health

'I didn't know that FaceTime call would be our last.' Losing my friend to cancer during COVID-19.

My lipstick is melting and there’s a fly in my tea.

At this very moment, my lipstick is melting. I can’t actually see it but I know it’s happening. The image of ‘Love that Red’ losing its perfect shape is crystal clear in my mind and it makes me smile.

That lipstick is resting next to my friend Jules and at this moment she is being cremated. What mess! She would think it was funny and so would others if it wasn’t so damn sad.

Watch: Here’s how to check your breasts. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

Her husband Joel, their 20-month-old daughter Rory, her father and sister are among a handful of people allowed at the short service.

Many, many, others in different parts of Australia and the world are waiting for their clocks to turn 11.45am so they can be part of a silent, collective goodbye.

family-1
Jules, her husband Joel and their daughter Rory. Image: Supplied.

The COVID-style funeral didn’t bother Jules; she was more interested in fast-forwarding to a party for all her friends but that will have to wait.

She knew she was never going to be part of the world when it emerges from COVID-19. As lockdown measures were enforced to protect populations, she knew nothing would save her and it had nothing to do with the coronavirus – she had triple-negative, metastatic breast cancer and was in palliative care.

ADVERTISEMENT

When you’re 34, married to the love of your life, have a great career and are pregnant with your first child there is so much to live for. During the past two years she tried everything to beat the disease or at the very least buy more time.

In the same time frame, she gave birth to her daughter Rory, lost her mother to gastric cancer, travelled with her family and friends to Alaska on a Disney cruise and the Northern Lights. There were girls’ trips, romantic getaways and a big 35th birthday bash.

35th-birthday
Her 35th birthday. Image: Supplied.

If grit, humour and determination were valid currencies against cancer there would be a happy ending but that’s not how it works.

I only knew Jules for two years and met her just three times through my work with Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA). She was committed to raising awareness and advocating for others. A lawyer with three degrees before she turned 30, it’s not how she planned to make her mark.

cancer-feature
Jules and Kellie. Image: Supplied.
ADVERTISEMENT

"Dying is not all bad," she said to me a week ago. We were recording a podcast on the end of life.

You’ve got to be kidding! I wanted to say. Of course, it’s bad, three years ago you were living an amazing life now it’s all heading south. It doesn’t get much worse in my book.

"It’s sad, I can’t deny that," Jules admitted, she confessed to wallowing in thoughts of missing her child’s first day of school, her graduation and other milestones but that brought her no joy, so instead decided to focus on things that did.

She also focused on what she could control, and having her say, including where she would die, and the party that would follow. She talked with Joel about how he would raise their daughter, writing letters for every birthday until she was 21, even one on her wedding. Preparing didn’t mean losing hope for a different outcome but to not prepare she insisted was ‘silly’.

“I wish people weren’t so scared of it," she said. "Talking about it won’t make it happen any quicker.” And yet she felt that her friends didn’t want to talk about dying because they feared it would upset her.

On the contrary, Jules thought it was beautiful that someone would say they’d be sad if she weren’t around.

jules-2
Image: Supplied.

At that moment I wanted to tell Jules that I would miss her when she was gone. I knew I had gotten too close. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Instead, I said nothing, choosing to remain professional.

ADVERTISEMENT

Three days later I posted Jules a bright lipstick with a sticky note, "Slap it on sister."

Amongst the juggle of cancer and ordinary life with a toddler, she had lost the other one I’d given her. She joked, "I have cancer, how would I know where it is?"

She FaceTimed that night. "I’m bored!" she exclaimed. I knew her humour.

"Well, the alternative is no fun either," and we laughed.

jules
Image: Supplied.

We chatted about nothing in particular whilst I made dinner for my family and she pondered what cuisine her husband Joel would bring her after putting their daughter to bed. "Have Maccas," I said after my other suggestions failed.

Then my dinner was ready and I had to go, "speak later."

I had got used to her early morning texts but the next day I woke to nothing. I waited, not wanting to intrude but started to worry.

I know how quickly things can change with cancer, one minute it feels like a reprieve, and then suddenly it’s all over. I sent a text, “What did the husband bring for dinner?”

The reply came soon after, "Maccas". I laughed. And then there was nothing for the rest of the day.

It was unusual but I also know how the later stages of cancer can mess with the body clock. That night I sent a message, "Text me that you’re ok, no need to chat." No reply.

The next morning, still no text. I couldn't help myself. "Awake?" No reply.

I start to think the worst and curse myself that despite my experience with death, I was so stupid to have my last words with Jules to have been about Maccas.

I should know better but that’s the thing about death, even when you know it’s coming, you still think there will be time to say what you want to say.

ADVERTISEMENT

Two hours later the word 'Yep’ appears on my message. She’s alive and I exhaled, then she calls me on FaceTime.

I am conscious not to ever call her because there are so many others that deserve the time she has left. With no pleasantries, I grab hold of the chance I thought I have missed. "Oh my god! Thank god you’re alive, I was worried the last word we exchanged was Maccas."

