Of Courage, Loss and Gratitude
On Dec 1st, .ORG, The Public Interest Registry experienced a significant loss. Our loss was not one of market share or service; it was one far more significant. We lost Christine Lee -- a precious and compassionate, friend, mother, wife and co-worker -- to breast cancer. I met Christine when I first started in July of 2007. She was the executive assistant and office manager for PIR. Chris greeted me on my first day with a warm smile, and proceeded to take me under her wing to ensure I met everyone and that I was settled in my new office with everything I needed to get started. I noticed on that first day that she had pictures of her family, including her beloved dogs, prominently displayed on her desk. I remember thinking that this was a woman who had her priorities right!
It wasn’t until almost 6 months later that I heard she was a breast cancer survivor, and had chosen to come back to work after what must have been a long and painful treatment. She never dwelt on it, but instead, on my first day, she stuck her head in my office to say that she wanted to be given more projects and more work. To sit idly by was simply not her style. As I got to know her better during the course of the first year, I grew to appreciate her refreshing attitude. In a culture of where it can become easy to use victimhood and blame, she stood out as she never wore her story of cancer as a badge nor did she feel she was a victim.
One day, a few months later, I noticed that she was wearing a compression glove on one hand. When I asked her about it, she said simply that given her treatment history, one of her hands would swell from time to time and though she wasn’t trying to emulate Michael Jackson, she had to wear it for relief.
I asked her to take on several projects, the first of which was the first .ORG event at the November 2007 ICANN meeting in Los Angeles, CA. The event was a cruise, complete with Hollywood impersonators and a red carpet to “premier” the new .ORG brand and the new PIR. By all accounts the event was a success, and she took such joy in a job well done. And when we finally left our cramped and crowded offices a month later, it was Christine who organized the build-out and the office move, and managed to get everyone settled in and working from day one.
Half-way into my tenure, she came into my office early one morning, and, as her eyes welled up with tears, she told me the news we all would dread to hear: “the cancer is back.” I was confounded and heartbroken as I attempted to reassure her that she would beat this disease again. I told her that she need not worry about her job responsibilities and that we would all pitch in to cover. As she went through the second set of grueling chemo and radiation treatment, she insisted on coming to work. The team here pitched in and supported her during this process. As Christmas 2008 approached her prognosis was much better. Although she was bearing the physical signs of radiation and chemotherapy, she continued her daily trip to the office. At that time, in the depth of the economic crisis, we decided that in lieu of another gift basket or a box of chocolates, we would opt for something more worthwhile. I asked Chris to place a few calls to see if we could adopt a needy family and fulfill their wishes. This was just the type of thing that she loved to do. Chris found an incredibly deserving single mom, with a serious illness, and her start student adolescent son. As she read me his Christmas wish list (which included “a winter coat for mom”) her eyes welled with tears. She secured all of the items from their list with the budget we had set. There was just one item she really wanted and for which she did not have the budget. The boy had asked for just one thing for himself – an Apple I-touch. It just so happened we had purchased a few as giveaways for registrars. She came to ask, or should I say claim, the last I-touch we had for him. It was her idea to invite them to our office to meet us and to pick up their gifts – all lovingly gift wrapped by her. One of my fondest memories of her is from that meeting. She took such joy in being able to make someone else’s holiday unforgettable. The last present given was the I-touch, and as he opened it and shrieked with delight, I looked across at Chris and saw her eyes well up again. She, more than anyone else, took such joy in the bringing of joy to others.
Towards the end of her treatment, I reassigned her to contracts and operations where she would be using some of her legal background and would have less stress and more reasonable hours than working for me. She loved that job and I fear she loved working for Michelle Coon more than working for a moving target like me. As she got better and her hair grew back, we all complimented her on her new look. She had a spring in her step and I could always hear her laughing or joking with the others as she went about her work.
The news hit all of us like a thunderbolt this September. She had been taken to the hospital with chest pains. We found out a few days later that it was a broken rib, weakened by the now returned and growing cancer. The news was a dark, descending cloud. When she came back to the office a few days later, we hugged her and told her she would beat it again, being the tough New Yorker that she was. She did not waver, and she insisted that she wanted to be in the office carrying on with her work. I know at least twice Michelle and Larry, as well as others, begged her to go home and rest, but being as stubborn as she was, it took all of us and her husband to convince her to take a few days off. In October 2009 - while awards and recognition for our team rolled in and PIR posted record growth - we also found out that she would not be coming back as her prognosis had gone from bad to worse. As we took pride in the challenges we had overcome, it was a struggle to accept those we could not win.
A few days before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to listen to a speech by the Apollo 13 Astronaut T. K. Mattingly. His recounting of the Apollo 13 mission was a story of teamwork against all odds to bring back the crew alive. It was an inspiring story about the impact even one individual can make, and the real meaning of teamwork.
As Thanksgiving approached, her family informed us that her time was not a matter of months but days. Faced with the unfair and heartbreaking news, we all grappled to find meaning in a holiday meant as a day of gratitude. I felt anger and helplessness. What could I possibly give thanks for when I questioned the fundamental fairness of it all? Why should she, a warm and caring wife, mother and co-worker, have to face cancer twice and lose?
Christine Lee passed away on December 1, 2009, surrounded by her loving family and friends at her home.
I feel fortunate to have known this incredible human being, who felt joy in making a difference for others, and who showed true dignity, courage and hope against insurmountable odds. I am grateful to have witnessed the true teamwork, love and compassion displayed by the team that surrounded her. This was not just a few co-workers sharing office space, but a compassionate set of individuals who took turns visiting her, bringing her home-cooked meals, books and even set up her laptop at home so she could continue to be in touch. I am grateful to have witnessed it all. And now I am grateful to have the chance to pass on her story and to encourage the fight against this disease which takes such a toll on so many around the world.
I ask you to join me in keeping her spirit alive by leaving your comments and memories about Christine Lee for her family and loved ones. I also ask that you support Harry Lee, her husband, in raising $25,000 for the Avon Breast Cancer Walk. Chris and her husband walked for, volunteered and raised money for this charity. You can donate via this link.
And lastly, please encourage your loved ones to get regular screening for breast cancer, with the hope that in the future we will not have to mourn another heartbreaking loss.