5 Wise Principles Gleaned from a Too-Short Life of Excellence
The word “need” is intentionally used.
I need to do this, because the fierceness and freshness of Julia’s life is still heavy in my heart these days—and I know it’s going to benefit you by hearing about her.
And I need to do this because hers was an inspiring life. A life lived well. I take soul-notes on how she lived, and I hope you will too.
I present these stories with great carefulness, for it feels risky to try and draw conclusions from someone’s life as if that person merely lived to provide anecdotes for our betterment. That’s not my intention in presenting any of this. Her life was so much more. So much richer. So much fuller.
Still, she lived an example of a life of excellence, the opposite of a life of quiet desperation. And I’m always on the lookout of examples of wisdom in action.
This isn’t a short article. I invite you to get a cup of coffee, relax, and take some time to chew on this. Send it to someone you know who might benefit and discuss some of the principles together.
At the end in the comment section, I invite you to share your own stories of people you know who’ve battled cancer. Talk about what the journey’s been like for you.
Here are 5 wise principles I gleaned from how Julia lived. Let these inspire you to live well too.
Principle 1: Your job and your training are not who you are; they merely reflect who you are. And if you live well, then everything else shines.
I first met Julia in the summer of 1991 when we were both on staff at a summer camp in Bellingham, Washington.
She was dating a boy who lived three states away, and I was dating a girl who also worked at the camp, so our friendship developed in the periphery mostly. Yet I could see that Julia was a young woman of depth and substance, and I liked and respected her right away.
At that young age the summer days seemed endless. We spent our hours teaching waterskiing and sailing, helping kids, and marveling in the beauty of Lake Whatcom. When camp eventually concluded, I moved into a drafty old lake house a few miles down the road along with five to eight other college-age guys, depending on the month. Julia moved into a house a few streets over, along with two to three other college-age girls.
Everyone in those two houses knew each other, and we hung out in bunches, and our lives crossed paths at coffee shops and concerts, at movie nights and weddings. I’d just graduated from university and was taking a gap year, which meant I worked at a restaurant, snow-skied as much as I could, and tried to figure out what to do next.
Julia was somewhere in the middle of her college experience and worked as a housecleaner for the camp’s conference center, which struck me as odd but in a good way. In the back of my mind I had this image of her as being too proper for blue collar work. Too regal perhaps. But Julia was full of surprises. I saw how there was a gracious humility about her. If work needed to be done, even changing bed linens and scrubbing toilets, she rolled up her sleeves and did it.
At the end of my gap year, I moved to Los Angeles to begin a graduate program, and that was the last I saw of Julia on any regular basis for some time. In the meantime, she completed her degree and certificate and started looking for work.
Her degree was in Recreation, from Western Washington University. Where else but the Pacific Northwest can you get a degree in Recreation? Once when her father, a tenured professor at Highline Community College, asked Julia what she would do with her degree (implying that it might not be the most practical), Julia responded, “Someday it will help me be a really cool mom.”
After graduation, Julia found work as a teacher in an inner-city high school in Tacoma. She quickly won over all her students. They became her champions, even her protectors.
Julia described to me, using her best Rosie-Perez-voice, about one particularly tough girl who sidled over to her desk one day and asked, “Is anyone hassling you, Miss Julia? If so, we’ll beat her up for you. Just tell us who it is, and we’ll do it for you.”
Julia just chuckled.
In the 1996/1997 school year, in that hard-hitting environment, Julia was voted “Educator of the Year.”
THE TAKEAWAY: That’s how Julia approached all of life: excellently. It didn’t matter if she was a camp counselor, a toilet scrubber, a university student with a potentially unemployable degree, or a teacher in a tough school, she was going to draw on her strong character and then love and serve people with all she had. Are we living similarly? Our occupations and stages of life are not our identity; only reflections of our identity. We will be the same people no matter what we do.
Principle 2: When life’s difficulties unexpectedly hit you—and they always will to one degree or another—carry yourself with the same grace and dignity and faith equity you’ve always had.
In time, Julia met and married a bright-eyed wonder boy named Mike who’d graduated from the University of Washington. He was intense and smart, and he struck me as a cross between Michael J. Fox and Tom Cruise. He was training to be a minister and later, after he completed his seminary degree in Portland, he started a church on the seminary’s campus.
It was 2001, and my wife and I were living in Vancouver, Washington, just across the river from Portland, where I worked as a newspaper reporter. Julia phoned me up one day out of the blue and we caught up. “We need someone who can lead singing at our church,” she said. “You play guitar. Come.”
