And Then We Ran
My stepmother, Julie Stokes Gerwitz, passed away on Tuesday.
Over the last decade, Shannon and I had a tradition of visiting Obama’s favorite pizza place with her whenever we were in town. We would share stories over a deep dish and too much sangria.
Julie loved to listen as well as tell stories. She loved my father intensely and many of her favorites involved him. I think Shannon knows of him mostly through Julie’s tales, and sometimes I think that might be true for me, too. Even her stories without him usually had the typical Gerwitz wrap-up: “and then we ran.”
So when we planned to visit New Orleans for my coronation, we planned to first do our usual midwest jaunt and include a pizza visit with Julie. But just ten days prior we heard shocking news that she had a brain tumor. She gave us the details (lung cancer that metastasized to the brain). She was having trouble finding words when speaking, but good with texting and looked forward to sharing sangria. She was worried her prognosis might be less than a year.
Over the ensuing days, there were more tests and the news got worse and worse; she would be going to home hospice. By the time we were in town, she was barely able to tell us to just visit us at her home. I tried hard to avoid having expectations, but on Monday we were still surprised to find her sister, Laurie, there. Hospice had already begun, and Julie had been concerning herself with disbursing her worldly goods.
As ever, Julie was a gracious source of positive energy that it was nearly impossible to be sad in her presence. But as soon as we stepped away, the weight set upon us that she might not even make it to Easter. On Tuesday we visited again, heard more stories, and planned to change our mid-February trip to return.
Then, Saturday. I called Laurie to confirm travel dates, and she told us not to make plans. Hospice had declared she was actively dying and would now be sedated until the end. Our year that had turned to months was now weeks.
We had the coronation ball to distract, but as my brother rushed to visit her, it became clear that even weeks was optimistic. The call this morning was not a surprise, except of course it was. I’m grateful we got the time with her that we did, recently and in general. But I cannot accept losing someone so quickly, so young.
I think often about how the people I spend time, and the roles I play with them, influence who I become. Shannon observed that I prioritized spending time with Julie, and it makes sense: her intense devotion to Ignatian spirituality reflected a character that wanted the best for everyone and looked first to herself for opportunities to improve. Who would want less of that perspective?