Christine and I met Monika through some of her college friends who thought we'd get along. She runs, just like you. She’s an engineer, just like you. She hates cheese, just like you. And she has a really funny blog unlike your serious one. You should meet her, they said. This was in 2009, just after her much-funnier-than-my blog had sprung into existence.
First I read about the time she was mistaken for a professional wrestler. After a good laugh I knew my friends were right and I needed to meet this lady. That post also contains a bit of foreshadowing. In that blog post she talks about how fun it was to interact with tween kids. And in the comments she discusses the possibility (and fear) of doing a triathlon.
After reading a bit more I sent an introductory email. Some time later the three of us met in person (Monika, me, and Christine). Monika was very active on social media in those times. We felt like we knew her already after perusing her Twitter and Facebook feeds. Still it was great to meet her in person. At that time, David still lived on the East Coast and was mythical to us. We called him “The David."
One striking thing about Monika was how busy she was. Of course she was continually training for that next race. But in addition she worked hard, traveled a ton, attended events regularly (such as TED and Athena), and was always rushing home to take care of her beloved dogs. Little did we know her 2009 self was a relative slacker compared with what she would become.
A couple months later she started coaching with Girls on the Run. This was yet another big schedule commitment. Later she joined the board of directors and founded the Glam Runner tutu-making fundraising organization. There are many others that can tell the tutu story better than I. As for me I have this image of her rushing home, walking the dogs, and then making tutus for 3 hours while binging on Toddlers and Tiaras. I’m sure that’s a 100% accurate depiction of Monika’s life at that time. It seemed like she was always worried that she was either not doing all she could...or she was doing so much she couldn’t possibly succeed. I think she always lived on that edge.
I made my first appearance in Monika’s blog in 2010 when she came to cheer me on at my first triathlon. A few months later I joined her for moral support during her first triathlon. She went on to race several more triathlons culminating in a half ironman in 2014. For those keeping count, now Monika worked hard, traveled a ton, attended events, took care of her dogs, served on the Girls board, made a bazillion tutus, and trained for triathlons. Was she done? Oh, no.
In the middle of that triathlon period Monika received her cancer diagnosis. It was a huge shock for everyone. Of course I have little idea what it was like for her to go through it first-hand. But amazingly, Monika’s busy schedule did not slow down.
During those triathlon years we learned that the David is real. (We met him.) They were married and he moved to San Diego. Tutugate, & Katie Couric were also during this period. Again I’ll let other people tell those amazing stories. After she finished her first round of chemotherapy, Eva was conceived. Sadly we saw less and less of them from this time forward. The busyness of her schedule and preparing for parenthood left less time for socializing with us. But we kept up and still all made time for the occasional dinner or Elf party.
After Eva arrived, Monika stayed as busy as ever. She let go of a couple of things but it seemed like she was still doing it all. When we saw her she still had that anxiety that she was either not doing enough or too much. It’s tempting to think she knew she had limited time and needed to stuff it all in. But I don’t think that’s the case. We met her before the diagnosis and she was the same. As she got older she simply learned ways to cope with ever more activity. She wanted to experience everything in life she possible could and enjoy every day to the fullest.
In January 2017, I was preparing to lead a book club discussion on When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir of a neurosurgeon who died of cancer in his 30s. Like Monika and David, he and his wife decided to conceive after his diagnosis. That was the most significant parallel of several.
I sent Monika an email on a Sunday asking for her thoughts on some of those parallels. On Tuesday, I learned that she was unresponsive in the hospital and treatment had been suspended. On Wednesday I had the opportunity to visit her and on Thursday she was gone. On Friday, I led that book discussion which became much more poignant for me and I think for the whole group.
I had known that she had been experiencing more symptoms a couple of months prior. And that she had a hospital visit in January to drain some fluid. Those are ominous signs for someone with cancer. But nonetheless the end came shockingly quickly. I suppose that’s the nature of our experience of death. I once heard someone talking about the loss of a grandmother. She had been in declining health for years and was in her 90s. Yet when she was gone I was told, “it was so sudden!”
These mysteries around life and death are unsolvable as far as I can tell. I know I’m not smart enough. I can’t and won’t understand why Monika was taken from us. Why we have to miss her. And why Eva will not get a chance to know her when she has language and memory. It sucks. All I can do is remember our time together. Tell people about the inspiration that was Monika. And remember what a great friend she was.