Saying Goodbye to Tia

I met Tia the summer of 2001 when she was my MBA Internship boss at FBR, an investment bank in Arlington, VA. She was a brilliant investment banker and ate lawyers for breakfast. They called her the “Hammer” and everything I know about negotiations I learned from her. She had this way of disarming counter-parties, a way of communicating that always caught people off guard. She would quietly state the facts, somewhat avoiding eye contact and tapping her foot over crossed legs, and would then very calmly go in for the kill.

As much as Tia loved her career, she went on medical leave so that she could facilitate getting the only job she ever really wanted: becoming a mother. In the Fall of 2001 I returned to business school at Georgetown and she went back to work and I called her to ask if she could speak on a panel for the Graduate Women in Business Club. She said sure, but I’m pregnant and there are complications so I can’t commit to the date right now. “Wow”, I said, “I’m pregnant too! Wait, you’re having twins, too?”

For the next 16 years, we hardly made a decision -big or small- without consulting one another. We lived about a mile apart and were both on bed rest for much of our pregnancies. She gave me pep talks on how to finish business school, I listened to the intricacies of Emilie’s medical situation. We traded pregnancy and twins books and held each other up in post-9/11 Washington, DC; a scary place and time to have babies.

We would occasionally sneak out to one another’s house to escape the monotony of bed rest. Tia spent her days on an inflatable air mattress on top of the downstairs pullout couch of her house on Patrick Henry Drive. One time we snuck out to lunch, bored to tears of the 4 walls of our houses, and her neighbor caught us and yelled, “you’re supposed to be in bed! I’m telling your mother!” Another time we made Ghirardelli chocolate brownies from a mix and were so ravenous we couldn’t wait for the pan to cool to cut and eat them. Tia exclaimed, “I’ve never done this before!” What? You’ve NEVER eaten brownies from the pan? Passionate about wellness, Tia’s healthy diet and lifestyle could make the cover of SELF magazine.

On April 1st, 2002 I was feeling horrible and knew something was wrong. Tia encouraged me to call the OB/GYN and moments after I arrived to the office the doctor was yelling “get a bed, CODE BLUE these babies need to come NOW!” As they wheeled me to the OR I called Tia (scheduled for her c-section the next morning)- before I called even my own mother- and she exclaimed “WHAT??!! They can’t be born today, it’s April Fools Day, no one will believe you, it’s the WORST birthday ever.” She told me everything was going to be ok, and it was.

After a tough night in the hospital with my blood pressure soaring and the babies I had not yet met in the NICU, Rich called me and breathlessly said, “They’re here. Emilie is okay. William is reallllly long. Tia is fine.” I exhaled. Our twins were born 20 hours apart.

Those early days together were rough. Emilie’s health challenges, William’s refusal to eat. Never enough sleep. I don’t have a lot of memories of that time, sleep deprivation making a great amnesia. We shared a home health nurse, Jennifer Thompson, who would bounce between our houses weighing my little guys and reviewing their apnea monitor readouts and listening to Emilie’s chest and trying to figure out how to get William to take a bottle.

There were some early shared victories, like the time I called her to tell her that I took both babies to Safeway by myself. Others caused unintended tears, like when Tia dropped off some medication she’d picked up for me at the pharmacy and I screamed, “they did it! They slept through the night!” (in newborn land, that meant both babies slept through 1 feeding cycle, creating 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep). She bawled. “I will never. Ever. get there. Mine will never sleep through the night.” On my last visit to the Garners, I had to roust Emilie and William at 10AM. I am glad to say Tia was wrong about that one.

Those first 6 months as mothers we spent most of our days coordinating nap schedules so that we could push double strollers throughout the hills of Arlington, eager to get back to our active selves. The park between our houses had only two infant swings, we put our babies back to back push-me-pull-you style and talked food and sleep strategy. One time we bravely met at Roosevelt Island to push our strollers with rollerblades on the Mount Vernon trail. Even typing this now it sounds absolutely ridiculous, but our Type A personalities were eager to get back in shape, to get out in the world. Tia wiped out HARD but got back up, mopped up her bloody knees, and we roller-bladed back to our cars. We never did that again.

We went back to work on the very same day. Tia loved her career at FBR and was excited to be back in the game. I was starting a new job in management consulting. I snuck out of first day training and, in tears, said “Tia, I think I made a huge mistake coming back to work.” Gleefully she replied, “I’ve haven’t felt this much like me in a year.” Steeled with Tia’s confidence, I slumped back to the office and, as she promised, I eventually got into my groove.

The next year was a flurry of calls and texts as we learned to juggle work and family, managing a nanny, the role of grandparents in the children’s lives and honestly, a little bit of survival. I was the first among all of my college friends to have children and leaned on Tia hard. The twin experience is entirely different from having one at a time. In one of the few departures of mutual decisions, we added a third son to our family. It was like having a goldfish. Upon delivery Tia walked 6 blocks down to the hospital to meet him and brought me a thermos of warm prune juice. That’s the kind of friend she was. Thoughtful, practical, and not afraid to talk about bowel functions.

On her first business trip after Emilie’s second surgery Tia called me from cab stand at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. Leaning down to pick up her luggage she had been hit by a car. Rattled but not injured, she said “I think that’s a sign.” We agreed, she should stay home for a while.

