Julia kept a print out of her senior portrait taped above her desk at the Express. In the picture 17 year-old Julia’s shoulder length hair is straightened, her bangs are pinned back from her forehead and she looks at the camera with a school-picture-day smile.
This A-1 sized piece of paper brought me happiness each time I saw it in the office. The picture seemed like another one of Julia’s cryptic jokes. It was unexpected, as she was not the overly sentimental type, and the portrait couldn’t capture her smile. A true smile from Julia was wide and lightening fast. It’s the one that I was reminded of whenever I looked at the image.
When I start to reach for the adjectives that I want to use to describe the kind of remarkable person that Julia was, I get an image of her in my mind. She’s sitting at her desk, giving me an impenetrable look. After a beat she turns back to her work to hide that she’s rolling her eyes. My memory of Julia doesn’t have the patience for my adjectives. We’ve been friends for long enough that I’m not offended.
When Julia rolled her eyes in annoyance it didn’t feel like an insult, it felt like honesty. She seemed completely uninterested in manufacturing or concealing emotions. It was as if at the age the rest of us learned to smile and say thank you after opening a birthday present we hated, Julia thought to herself, “This is ridiculous” and committed to being sincere for the rest of her life.
I never heard Julia give a courtesy laugh. It didn’t matter the person or the situation, if the joke wasn’t funny enough she didn’t react. When she did, Julia had a way of going from stony-faced calmness to bent-double, arms around her middle bracing against convulsive laughter in seconds. Sometimes she would laugh like this over something only she noticed, and the rest of us would have to wait for her to catch her breath and fill us in on the joke.
Julia wouldn’t laugh to gain anybody’s approval, and she didn’t need anybody’s approval to laugh.
The larger community got a glimpse of her sense of humor and confidence at her graduation, when she stepped up to the microphone to give her valedictorian speech.
If you missed Winters High’s 2008 graduation, you missed a phenomenal speech. I don’t care if you saw a Pulitzer prize-winning author or a former president speak to a class of graduates: Julia did a better job. Anybody in the crowd waiting to hear an 18 year old give a stilted delivery of Merriam-Webster’s definition of courage was sorely disappointed. Her speech clocked in at under a minute, and in that time she somehow managed to deliver a reflection on high school, an inspirational quote and a joke.
I remember trying not to laugh in the silence that followed her stepping away from the podium, before people realized the speech was over and they should applaud.
Julia continued to communicate with an openness that cut away at everything unnecessary and left behind only honesty. Rereading the essays she wrote for her running club, the Donner Party Mountain Runners, is an exercise in smiling while reading through tears. Her personality and outlook on life ring out so clearly through her words that reading them is both comforting and devastating.
She’s right there between the paragraphs, and she’s gone.
Julia lived with chronic illness, but it didn’t define her. When she wrote about the complications that came up while running, she didn’t treat them like weaknesses. Julia didn’t run “despite” her illness or “because of” it. She just ran.
When she wrote about fighting her mind and her body to the top of a mountain, her words made you feel like you weren’t just on the trail with her, but battling alongside her.
Her writing inspired people. As I type that her memory adds an exasperated sigh to her eye roll, but it’s true. I don’t know if she set out to do it, but by writing about pain and growth with her own brutal kind of honesty, she got at something so personal that it was universal.
Like her writing, Julia lived with an openness that endeared herself to people quickly and deeply. Reading peoples’ shared recollections of her, it’s clear that she had a way of making an impression on people after only a brief meeting. Among those who knew her closely, some described her loss as a hole in their heart.
The Express staff extends our deepest condolences to Julia’s family and her friends who became like family. Our office will miss her deeply, and will be emptier without her resounding laugh.
If I could go back a few weeks to the last time Julia and I were in the office together and tell her what I would be working on this week (a conceit that she’d probably find ridiculous), I would tell her that I’d try to write with the same practicality she would have used.
I won’t describe you with flowery language or hyperbole, I would have assured her. I will let your own actions speak for you, because they will tell your story better than I can.
But I have one adjective that I will ask you to accept, because it is the truest, most practical and honest word that I can use to describe who you are and what you mean to us:
Julia, you are loved.