It was Halloween at my best friend John Lee’s house. Scary movies. Popcorn. Girls. It was the routine every year. And being the ever-so-clever sophomore that I was at the time, I pulled my girlfriend back from the crowd when everyone else went outside after the movie so we could have the basement all to ourselves.
But Mrs. Lee was not fooled. Not one bit.
“Chriiiiiis? Will you come up here for a second?”
My heart dropped to my stomach as I got up from the couch and trudged up the thirteen wooden steps to the kitchen, only to find Julie Lee propping the door open. Shining a 100-watt smile.
“Chris, I’m going to be your mother for a moment here,” she started. “Now, I understand what you’re doing, but I really don’t think it’s such a good idea you two are down there alone,” she said, smiling like crazy.
“Yes, ma’am, we’ll go outside.”
“That’s my boy. Sorry, I just know how you boys work,” she said.
As I walked down the stairs I couldn’t help but smile. Of course Mrs. Lee found us. How could she not? She’s always been like that – -always on top of everything, since the day I met her, up until the last day I saw her.
Throughout middle school, Julie was my second mom. She picked John and me up from swim practice every summer morning and drove us to summer weights after. She fed me countless lunches, dinners and snacks, and willingly picked up the messes I left behind.
I was over at the Lee’s constantly, and while there, Julie always treated me like her third son.
She’d asked about my grades and made sure I was keep up with all my school work. She would stress the importance of family in every conversation we had, making sure to say “please” and “thank you” to my parents for anything and everything. Every time we talked, she sounded like she genuinely cared about what I was telling her. I can still hear voice singing “The Sound of Music” or whatever was on the Oldies station from every time I woke up at the Lee’s. She always treated me like a third son.
Of course, I wouldn’t have known Julie without meeting John and for the first three weeks I knew John, I thought his name was George.
We first met at Leawood Swim practice the summer before seventh grade. He was new that year, and I thought I had heard him tell the coaches his name was George. Obviously over time, I realized his name was John, and as we became friends, we realized that we were going to the same middle school the next year, and ended up having a few classes together. Soon enough, we were best buds.
We became inseparable, together almost all day every day, and the closer I grew with John, the closer I grew to the entire Lee family: his father Brad, his little brother Evan and of course, his mother, Julie.
I felt like apart of their family with how often I was over at the Lee’s, so last November when John called to tell me Julie had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I reacted like a family member would: I was numb.
Initially I called John every night. I knew there was nothing I could personally do to fight the cancer, but I felt like the least I could do was keep tabs on John and Julie to make sure they were both doing okay. Eventually I realized by calling him so often, all I was doing was suffocating him and reminding him of the cancer, so I took the opposite approach, and left him alone. I just wanted him happy, and the way to do that was to let him do what he pleased, whether I was in his plans or not. But over the next few months, our friendship became obsolete. We only spoke on occasion, and hardly did anything outside of school. And the further away I became to John, the further away I was to Julie, who was slowly slipping away from all of us.
Every so often my parents would approach me in the evening while I was doing homework or watching TV.
“Have you heard about Mrs. Lee lately?” they’d ask me.
“No not really.”
“Well here’s the deal…” they’d start. The rest of the conversation was like jamming forks into my spine. My dad would update me that the cancer had spread. That the chemo wasn’t working. That eventually, the cancer was going to take her. I always had the notion the cancer might win in the end, but I blocked it from my mind. I pretended she was never diagnosed. I ignored all negative reports and convinced myself nothing bad would happen.
She won’t die. She can’t die. Not Julie Lee.
How could she? What about John and the Family? Who will take care of them? What about the Church? She was active in the church, surely God wouldn’t take such a loving and caring person away from us. Someone who brought so much life and happiness into a room by just walking in. I was naive and in denial, until the day it was our family’s turn to bring the Lee’s dinner.
It was a week after my Dad told me Mrs. Lee was probably going to die when I brought the Lee’s taco salad. As I parked my red Chevy outside the Lee’s house in my usual spot in the street, I looked over the front yard into the kitchen window to see Julie. It was a familiar sight, but something felt different. And as I approached the house I realized what it was: This was probably going to be the last time I ever saw her.