Her first week into stay-at-home motherhood Tia called me at work in a panic, “I don’t have anything to wear.” She did that, calling without saying hello, just launching into whatever thought was at the forefront of her mind. “What do you mean, Tia?” “Like, what do you wear to stay at home with babies? I have a closet full of beautiful suits but I can’t wear these black LL Bean leggings every single day!” Anyone who has seen her beautiful, boutique-like walk-in closet on Westwind Road will have a hard time imagining that Tia once lived in Levis.

When Tia told me about the move to Louisville, I was so excited for a new chapter in their lives but so sad about the loss of so many traditions. The Santa visits. Halloween at Cox Farms. Back-to-back birthday parties. But if anything, our friendship strengthened through the miracle of the iPhone. Thank you, Steve Jobs, fellow pancreatic cancer warrior. The advent of face time meant Tia gave me tours of her house when she switched out her seasonal decorations and, no lie, I once held up a rash-covered baby Anderson so that she could help me diagnose his illness.

Over the last 6.5 years I visited alone, once with the twins, and caught up with her on every visit back “home” to Virginia. We’d often joke that we drank too much wine once the children went to bed (honestly, 1–2 glasses a night, not a problem) and when her stomach started hurting she cut it out all together. Rich finally said, “you don’t have a drinking problem, you have a stomach problem.”

When Rich called me on Halloween night to tell me the news was pretty much the worst thing possible, stage 4 pancreatic likely not operable, I wept in my neighbors’ daughters’ bedroom as the neighborhood party rang on. Rich’s voice choked, “I’m looking at the very likely scenario that I’m raising William and Emilie by myself.” It didn’t seem possible.

Tia ran fighting cancer like a Fortune 100 company. She hired the best people, led by example and set short- and long-term goals. She had high expectations and when you let her down, you heard about it. She motivated her team with gifts like the purple bracelets from Maine and brought baked goods to the nurses on almost every trip. She once had me write a letter of recommendation to the boss of the Target Pharmacist who regularly pulled prescription miracles because she thought it might get her a raise. It was that persistent toughness that allowed her to keep going when so many doctors said “there are no more options.”

All cancer is brutal, but pancreatic has a particularly insidious way of ruining what is left of your shortened life. The pain, the GI symptoms, the roller coaster of symptoms and medications. I have never known anyone as tough as Tia. Holding her hand during chemo in Louisville and St. Louis, bracing her while her lungs were painfully drained, pricking her fingers for blood sugar test, witnessing her strength . Sure, she had her moments, but she always kept going. As miserable as she felt she would get up, get dressed and get over to her chaise lounge and get out the Hungry Caterpillar notebook to start addressing her to-do lists.

And the energy? My GOD the energy of that woman. I flew to St. Louis to help her through a chemo treatment cycle and met her at the hospital. Afterwards, she wanted to go for a walk in Citygarden. “Nope, go back for the hand weights,” she said. No simple stroll post-chemo, we were going for a 3 mile power walk with hand weights. With every visit I got the patented Tia Garner eye roll when I fell asleep on the couch next to her at 9:30PM.

And I was truly blessed to get so much time with her. Tia was swarmed with family and friends, some of the biggest outpouring of support I’ve ever seen. But I think she liked having me there because we’re just alike, I knew how she liked things done. As much as I wanted to tell her no, Taskmaster Tia, the attic doesn’t need re-organizing again, I know that sense of calm and accomplishment gave her peace. She could relax at bedtime fingers-and-toes if everything was in order. She couldn’t control much, but she could make sure William’s bed was made.

On my last visit, I pocketed a few of those crossed-off to do lists. Her handwriting, an extension of that brilliant mind. The list showing exactly what she was concerned about: fresh flowers because she knew Richard liked them, orthodontist appointments for William for the next 18 months, ordering the final touches on Emilie’s redecorated “grown up” room, deer repellent in her much-beloved garden.

Those lists remind me of the Tia that made me who I am today. A better professional, a far better mother, and a stronger person. Because watching a woman I loved suffer that way broke me a little bit. But her strength, resilience and love showed me that life -while brutally cruel- is a precious thing. Channeling her toughness will give me confidence for the rest of my days.

And it’s already happening. The morning of her funeral as Ben and I walked back to the hotel from breakfast we witnessed a horrific crash when a car drifted lanes and caused another to hit a lamp post head-on. While wearing my purple Team Tia shirt I ran right to the car, pulled out the victim whose legs weren’t working and stayed with her until help arrived. The things that came out of my mouth in that moment were pure Tia, “it’s going to be a giant headache but you are going to be ok. You will walk again. Of course you aren’t going to be fired for being late to work, Taneesha, you were in an accident. Here, give me your phone.”

Emilie and William, I want you to know that your mom never, ever stopped fighting for you. She was miserable and in pain and out of options, but she never gave up. Even when I begged her to. Even when I suggested that maybe it’s time to face the music, to just let things go and spend her remaining days with really, really good drugs. She wouldn’t hear any of it. In fact, she hung up on me.

There will be a giant hole in your heart for a long, long time, but she will always be with you. That little voice in your head telling you not to buy those new shoes but to save the money instead, to make your bed, to study just 30 minutes longer for that test, to stand up for yourself, to take that trip, to read consumer reports for every purchase over $300, to ask for more money in your performance review, to not be afraid to help (or ask for help) when things get tough, to love unconditionally. That’s all your mom. And she loved you more than you will ever know.