Edited to add: in the less 24 hours since this was posted, more than 400 people have visited this website. That’s a lot of hits for a blog that is usually about the mundane topics of running, eating and parenting. I know it’s not because of my writing, but because of the difference that Hillary made in the world, that people are coming to read this post. I fear my post doesn’t do her justice, but she was someone I loved and wanted to remember. I hope my memories help to keep her alive in yours.
We met when you were 21 and I was 31.
This was an interlude in your life – a break between acts. You had just finished undergraduate work at Tulane, moved back to Seattle and hadn’t yet decided what your next step would be. You were determined to make a difference. In the short term, you needed a paycheck. We needed an office administrator who could write, and boy, could you write. So the temp service sent you over.
You know when you meet someone and you immediately feel that you and this person will be friends? That’s how it was. Like falling in love. I would later learn that you had this effect on people. They either loved you or hated you. Mostly, they loved you – often with ferocity.
I often wondered what it was about you that elicited such strong feelings.
Maybe part of it was, you were demanding. People sometimes say that and mean it as an insult. But it’s not. We should all be more demanding. You demanded that people take you on your own terms. You demanded things from yourself and others.
You gave careful thought to your own opinions, and demanded others do the same – I never knew you to suffer fools without at least a few insightful questions. You were idealistic, and also kind, encouraging, thoughtful, and so very funny.
After you had worked at our office a few weeks, people started wondering about this persistent cough you had. It was a hack. It sounded like a smokers hack, but you didn’t smoke.
One of the sales guys that worked in our office came into my office one day and told me to talk to you about the cough. See if something could be done. It bothered him, and part of my job was to keep guys like him happy. It was awkward, but had to be done.
At first, your response was amusing. As we were already friends, you confided in me that you were hiding a tiny flask of brandy in your desk. The brandy was to calm the cough. I was both shocked at the idea of drinking alcohol at work (horrors!) and sort of taken with the idea at the same time.
Drinking at work sounded awfully attractive sometimes.
What you told me next threw me for a loop. I asked if you had seen a doctor for the cough. As I recall, you sort of smiled, then told me you had the cough due to Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, an extremely rare disease that would likely kill you before you were 30 unless a cure could be found.
You told me you had known since you were a teenager. And that you were something of a medical oddity – one of just a few people on the planet with the disease, at 21 you were already sort of “famous” in the medical community.
Your disease was a mystery – no known cause or cure, all doctors could do was treat symptoms, with limited success. However, the treatments themselves were sometimes as bad as the disease – medications given for the disease, medications given for the side effects of the medications for the disease. Your bathroom at home looked like a small apothecary.
The disease itself, you told me, would get progressively worse until finally it robbed you of breath completely.
For anyone who knew you well enough, this was the unspoken demand – love me, be my friend, stay to watch the whole movie, even knowing how it ends. I think you sort of made light of it – aside from the cough it was still possible to downplay things. But, I still went home and cried that day – my first and only friendship bookended by tears.
Your favorite movie when I knew you was “The Princess Bride.” Early in our friendship when you found out I hadn’t seen it, you were appalled and demanded that I watch it with you.
I suspect, you being the kind of person you were, that you also read the book by William Goldman. People have a lot of theories as to what the point of the movie was, but Goldman was pretty clear about it in the book. The point was that life’s not fair.
Goldman wrote, “Look. (Grown ups skip this paragraph.) I’m not about to tell you that this book has a tragic ending. I already said in the very first line how it was my favorite in all the world. But there’s a lot of bad stuff coming up, torture you’ve already been prepared for, but there’s worse. There’s death coming up, and you’d better be prepared for this: some of the wrong people die. Be ready for it.”
I wondered what it would be like to be one of the wrong people, and to know it. To know you would be robbed of the years most of us take for granted in our youth. In my 20s and 30s, time seemed to stretch on, limitless and abundant. The idea that this was not the case was still foreign. Death was only beginning to make itself known to me.
Only now that I am well past 30 (past 40!) am I truly beginning to realize how limited our time really is – even for those who live a long time.
But as time went on, I saw how you lived with it. You simply got on with your life, and didn’t waste time. You realized very early what it took me many years to learn – that life is too short to spend it in a holding pattern, letting our fears keep us to the safe and narrow, waiting for life to start. Life’s not fair, and it’s too short to waste it living a life you aren’t passionate about, or to spend it with people who don’t love or value you.
In spite of health problems that made life difficult, you never let those things be a reason not to do the things you could do. You had fun, took risks, even risks that were a little crazy sometimes.
Like that time we nearly killed you in the Yakima River. Accidentally, of course – it turns out four people and a cooler of beer in a small raft on an ice cold, wild river is not the smartest situation to be in when one of those four is prone to life threatening breathing episodes if exposed to extreme cold.
We all fell in. You came up and couldn’t breathe.
You were scared. We were scared for you. You were sorry we were scared. You were sad that the beer was gone.
That situation showed me something. It showed me your brave spirit, and the fact you were smart enough to know that you can’t be so afraid of dying that you fail to live.
Why shouldn’t a young woman be able to go rafting with friends, after all? Youth is the time to have fun and make mistakes, even when facing an uncertain future.
The interlude came to a close and you grabbed hold of your life like a person dying of thirst grabs hold of a water bottle – with gusto, bravado, even desperation sometimes.
You drank it down in great gulps, because life is not for sipping. It’s meant to be guzzled – lived fully – until the bottle runs dry.
You knew this. And because you knew, you demanded the most from life. You followed your dreams and achieved them. You earned a PhD. You married young to a steadfast man, and you loved one another intensely. You wrote amazing poetry that only you could have written.
In doing these things, you showed those of us who knew you what it means to live richly.
Some things were left unfinished, words left unsaid, but that’s how it is when you run out of time.
In your short 35 years on this earth, you accomplished much. You leave behind a beautiful legacy – a devoted husband, family and friends who loved you deeply, a body of poetic work that provides insight into the experience of being souls living in bodies that will ultimately betray us (as all bodies will), and students and readers who will continue to be inspired by your work for years to come.
Hillary, my beautiful friend – thank you for your friendship and for living your life the way you did. On that day we hired a temp, I never expected that I was about to meet a teacher and a friend. I am so grateful it was you who walked through that door.
I will always miss you, and never forget you.
From her poem “Exuberance”
You stay here. Let me run into that starring role, pinker and more flooded with blood:
Remember when it meant exuberance, remember awe?
Let’s be that breathless.
Hillary Anne Gravendyk Burrill
March 1, 1979 – May 10, 2014
6 thoughts on “Breathless”
Oh Sandy. What a treasure to have had and lost….
Sent from my iPhone
Thank you for your beautiful post. I didn’t know Hillary personally, but my wife went to Berkeley with her. We both felt this was a moving tribute.
Thank you. She was an amazing person.
I like this blog so much, saved to my bookmarks .
Sandy, I just re read this, It is a beautiful and loving tribute. You captured so much of Hillary. I miss her terribly but am so grateful she had friends like you. Thank you.
Thank Katherine. I miss her too.