, I visit our spot and watch the sunset for her. Traci and I laid on the beach and watched the colors of the waves change into the same colors as the sky. I’ll always visit her there.

And then I left the next morning to return to my life without Julia in it. On the plane ride home, I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was the first time that I really just sat there and thought of nothing. After a year of worrying, I didn’t have to worry anymore--I didn’t know what to do. And I kept thinking how within a matter of 13 months, my best friend was diagnosed with and taken by cancer. Why? That’s one thing that repeats in my mind. And I’ll probably never understand why.

The day before her funeral, I went through all of our old pictures which were stashed in my closet. I took pictures of them, since no digital copies existed, and suddenly my computer was filled with hundreds and hundreds of pictures of Julia (we always always documented our good times). So I sat on the plane and flipped through our pictures,--half laughing, half crying.

I found our first picture together ever when we were 15 shopping for Homecoming dresses. I flipped through every picture from Prom, Homecoming and Sadies of us getting ready and group pictures, since, ofcourse, we always went in the same group. There were pictures of our first and last trips to Amsterdam, random pictures of us lounging on the beach, in my room or at a party. I found pictures of our double-birthday celebrations since we were only a few weeks apart. I looked back on the picture she took of us minutes before I got engaged. Also a picture of us walking by the beach—which just so happened to be the current background picture on her cell phone. Then I found that secret picture I stashed deep in my hard drive of her standing with her arms around me in the wedding dress she helped me choose last year.

While I’ll never understand why someone so young, so beautiful and so close to me had to be taken from me, I do know that the 12 years we had together were nothing short of perfect, that we had a friendship that some people might never have.

I hope the sadness and bitterness in my heart doesn’t stay there forever. That constantly remembering all the amazing times we’ve had together will overtake my heart once again. Julia was a free spirit, all about having fun and seizing the day. I know Julia wouldn’t want me to lock myself indoors and cry for her, even though it’s what I want to do every night.

I saw a quote a while ago which said something like “Don't let the bitterness ruin the sweetness." And while adjusting to the loss of someone so close to my heart will be a difficult, long road to follow, I no longer want to live this life for me but for her, too. I promise to make every effort to appreciate every day because Julia won't be able to, to take some of her most beautiful qualities (like forgiveness and endless laughter) into my heart and let them guide me. And she will always always always be my best friend, my best memory and my best everything. 

I love you too, Ink. More than any best friend has loved another. And I can’t wait to see you again.

RIP my sweet Julia 

2/7/1986 - 4/18/2013

{Left below: our first picture together. Right below: our friendship captured in a picture}
{Julia and I on our 2nd trip to Mexico at the hotel I'm getting married at this year}
{Senior prom and our 17th birthdays}
{NYE 2006-2007, two days before I left for studying abroad in Finland}
{Our third and last trip to Mexico, complete with best friend and boyfriend in the same place..happy girl :)}
{That amazing summer in Amsterdam in 2011}
{Sneaky Julia snapping a pic of us minutes before Christian proposed}
{The night I got engaged and the pic she had on her phone background ever since}
{One of our last adventures, rafting down a river outside Portland, Oregon, last August}
{One of my all-time favorite pictures and summers when Smitty and Julia came to Amsterdam. This pic of her was also used for the pamphlet at her memorial service}
{The four of us: Traci, Julia, me and Smitty. Friends forever, wherever}


Megan said...

Man, this was a hard read to go through. I'm so sorry for your loss and that you had to say goodbye to someone so special to you.

I lost one of my best friends to cancer last year September. This past weekend I saw someone who looked like her and I was bawling.

You are in my thoughts.

Alli Campbell said...

Rachael I am so very sorry for her loss - for your enormous loss. There aren't any words. There's no silver lining, no pretending it was Julia's time, that she lived a long life. I've lost two loved ones in their twenties, and I still find that the hardest part to reconcile - how unfair it is. Be gentle on yourself and remind yourself that she knew how much she was loved. Thinking of you x

Jay said...

Oh Rachael - I'm so sorry to hear of Julia's passing. You are in my thoughts as you continue to grieve and come to terms with this loss. said...

This is such a beautiful and heart breaking post, it left me in tears. My thoughts are with you and all of your friend's loved ones.

Danielle Nelson said...

This was so beautiful. I am so sorry for your loss. But through your words I see an INCREDIBLE friendship. You are lucky to have had a friendship like that. She will always be with you. Xoxo

Vashnie said...

i am so sorry for your loss. Reading this just brought back memories of my best friend that passed away in 2011. We were friends from the time we were 16 and well into our 30`s. I was incredibly blessed with her friendship.

Amanda said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. Your words here are so beautiful and I hope writing them gave you a little bit of peace. xo

Unknown said...

Oh Rachael, I am so so so sorry to hear about Julia. This made me cry, and when I got to that first sentence I thought "but they were just in Costa Rica together!" Cancer is cruel.

Sending you and everyone else that loved Julia a lot of love. xox.

Holly said...

I'm so incredubly sorry for your loss, Rachael. I cried through a lot of your story. You two were lucky to have each other.