I never met Julie, yet I wrote to her nearly every week for almost two years. Interspersed among our communiques were the occasional e-mail and telephone conversation. We were pen pals, you could say, of the old-fashioned sort.
My husband was mystified as to why I would commit myself to someone I’d never met. At first I didn’t understand either. Now, however, I do.
Julie was my first “assignment” with Chemo Angels, a volunteer-run cancer support organization that utilizes snail mail to uplift participants. I had come across the program while doing an online search and something about it pulled me in. I’m a writer with a desire to make a positive difference. Well, I thought, opportunities don’t get any clearer than this.
Here’s how it works: The Chemo Angel program takes volunteers and connects them with people – young, old, male, female – who are undergoing chemotherapy. One type of “angel” sends weekly boxes full of gifts – small tokens to fulfill the mission of support. The other kind is a “card angel,” someone who writes every week to fulfill the same mission. I signed on to be a card angel.
I first wrote to Julie in August, 2006 knowing only basic information. I knew she was five years older than I, for example, and knew she had lived in New York – my home state. I would later discover she was an actor and had claimed the Big Apple as her home while striving to make her mark. She was living in Florida at the time I began corresponding with her and had been battling ovarian cancer already for two years.
As a Chemo Angel you’re cautioned not to expect or ask the person you’re supporting to write back. If you hear from the person, well, that’s frosting on the cake. I was thrilled to hear from Julie right off the bat and discovered in our exchanges that we had similar interests. Writing to her was easy, like communicating with an old friend.
For a while Julie did well. She was optimistic and tentatively planned what she’d do when she was told the cancer was gone. As time passed, however, the cancer kept returning and her doctors tried version after version of chemo cocktails to destroy it.
Often when I heard from Julie, her frustration level was palpable. How could it be otherwise? She was told to keep a positive attitude yet aggressive treatments weren’t working. I tried putting myself in her place but all I could feel was fear.
I remember one conversation in which she said to me, “I don’t want to die.” That sentence rattled me. Being just five years her junior, I completely understood that notion. There’s so much life ahead, so much to do and see, I thought. Of course you can’t die, I thought.
I wanted to inspire Julie, to shake up her healthy cells and knock the cancer out of her via my letters…somehow. I had hope. I even enlisted the assistance of my mother, an avid church-goer, who made a prayer shawl and sent it to Julie. I have a photo of Julie, wearing her favorite blonde wig, wrapped in that precious prayer shawl.
But a few months ago Julie’s e-mails to me stopped and I got a letter from Julie’s mom who said Julie had experienced “a bump in the road.” My e-mails, she said, should be directed to her account, not Julie’s. I knew then that things had gotten bad.
A few days ago I received an e-mail from the Chemo Angels admin notifying me that Julie had died. I had to read that message over and over until it sunk in. Then, wanting more information, more details, I did a search and found Julie’s obituary. There she was, her picture, a head shot, placed next to her life’s summary. Dancer, actor, lover of life and animals, beloved daughter, sister, friend. I think part of me had believed it wasn’t true. But there’s no arguing with an obituary.
It seems strange that I could mourn someone I never met. Yet I find myself doing exactly that. I keep coming back to how precious life is and how very brief. We move from day to day thinking nothing of our mortality, thinking we have time, time and more time. Then something happens. Sometimes we’re blindsided, like Julie, healthy one minute, struggling for life the next.
I am grateful I had the opportunity to connect with this tenacious woman and know without doubt that my life will not be the same.
Bless you, Julie, wherever you are.