One year ago today, at 4:53am, Joanna Lee Stanfield Montgomery drew her last breath.
It feels like it happened yesterday and a million years ago, simultaneously.
I miss her more than I can articulate… the love of my life.
I will never be the same. Nor will anyone who came in contact with her.
I have sat down to write this a hundred times. I’ve gotten nearly to the end of writing something I hoped would be meaningful and given up. I have never had the words to express my sorrow, my longing, my anger, my desire to just put what was turning out to be one hell of a life together back to where we were the day before she was diagnosed with cancer.
As I have travelled through this grief, I have encountered so many people who Joanna touched, changed, and inspired, with both her words and her actions. I know that is just a fraction of the people she made an impact on… hearing stories keeps her alive. Keep telling them.
When I first met Jo, I knew that she could never be mine, I knew I’d have to share her. She was the kind of person that drew others to her, magnetic, unicorn-like. Everyone thought she was theirs, she belonged to almost no one, except her daughter…
I met her at a point in my life when things where not looking good. I was facing an ugly divorce and a battle with a bastard ass multinational corporation who was systematically dismantling 10 years of my work. All to prevent meeting their contractual obligations to me and my shareholders. She took me under her wing and walked me through it. Like she had done for so many others before me in her 22 year career in family law. The difference this time was that she too had met the love of her life, which turned out to be me.
It was nearly instantaneous, I can remember it like it happened yesterday.
She walked into the room at what was at that point the lowest spot of my life at that point, dressed in a pin striped suit with a plunging neckline, smiled that big ass smile, raised that eyebrow, and I was a goner. Little did I know at that moment just how much she would change my life.
We would maintain a completely professional decorum during the divorce, until 4 days before my mediation. Prior to taking my case, she had booked a two week solo trip to Ireland. She was in transition as well. She was, as she would say, “hiding out with the lesbians for the last 10 years”, and going to Ireland to “clean out her gills” in one of the more magical places in the world. We sat across from each other at Fido, going over the strategy for the mediation. I asked her what she thought the percentage chance was that I would not be divorced 4 days later. She dodged the question a couple times, but I was relentless for an answer. Finally, she said “90/10 that you’ll be out” (divorce is expensive because it’s worth it kids…), and I said to her, “I’ll take those odds”.
I took her by the hand and told her I wanted to kiss her. I walked her to her car, and mustered the best kiss I knew how to give (I’ve studied the masters…) knowing that the next time I’d see her, I would be a free man.
And four days later, I was free.
Neither of us intended to jump right in, we both had work to do. But we could not help ourselves. I’d get comment after comment from friends and colleagues, “dude, I saw you and Joanna at the __________, you guys can’t keep your hands off each other…it’s so great”, something that for most couples abates as life sets in. It continued our entire relationship, even as the cancer slowly stole her womanhood.
I was so out of my league. So so out.
If you knew her, you know that she had a way of making you feel like it was all going to be ok, even when the shit was hitting the fan. There are many things I miss, but this one might be the one I miss the most. I miss her big ass laugh. I miss her concern for others. I miss her passion for things that mattered to her. I miss her wit. I miss her mothering skills. I miss her fucking my brains out (and visa versa). I miss her huge intellect (she was as good a strategic thinker as you would ever meet). I miss her tenacity. I miss sitting next to her. I miss her smell. I miss her loyalty to those who were important to her. I miss looking in her eyes and knowing it was all good.
I just miss her.
We started FLO in November of 2011, Magnolia Grace was born on December 1st, 2011, and on Dec 5th, Jo was given her death sentence. That day, we looked each other in the eye, and I said to her, “we are going to do this any way you want to do it…”, she replied “I want to fight.”
And fight she did. For nearly four years. All the fucking way to the end. She went down swinging. She had so much to live for…
The thing is, we both gave each other permission to be our authentic selves. And, we had each others back, no matter what. Even in death, I learned from her. If none of it matters, and simultaneously, it all matters, then why not try to do something meaningful? What’s stopping you?
During that four years, we both got a lot done professionally. For the first three and a half years, you would have almost not known she was sick. Maggie (our best startup ever!), Google, Listen to your Mother, Blue Chair, Surviorville, FLO, It’s Cancer Baby, Made In, the INK Building, EM2, Feed the Birds, the Magnolia Foundation, and a whole bunch of other shit got done. Jo was an amazing mother — her first priority — and now mine. She started writing, really writing. She started speaking, using her real voice. It moved (and thanks to the wonders of the web still moves) people around the world. From the outside, it must have looked pretty amazing. On the inside, it was.
Neither of us ever really thought she’d die. It’s funny, that denial is part of what allowed us to go so far, never thinking that this amazing ride could possibly end.
But end it did. From Mothers Day until her death, we were in the ER 12 times, the last time in the ICU for nearly two weeks. Joanna did everything she could to stay alive (the list of procedures is too long to list, but for giggles, Google “ommaya reservoir”), to be Maggie’s mom, to become an author, to have a true partner in marriage, to live the life she only recently understood was hers for the taking.
Right about here is where I give up on the writing. I don’t really know where to go from here. Forward seems like the only option.
When she died, I never published a traditional obituary. Hell, nothing about her life, or her death was traditional. She wanted it that way. Burial? Well, that’s part of the adventure she planned for me… Church service? You didn’t know her very well. Big ass frickin party with music? Hell to the yes.
I learned so much from Joanna. More than any other single thing, I learned how to love unconditionally, which she taught me by loving me that way first. She taught me to be as good a mother as I will ever be to my daughter. She also taught me that the voice in my head telling me I wasn’t worth anything was lying to me. And in allowing me to walk her to the door of death, she taught me to be unafraid, by example.
Joanna lives on, I see her every day in Magnolia Grace. She lives on in the memories of her beloved family, in me, and in the memories that any of you who have taken the time to read this far.
I will be ok. We will be ok. But never the same.
Rest Unicorn. Rest.