And so we went to their church and heard Mike preach and I helped out with music a bit. He was an amazing orator, even as young as he was, a real Charles Spurgeon of a man. Julia said with a grin after the first service, “He really has the gift—doesn’t he.” It was a statement from her, not a question to us, and you could see how deeply proud of Mike she was.
During those years, Mary and I became close friends with Mike and Julia. We’d go over to their house for coffee and dessert and talk far into the evening about deep and needful things. They had two small children at first—Sam and Anna, then quickly another boy, Johnny—who was born just a few months before our daughter, Addy, was born in 2003.
In time, Mike decided he wanted more education. So the family packed up and headed out for Kentucky where Mike began a PhD program. Mary and I moved back to Bellingham in 2007 and we stayed in touch with Mike and Julia by distance. Another son was born to them, Michael. He was born right around the same time as our son, Zach.
In late 2008, news came out of nowhere.
Suddenly. Strangely. Terminally.
It landed with horrific force.
Julia was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.
If she did chemo and radiation, she’d have about 5 years to live.
How does anyone begin to process news like that?
Their youngest son was still a baby at the time of the diagnosis. I asked Mike about some of his earliest responses to Julia’s disease, and he said that they both experienced every raw emotion possible—sadness, despair, wonderment, hope. “Fortunately,” he added, “we had some equity built up in our faith.”
One bright spot happened right around then. Mike completed the bulk of his doctoral degree and got a new job at a church—of all places, back in Bellingham. So they moved across country back to Washington State, and into a house about 5 miles down the road from us. I remember this good feeling of having close friends in the area again. Right away, we started going to their new church. It felt just like old times.
Julia began a battery of treatments immediately. She never let on how bad they were. I remember the first time seeing her in Bellingham again. They invited us over to their house along with a bunch of other people. It was summertime, and this person I didn’t recognize walked across the lawn over to Mary and me. She had closely cropped hair, like it was only beginning to regrow, and her body looked strangely swollen and medicated. She walked straight over to us and gave us big grins and hugs. Only then did I realize it was Julia.
And she was the same person I’ve always known her to be. She was always beautiful. Always bright. Always warm. Always funny. Even when she didn’t look or feel like herself. That’s hard to explain fully, unless you’ve seen a person who can carry herself with grace and dignity no matter what difficulties she’s going through.
THE TAKEAWAY: Julia lived so her difficulties weren’t the main thing anyone saw about her—at least beyond the surface. Are we doing this with our difficulties, whatever they may be? It’s okay to be honest about our difficulties, yet the call is never to let them define us.
Principle 3: Always live purposefully, particularly when you begin to sense that your time is short.
Over the last few years, I guess you could say that Mary and I simply enjoyed Mike and Julia’s presence. We didn’t hang out with them all the time—pastors and pastors’ wives are too busy for that. But we saw them every week at church.
Often we sat right behind their family. I’m not exactly sure why we chose that location to sit. Maybe, at least subconsciously, we wanted to feel as connected to them as we could. We wanted to soak up as much of their friendship as time would allow.
Sitting right behind them, I could see the scar at the back of Julia’s neck where they’d fused a few vertebrae in her spine due to her disease. That image provided a paradoxical sermon—a larger one than Mike could ever preach on his own, even with all his powerful speaking abilities.
From where I sat in the pew, if I looked ahead and slightly to the left, I could see Mike preaching from the pulpit. Then, if I looked straight ahead I could see Julia’s scar. I’d look back and forth, back and forth. The pulpit, the scar, the pulpit, the scar.
Time and time again, Mike would preach about the goodness of God, about the necessity of holding fast to the hope that there is more to life than the here and now, about trusting in God even though we don’t always understand his ways and allowances. He preached all of this while his wife had Stage 4 breast cancer, and he preached it in sincerity. Somehow Mike and Julia were reconciling these two seemingly contradictory facts about life: a good God; a horrible disease.
Mary hung out with Julia more than I did—Johnny and Addy were in the same grade at the same elementary school, and Michael and Zach were the same age as toddlers—so their worlds intersected as young mothers. They went to Christmas-wreath making parties and a weekly children’s play time called Indoor Park.
Julia had her treatments every week, and she had seasons of various treatments. One would work for a while, then it would eventually run its course, and another treatment would begin.
She had a remarkable way of acting like her treatments were no big deal. You never sensed that she was sick. She joked around and baked cookies, and went to parties and get-togethers, and for a while got a part-time job, and ferried her older children to soccer practice and baseball games and horseback riding lessons. In the summertime she opened the screen doors to her backyard where all the neighborhood children played in the warm sun.
