(Photo by Marius Ciocirlan)
Julie Rae was my roommate (by chance) from 1996 to 1998. The world lost her, we lost her, in 2001 to cancer. Julie is especially still with me during these times of uncertainty because of how she lived— *not* how she departed us.
We were in our twenties. I was in graduate school, living on loans, and discovering West African dance and drum. Julie was sweet and quiet, and kept to herself in her room most of the time. She had a “shy school girl” demeanor. She was home often, in her pajamas most of the day, sometimes working at night at a restaurant.
We didn’t share much in common, other than the kitchen. Neither one of us really cooked at the time.
The apartment we shared was the entire top floor of a three-story old brick building, atop the major hill in our town, next to the picturesque university. The third floor gave us oddly slanted ceilings, funky natural light, and very short windows. My understanding is that a hundred years earlier, this top floor was “servants’ quarters”. It was simultaneously sprawling and cozy, historical and odd. We each had the space to be ourselves.
One day in autumn of 1997, Julie carried a large, vibrant pumpkin up the flights of bannistered stairs. She told me she grew it by accident.. She threw pumpkin seeds off the roof a few months earlier, and now we had a pumpkin patch next to the building.
Julie had her own way of growing things.
Out of the blue, that Halloween, Julie hosted a dinner party where every guest came dressed as an assigned character. Under their dinner plates were their character lines for that evening’s one-act. She wrote a play and hosted a costume dinner party to bring it to life!
My graduate program at the time was English. I was profoundly impressed, and it really taught me that you just never know about people—especially quiet people. =)
By 2000, we were no longer roommates, and I happened to fall in with a local slam poetry crowd that year. I was happily shocked to see my old roommate performing poems on a stage. I suddenly recalled glimpses of her journaling, sitting cross-legged on her floor-mattress bed.
One summer day in 2001, Julie ate at the restaurant where I worked. Our lives were separate and different for years by then. I finally got to tell her how excited I was to see her performing poetry, and admitted how scared I was to even try. (I was not yet a performing dancer or a teacher. I was something of a shy school girl myself.)
Before she left the restaurant that day she made me promise her that I would try performing slam poetry. I clearly remember her saying “you promise“?
She almost never asked for anything. So, I promised. In response she smiled broadly with a sparkling and slightly mischievous glee in her eye. (Scorpios!..)
It was a summer of romantic heartache for me, and then September 11th happened in the U.S.. It felt like a dark time to begin with. Two weeks later, our community learned that we lost Julie Rae.
I learned so much more about Julie after she passed! Not only was she enrolled in a local college, but she took beautiful photographs and had showings I never knew about.
I learned that even though she was diagnosed and receiving treatment, she still kept going to school. Only she knew how sick she was, maybe dying, and she graduated from college.
She kept her illness a secret from many. It only makes me wonder how many of these promises she had people make to her, with that sparkle in her eye.
Of course I soon kept my promise, and shared the promise out loud before my poem. This was not lost on the crowd, who knew her.
I think of her tenacity and sheer commitment to Life often these days during the pandemic. With much seeming gloom and decay in both personal lives and societal structures, I cherish the life-affirming role model that Julie was and still is to me.
She made beautiful use of all of her moments while she had them. Dead Poet Society in the best sense of the story.
She had a way of planting seeds. I encourage all of us to do the same for ourselves, and then get a devilish glee in our eye, as we do for others.
(We miss you Julie Rae—thank you for your deep example!!)