Remembering My Personal Hero

My boss used to call me the glue that held things together, but I always knew better.

On November 24, 2010, five days after Carol passed away, I faced the most challenging moment of my then 28 years. After her funeral ceremony, I shook the hand of her 16-year-old son, the same son she’d leave every afternoon meeting to talk to on the phone, and somehow managed to say, “I’m Julie. I’m so sorry.”

For almost two years, Carol battled a rare form of lymphoma. She diligently led her team of over a hundred people, until June of 2010, when she finally took a leave of absence. On that late June afternoon, she came by my cubicle to personally tell me of her plans, like she would do on any normal day. I was afraid to ask questions, and Carol knew me well enough by then -after 5+ years- to know I couldn’t handle the gory details. Her eyes spoke a grave truth, but there was no doubt in my mind she would recover and return.

She’d get better, of course, because she was strong. The strongest person I knew. My hero.

Even though 87 pay grades separated us, Carol refused to let anyone take advantage of my original position as a glorified secretary. She genuinely sought my opinion whenever people were interviewed, or a process wasn’t working out. When I had my first meltdown, she handed me a box of tissues and told me she knew I could do it.  A few months before she took a leave of absence, when I dyed my hair brown, she told me it wasn’t me. I wondered who she saw.

Our paths first crossed unexpectedly. Right after graduating from college, my then boyfriend’s (now husband’s) sister suggested I come work in her department – in Big Pharma. “It’s only a year-long contract,” she explained, “and the pay is really good.”

With student loan payments looming, and no other prospects on the horizon, I agreed. As a creative writing student with dreams of pursuing fame and fortune in the arts, I simply couldn’t appreciate how lucky I was to walk into this kind of position without so much as a formal interview. I knew nothing about drug development; I’d never even taken biology or chemistry, for god’s sake. I was completely out of my element in a department full of MDs, MBAs, PharmDs, and some degrees I didn’t know existed.

Some people never understood why I was Carol’s right-hand woman. I can’t say I know for sure either, but the one memory that quite possibly sums it up? Why, it just so happens to feature a favorite guilty pleasure:

One day in 2005, Carol stopped by my desk and pointed to a sign that I’d had on my cubicle wall for the past 6 months, since I’d started working for her – this one:

“You know,” she said, “after all this time, I finally came over and read what it said, because I couldn’t believe you’d have one of those posters. I should have known better.”

[Photo credit: despair.com]