• Julia Sylla

For the love of Lesley: why I volunteer for the American Cancer Society Guenevere Millius

On January 12, a Facebook notice popped up in my phone: “Today is Lesley Poirier’s birthday.”

Indeed, it is, I thought.

I met Lesley at work. She took over as the community outreach manager at South Waterfront Community Relations, one of my marketing clients.

I did some research on her before we first met. It would be easy to be intimidated by Lesley at first glance. She was tall and striking, and she was literally a rock star. Before coming to Portland, she was a fixture in the San Francisco indie rock scene. She toured with Third Eye Blind, opened for Duran Duran, and auditioned for Hole.


Beautiful Lesley, in her Glitter Mini 9 days.

But from our first meeting, she was gracious and kind, and we hit it off quickly. I look back over our email correspondence, and I’m amazed at how, over a matter of just a couple of years, we got to know each other so well. Over time, we covered a lot of important territory: our childhoods and families, marriage, raising kids, finding one’s own way through balancing motherhood and careers, gender and power in the workplace, music, art, jealousy…we felt comfortable telling each other some pretty raw things. We swapped war stories, puns, and our daily foibles. Lesley loved art, especially the performing arts, and she was enthusiastic about people pursuing their art in a genuine way that ran completely contrary to the “too cool for school” rock star stereotype. She laughed at my stupid jokes. We made each others days go better.

Lesley, the mother of a precocious little boy, was particularly excited when I told her I was expecting my first child. She was one of the few people with whom I shared our top secret list of names. When I mused in an email about what it would be like to finally meet my son, she sent a short reply: “Imagine the most beautiful person in the world, and you just want to be their slave.”

Lesley was out of town for my baby shower. We sent her the mass email about baby’s arrival, and the congratulations poured in – but we didn’t hear from Lesley. A few weeks later, a gift from her and her family showed up on our porch with the briefest of notes. “Weird,” I thought, and tried not to read too much into it.

And then, while I was still on maternity leave, the word came from work. Lesley had been out sick for a long time, and my colleague asked delicately if she had more than a cold, and the chilling answer came back: on the day my son was born, Lesley was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.

The following year was a blur of sleeplessness, maternal mood swings, and trying to find my feet again at work. Lesley worked through treatment, and we stayed in touch by email, but the phone calls and jokey exchanges disappeared, in part because I had no map for how to talk to her about her cancer. I knew things were grim, but had no sense of just how numbered her days were.

And then one day the email came: “In memoriam: Lesley Poirier.” I was at my desk at work. I yelled at my computer. In the kind of awful symmetries you can’t make up, she died on my son’s first birthday, exactly a year from her diagnosis. Her burial coincided with her ninth wedding anniversary.

Looking at my cell phone on Lesley’s birthday, I checked my calendar for that day, and by pure coincidence, I was attending a planning meeting for the Portland Hope Ball with my fellow volunteers at the American Cancer Society. I give a lot of time to this event. I was first asked to volunteer as their marketing committee chair six months after Lesley’s passing, and I simply couldn’t say no. The hours I pour in will never match those stolen from Lesley or her family, but maybe this time spent to raise money will one day transform and multiply into many hours saved and lives spared for all the future Lesley’s out there. It’s the best I can hope for.

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Parachute's design for this year's Portland Hope Ball logo lock up.

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