I knocked. She answered me. She smiled.
“Oh hi Chris, how are you?”
She had lost 20 pounds since the last time I’d seen her. The chemo had taken her hair. A bright red bandanna covered her bald head. She was weak, but through the obvious pain she so bravely tried to hold back, she seemed like she couldn’t have been more pleased to see me.
I brought the salad into the kitchen and we began talking about everything. School. Journalism. Family. It was remarkable to see someone so invested in my life and who cared so much about me, who in turn, was battling cancer, and didn’t complain once. When I left, I gave her one last hug.
“Don’t squeeze too hard, she might break!” Mr. Lee called out to us.
Two days later I received a letter in the mail. It was from Julie. She thanked my family for the salad. At the top of the letter was a special section for me.
It was fun to hear what is going on in your life these days – It has been too long! I am so proud of all you have accomplished. You are laying the groundwork for a great future. Thank you for all of your support, prayers and love. We are grateful and blessed!
Much Love, Julie.
The letter was touching, yet heart-breaking to read. I had an underlying feeling that this note wasn’t just a thank you note, but her last, personal goodbye.
Julie died on a Tuesday.
John called me at 7:04 a.m. to tell me his mother had passed that morning around 6.
I skipped school to be with John that day. Everything felt different. The air seemed thinner. Food had no taste. We had all known this day was coming, but never had a way of anticipating how we would react when it did. Everything felt so real, but at the same time, like a dream.
My main goal for the day was to distract John. We talked about our favorite memories of Julie: How she had never really grown out of being a KU cheerleader and belted chants during KU basketball games. How she always cheered the loudest at our basketball games, especially when John scored. How even on her darkest days, she brought a positive attitude to life.
It was moments like those we would miss about Julie Lee. Moments where you felt cared for and truly taken care of. I can remember clearly the way she sang Happy Birthday to John and Evan on their birthdays, adding four verses to the song I had never heard. She lit up with glee when they opened her presents and kissed them on the forehead when they thanked her, and told them her favorite phrase, “I love you big.”
She was the role model everyone wants to have: And sitting in the kitchen on that Tuesday, with Evan, John and our friend Sarah, everything felt different. Every silence was filled with the gravity of the day.
She was gone.
The funeral was on Saturday.
The drive to Village Presbyterian Church was excruciating, but the weather was gorgeous. “Not too hot, not too cold” as Julie would say at KU football games when the weather was just right. The bright sun didn’t seem like just the sun that Saturday afternoon, but instead, Julie smiling upon us.
The service was emotional, and focused on love: something Julie was filled with and gave with every breath. Mr. Lee spoke of the hole Julie left that couldn’t be filled, but that we shouldn’t be sad that she’s gone, we should be happy that we had privilege of knowing such an incredible person.
After the funeral I approached John and hugged him like a brother. Which is nothing new. Our motto has always been a quote from his favorite movie, Tommy Boy. “Brothers don’t shake, brothers gotta hug.” And that’s what he is to me. My Brother. I told him if he needed anything, anything at all, to let me know. He brushed away his tears and laughed.
“You got it, dude.”
My friendship with John is something I’ve come to cherish, because if I’ve learned anything from Julie, it’s to value each and every relationship you have with people, and to be courteous and caring to everyone you meet, because you never know what could happen.
Since her passing, I’ve reconciled with everyone I had misgivings with. I’ve gone out of my way to help someone pick up papers they’ve dropped in the hall. I’ve even given someone a ride home from school, someone whom I’d never met before. Because Julie would have wanted me to.
When John and Evan walked out the door each day for school, Julie told them one thing: Be kind, and do your best. In John’s eyes, and everyone who knew Julie, that represents her personality to a tee.
I regret not going over the John’s every day to see Julie. I regret not spending more time with her, but in the end, I know it doesn’t matter, because she’s not completely gone: She’ll always be with me. When I think twice and am courteous to others, she’s there. When I open up to my family or simply thank them for dinner, she’s there. No matter where I go, or what I do, Julie Lee will be with me, always reminding me to be a better person, and reminding all of us to be kind, do our best, and she loves us big.