In July 2016, Lisa, a friend and colleague, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She received treatment, but the cancer metastasized. She had brain surgery and more treatment. She stayed positive. She worked hard. She was brave. Last week, at the age of 47, Lisa left us.
Anyone who has completed a PhD knows how challenging, intense, and competitive it can be. It can also be very isolating as you’re doing solo work much of the time (in many disciplines). So when you find someone you connect with, you’re really grateful. You’re grateful to see that person when you walk into the university building because you know that any point in the work day, you can take a break and chat about something non-academic and not be judged.
Lisa was one of those people who I was grateful to see every time I stepped into our PhD office in a portable building adjacent to the main university building. In the beginning, our conversations were PhD-related as she was a couple of years ahead of me in the program, and I asked her a lot of questions about each step of the PhD journey. No matter how busy she was, she took the time to share her advice.
Soon after, we bonded over bloggers and clothes. She loved J.Crew, and while I was wearing black and white every day, she was always wearing colours and mixing patterns. We’d come to our offices in the portable and discuss what we thought of our favourite bloggers’ recent outfits. Lisa was one of the few people in my academic life who knew I was a blogger, and she was always supportive of what I was doing. She was a daily reader. 10 years later, she still read White Cabana on the daily. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you’re an academic, you’re judged for everything. And when you’re not spending time on academic work, people may question why. Why are you reading a fashion blog when you should be reading the latest book by so-and-so theorist? Why are you writing a blog when you should be writing your dissertation? Lisa was not judgemental. One minute, we could have been discussing the intricacies of a research methodology, and the next, we could be talking about a sale at J.Crew. It was awesome!
The conversations that brought us much laughs were focused on “the sackpack”. You know – the backpack purse? We called this a sackpack. Not sure why. Maybe it’s what her husband called it. I can’t remember now. Well, let me tell, you, the day Lisa came in wearing a leather sackpack, she couldn’t stop raving about how it was the best invention. She loved using it because it allowed her hands to be free for other things – children, groceries, keys. She was so excited! Me on the other hand? Well, I laughed because it seemed like a 90s fashion accessory that wasn’t as chic as her J.Crew totes. Over time, Lisa acquired a few more sackpacks, and each time she showed me one, she raved! When sackpacks actually did make a comeback, Lisa said “told you so.” I sent her links to sackpack options all the time. She sent me links to white ones, leather ones, designer ones, fashion bloggers wearing them. The sackpack was an ongoing thread in our conversations no matter how far away we were from one another.
When my sister was having her first baby, Lisa shared in this excitement, and without knowing my sister, shared book lists and “must-have-for-baby” lists to pass on to her. So thoughtful! On my sister’s only trip to see me during my PhD life, we ran into Lisa after breakfast, and I was happy that they got to meet, since even though they didn’t know each other, they certainly had heard of one another. The encounter was meant to happen!
Post-PhD life, Lisa invited me to join an academic writing retreat she was co-organizing. During this time, it was great to write, of course, but it was also awesome to hear about Lisa’s news about her kids, job, and life in London, Ontario. She made everyone in the group feel welcome, ensured we had caffeine and treats to keep us going, and hosted us for dinner at the end of the writing retreat. She was warm and inviting as were her husband and two kids.
From this writing group, a few of us gathered to conduct a research project. It was Lisa who guided us through using a methodology that the rest of us were really only slightly familiar with. In all of our research team meetings, she was patient and calm. She listed to everyone’s ideas. She contributed thoughtfully.
It was during the time of this research project when we found out that Lisa had breast cancer and was going through treatment. We were sad for her, for her family, for all the challenges they now had to face. Lisa worked on the project for as long as she could. At one weekend retreat, she told us that she had been in the hospital the days just before. She taught us, she shared with us, she opened up about how she was feeling. She talked about her kids and her husband. We listened. We learned. We hopefully offered an escape from the every day life of her cancer treatments when we talked about our research findings, writing projects, and our lives in general.
Regardless of how she was feeling during those days, she supported the team, and she was determined to work with us in any way she could until the end of the project.
When Lisa reached out to ask me about blogging, I was thrilled. She wanted a place to write, and she thought that a blog would be a good outlet. She started it. She wrote regularly. I followed along. Breathing in Breathing Out is a collection of Lisa’s writing on books, food, and family life. She wrote about her cancer journey, too, both on her blog and in this Globe and Mail article where she wrote about conversations with a partner when you have cancer. I encourage you to read both. Learn. Share.
Lisa accomplished so much in her short 47 years here. She was kind, thoughtful, intelligent, supportive, reflective, concerned, critical, and curious. I am grateful to have known her, to have learned from her, and to have shared so many laughs and conversations with her over the last decade.
In keeping with Lisa’s wishes, I have made a memorial donation to my local FoodBank. I encourage you to make a donation to a cause that is important to you in honour or memory of someone you love.