The world lost Joanna Stanfield Montgomery this past Tuesday. Most of you probably don’t know her, although if you live in Nashville or are a part of the cancer community, or have read Huff post or watched the Katie Couric show, maybe you have also heard the news about her remarkable story.
I’m not sure I ever knew her completely, yet even though it’s been 3 years since we’ve spoken, I took in the news of her crossing over Tuesday after a long dance with cancer with as much grief as the passing of a family member. There is an emptiness in the world today—a palpable void, and I find myself wondering how long this vacuum will linger.
The good part is that Joanna got to choose to leave with family and loved ones holding her up until the end. She got to spend 3 and a half years with the daughter who, by simply coming into the world, alerted Joanna that she had cancer and needed treatment. In those 3 and a half years, I watched her morph from afar into a public figure sharing her experience of hope, strength,and grace with so many who benefitted from her amazing voice and vulnerability.
Today, selfishly, in an attempt to come to terms with the depth of my feelings of loss and to try to put some closure on anything unfinished between me and her, I wanted to share my experience of Joanna and the things I learned from being her friend for 4 years.
Joanna and I were thrown together in a group of people trying to figure out our shit. In our “real” lives, our circles never touched and we never associated much at large gatherings or events. From that small group and those shared experiences, we seemed to form a bond of friendship that transcended the normal getting-to-know-you trajectory–there was never any small talk or awkwardness, we always got right to talking about the heart of the matter, whatever it was at the time. Because of that, I got to experience real, true, equitable adult friendship for the first time in my life. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to see her go—-SHE was the one who really taught me how to be a friend. Here’s how:
- Joanna had magnetism. She had these arched dark eyebrows, pale skin, and dramatic lips. Most of the time that I saw her, she looked aloof, cool, regal, and serene all at the same time. She appeared to have had her shit together, even though I knew we were both in a place where we were supposed to allow all our shit to fall apart. I don’t know if she practiced appearing this way or if it came naturally, but it was something I really wanted to be around—hoping maybe some of that “togetherness” of self would rub off on me!
- Joanna was generous—with all kinds of things. As a paralegal, she gave me all kinds of advice for free as I was going through my divorce and dealing with single parenthood. She was my maid of honor when I finally found my forever husband. She threw me a great wedding/baby shower. She watched my kid from time to time, and always made HER feel special as well–including that one time when we were pregnant together and when I went into labor Joanna came to the hospital to pick up my older daughter and make sure she got safely to a friend’s house for a few days while my husband and I navigated the whole newborn thing. She bought my Embrace The Wobble stuff when I was just ramping up my business. She followed my blog. She traded cars with me when I moved so I could haul more stuff in her SUV.
- She never judged. And this woman was privy to pretty much everything in my past—all the stuff I have been ashamed of, all the mistakes I’ve made, everything crazy or messy or funny or painful—she knew it all and still wanted to have lunch with me now and then.
- She was honest–with herself and with me.
- In her honesty, she was always kind. Holding up mirrors for me gently, but truthfully, saying what she observed and allowing me to see things I sometimes did not want to see.
- She had boundaries. She pretty much never answered the phone when I called her. I think this was something she did with more than just me. She would call me back or email when she was ready to respond, and then would truly be present and available.
- She was human. She usually changed our lunch plans a lot before they happened. It seemed like she was more comfortable as the helper than the helpee in a relationship, and then would feel irritated about being around “black hole” people. She had a talent for isolating herself sometimes.
- She wore short hair like a boss. Every woman should do this at least once in their lives.
- She had a definitive deliberate style for work and for play. Another thing every woman should explore.
- She chose herself. We parted ways three years ago because of two things: I and my family were trying to “blend” with a newborn, a stepchild, and a new marriage. This was not always a pretty process, and it took me awhile to find my voice and redefine myself in that role. I think Joanna felt the changes in me were too much to be comfortable around during that time, AND she had a new baby and a cancer diagnosis to deal with. She pulled in to her inner circle of family and friends as well as finding her voice in the cancer community. She and I just couldn’t make our friendship feel comfortable again, especially not having the benefit of a ton of history to fall back on. She did not need or want the stress of trying to hold a challenging friendship together. I get it and applaud her for it. At the same time, I will always feel sad about this.
In the end, the loss I feel is far outweighed by the gifts I got from having someone like Joanna in my life. In the last 24 hours, I’ve read a lot of posts online from people who gave condolences, announced her death, and expressed their sadness at her passing—people who never even knew her personally. How lucky am I to have had 4 years of close, profound friendship with this amazing woman?! The friendship example she gave me lives on because now I know what to cultivate in myself and look for in others, and have found so many of the same gifts in my own inner circle of friends. And, having come through a parting of ways with someone so special, it teaches me how to better value and hang onto my current besties—-and how to let them go with honesty and grace if the time ever comes.
So, thank you, lovely Joanna for existing and sharing some amazing time with me while you were here. I will never, ever forget it. Go with God and live on in peace. Maybe if you think about it, let me know you’re around and remind me how cool you still are.