In 2013, Mary and I had our last child, a daughter, Amie. Mike and Julia were among the first to meet her at the hospital. It was a close moment as couples. Julia loved babies, and she held and rocked and cuddled Amie whenever she could.
Somewhere during that time, Mike and Julia enlisted a board of directors, jumped through legal paperwork, and created a national nonprofit organization called Team Julia. Various fundraisers are held to generate cash that goes to two purposes: breast cancer research, and to help other cancer-stricken families pay medical bills incurred by the disease.
THE TAKEAWAY: Even as Julia’s life ebbed away, Julia and Mike wanted to do something purposeful. And creating the nonprofit was but one example of this purpose in action. This strategic living was found in many other areas too—in how people felt at ease in Julia’s presence, in how she never expressed irritability or resentment due to her difficulties, in how she kept living hard and living well for as many days as she had left. She never gave up. That’s the example for us.
Principle 4: Live in such a way that you inspire others. Your main point isn’t to inspire them, it’s to live well. But the inspiration will naturally occur as a byproduct of your life.
Over time, when you have a friend with that type of cancer, options dwindle. With Julia, we knew in our minds that it would happen, that options would fade, but it was hard to speak about it out loud. It never seemed like it actually would happen.
Toward the end of 2013, Mike reported the news that all the treatments had run their courses.
Julia was in and out of the hospital then. She missed ten weeks of being at church. She stopped answering most phone calls. She stayed at home only. Close to her family. Close to her husband and children and mother, who lived just down the street.
On Super Bowl Sunday, February 2, 2014, the Seahawks became world champions for the first time ever, and Mike told me later it was such a surreal experience. Family members were all big Seahawks fans, and the TV was on in the living room, and Julia was in the bedroom on hospice, and the children would circulate back and forth between the joy of what was happening on the field, and the difficulty that night of slowly seeing their mother slip between worlds.
Late that night, in the privacy of immediate family, Julia breathed her last.
She was 43.
It snowed the day of her funeral, late February, and it hardly ever snows in rain-friendly Bellingham. Friends of the family lined miles of roadway with pink balloons and ribbons, (the international symbol of supporting breast cancer patients).
As Mary and I and our children drove from our house over to the church, we passed Mike and Julia’s house. The balloons and ribbons and snow stretched all the way from their house to the cemetery, located on a bluff that overlooks the ocean. The tribute offered a mass of starkly poignant color and white. It was almost too much to take in.
The service was packed. Anna’s soccer team came to support her. Johnny’s baseball team came to support him. Sam and Michael’s friends were there for them. The children each participated in the service, as did many extended family members. Person after person spoke in tribute of Julia.
Mary and I sat in the back of an overflow room. Despite the sincere celebration of life, it was difficult to be there. Overwhelming. Real. Painful. Mostly, we just tried to hold on and keep breathing.
THE TAKEAWAY: Why did we hurt so much? Because grief is real. Because the remembrance of Julia’s life was as powerful as the intense poignancy of the balloons and ribbons in the snow. Julia inspired people to look beyond themselves and see a larger world. Do we live this way too?
Principle 5: Always embrace wonder, mystery, and permanent things.
Almost a year after Julia’s death, Mike moved back to Kentucky with his four school-aged children.
He decided, wisely, that being a pastor without his wife was too taxing on his children. When he became a widower, he also became a single parent, and pastors tend to be away from the home a lot of nights and weekends—prime child-rearing time. So he took a new job as a professor at the Seminary where he did his doctoral work.
Their story is still being written in many ways. It’s a season of change for them, hopefully a season of restoration and rest. Of looking to the future. Of remembering and grieving and loving and continuing on.
I must confess it’s still a season of grief for me, as it is undoubtedly for so many others who knew Julia.
Life continues, sure. And it’s not like every waking moment is spent thinking about the friend we lost. But I find that the grief is still within me. It hits at the strangest of times. While driving down the road. While talking to certain people. While hearing certain songs.
The intent of this article isn’t to make anyone sad. Instead, it’s to offer an example of a life of excellence. It’s to point you to everlasting life, to the words on Julia’s gravestone, words she lived by. These are words we believe to be true in Julia’s passing, words about God from Psalm 16:11.
“You make known to me the path of life;
in Your presence there is fullness of joy;
at Your right are pleasures forevermore.”
THE TAKEAWAY: Julia Pohlman’s life was a life well lived. We miss her. We thank her for always pointing us to permanent things—and what in this life is truly permanent? Love for others, the need to serve others, the fullness of joy in God’s presence.
Question: Your turn. Share the story of someone you know and love who has battled cancer. What’s the journey been like?
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