"That would be funny!" she laughs.

"Maybe for you," I reply. "But not for me."

Jules explains she’d had a fall the day before and it rendered her useless for the day. Damn! A point to the ‘brain mets’ we joked. (The cancer had progressed to Jules’ brilliant mind months ago, but for the most part, she made perfect sense. Though her short-term memory sometimes failed).

A few minutes later I know her dad has arrived to have a cup of tea with her, so I suggest she rings me later when she is alone and bored.

"Before you go. In case I never get to speak to you again, I want you to know I will miss you.”

"Aw thanks," she says. I invite her to say something just in case we don’t speak again. "You have really nice hair!" And we laugh. "See ya later."

There is no other text that day. At 8pm I text, “And tonight’s menu?”

She replies, "Spag bol and zzz."

That’s all I need to rest. She is ok.

Listen to Mamamia Out Loud, Mamamia's podcast with what women are talking about this week. Post continues below.

The next morning I wake to her text. "You awake?" And the FaceTime call comes.

It’s just after 7am but Jules is already dressed and sitting up in a chair. Not me! I have bed hair and in PJs.

She spots my garden in the background behind me and reminds me how much she loved it when she had visited my house a year earlier. I turn the camera around she can have another look, and hear her say hi to her dad. He had come to have a cup of tea with his daughter like he did every morning.

A beautiful man who lost his wife and now was trying to prepare for losing his daughter. "Speak later," I said. Except we didn’t, I knew the fall had taken it out of her and she would be tired.

There was no text the next morning. I applied lipstick to lift my mood and kept applying it, the same colour I had sent Jules. I sent her a text "Did you get your lipstick?"

Jules’ best friends were called and allowed to break COVID-19 conditions to visit her and say their goodbyes, she said little but knew they were there.

The next day was Jules’ 36th birthday. I wonder if a palliative care room had ever looked as beautiful as hers, filled with cards, flowers and lots of helium balloons including a unicorn and her favourite, Buzz Lightyear.

ADVERTISEMENT
36th-birthday
Jules' hospital room on her 36th birthday. Image: Supplied.

The scheduled Zoom session for her many friends to sing 'Happy Birthday' was cancelled and the special cake never delivered.

Jules’ sister and Rory visited her for the last time and then with her husband and father by her side, their dog Cali resting her head on her chest Julia Jane Domigan died.

I tried to find beauty in someone leaving the world on the same day they entered it, but couldn’t. She was robbed! Those who loved and adored Jules were robbed.

I spent the evening weeping, drinking way too much wine, and reapplying lipstick. I scrolled through her funny texts, audio messages and my ill-fated attempts to record our FaceTime sessions. I read the hundreds of messages posted by her friends on her Facebook page and went to bed.

Why didn’t I think to pay the extra postage to ensure the lipstick got to Jules in one day? I was angry with myself.

On the morning of Jules’ service, I sent a text to her husband asking if perhaps he could put the lipstick in Rory’s keepsake box. He replied that he was happy to do that but had thought he might put it in the coffin with Jules. I laughed.

"Ba ha. You certainly are her husband. I thought the same but thought it too weird to ask." And so he did.

At 11.45 am I have applied ‘that’ lipstick, lit a candle, made a cup of tea and am sitting in my backyard, the one Jules loved.

I keep playing the slide show Joel has created to the Beatle’s 'Golden Slumber'. The images are candid happy snaps void of filters and perfect poses, sprinkled with a few professional wedding shots that exude pure joy. And there is a snap of what seems like her signature pose, poking out her tongue.

ADVERTISEMENT

I’m smiling as tears roll down my face.

A friend who is into all things spiritual suggested to me that when I see the flame of the candle is high, I ask Jules for ‘a sign’. I believe in that stuff depending on my mood.

As I amuse myself with Jules appreciating the funny side of a melting lipstick, I notice the flame and say, "Ok Jules, send me a sign."

I look to my cup of tea and there is a fly in it. I start to laugh. What sort of sign is a fly?

I’m laughing because that would actually be Jules’ humour but more so because I cant wait to text my spiritual friend to see what she makes of that and how she is going to make it into something meaningful?

She replies with evidence from Google:

"The fly spirit animal symbolises abundance and prosperity during times of adversity. It sends the message that by being persistent, consistent, and determined even in the face of tragedy will result to victory."

Who knew? I laugh again.

I sit a while longer, then decide it’s time to get on with the day. I pick up my cup of now cold tea, and look closer at the dead fly.

tea
Image: Supplied.

Then I spot it. A hair! OMG! She told me, "You have nice hair."

Now I really am laughing and crying and feeling the joy of having known Jules.

Kellie Curtain is a freelance writer, media consultant and author. She hosts the podcast series UpFront about Breast Cancer for Breast Cancer Network Australia. You can hear from Jules in Episode 20: Talking about end of life on Apple Podcasts.

Feature image: Supplied.

00:00 / ???