11 things to learn from Alyson Woloshyn’s remarkable life.
My best friend Alyson passed away last year after a courageous battle with brain cancer. We had known each other since we were thirteen. She understood me better than anyone and I miss her every single day.
A few months after she died, her brother Cameron, who was expecting his first child asked a group of us to write down memories of Alyson. He wanted his daughter Kayleigh to be able to read first hand stories and anecdotes of her amazing Aunt someday. While I immediately loved the idea, part of me wasn’t ready to say goodbye by putting thoughts down in writing. I wondered how could I ever do justice to this incredible person. Then I realized she would have loved this — the passing of quotes and knowledge for people to improve their lives. That was the epitome of Alyson, always giving back to others.
So sweet Kayleigh, some advice taken from your Aunt’s own words and my insight from our more than twenty years of friendship.
1. Enjoy every step of the journey.
“When I think about the ‘biggest change’ that has resulted this year, I immediately think about how proud and confident I am of the actions I choose to take day in and day out. ”
2. Be there, people remember.
Ever since I can remember, Alyson loved birthdays. Her birthday, your birthday, holidays, Christmas, Mondays, Tuesdays — she just reveled in any excuse to celebrate milestones. Perhaps it stems from her amazing parents,but she always made it a big deal. If there was a wedding or birthday or important celebration, Alyson was there and she’d bring a mixed tape to perfectly match the occasion. It used to drive me a bit crazy because I knew the time, cost of flights and presents stopped her from doing things for herself.
I was wrong. It matters.
We had a tradition of buying each other concert tickets for our birthdays. The shared experience of seeing Bjork, Depeche Mode, Fiona Apple, Garbage, Peter Gabriel live were some of our most memorable times together. It sounds simple when you say it out loud, but being physically or thoughtfully present is something people remember about you. If you really want to make an impact, let others know you care by being there.
“I choose to invest my time being ever learning, always optimistic and ensuring I always keep my word.”
3. Be naïve.
Many people throw around the words ‘positive attitude’ so often that it feels prescribed. It doesn’t take long to dig into Alyson’s story to see that she was an eternal optimist. She radiated that kind of energy and it showed in the words she chose to motivate herself and others. It’s a decision to live in fear. It’s a choice to be positive.
“ I believe what differentiates a naïve person from a gullible person is the way naïve people curiously look at their world and believe that the world is predominantly good. A naïve person’s glass is always half full, they instinctually give people the benefit of the doubt and they naturally respond to situations with trust rather than suspicion.”
4. Find a friend who wants to be unreasonable.
One of the most extraordinary parts of life is when you connect with likeminded people. A friend who challenges you to ‘think big’ or gives that nudge you need to believe in your dreams.
When Alyson and I were in high school, I can remember sitting in her basement one weekend plotting out logistics for a potential HIV/AIDS fundraising concert. Looking back, we didn’t consider it unreasonable for two 16 year-olds to pull off a massive 6,000-person event at the Kitchener Auditorium with performances from some of the biggest artists in Canada. Over the years, we left notebooks full of grand ideas like that fundraiser on the table. What I didn’t realize until recently is how profound it was to meet someone else at this age who thought making a difference was cool. I strongly believe we are the sum of the company we keep and I know I would have been a different person today if didn’t have friends like Alyson who supported me.
Alyson and Amanda surfing in Tofino. We described this as our Thelma and Louise week.
5. Put in more than you take out.
“Maintaining relationships takes consistent effort. It doesn’t have to be hard but it does have to be genuine. When you build a relationship purely motivated by what the other person can do for you, you lose sight of what you can personally gain by doing for that other person.”
6. Dance, sing and laugh like no one is watching.
When I close my eyes and think about Alyson I always picture the same three situations. Laughing hysterically on the sofa while watching some cheesy comedy, driving with the stereo on full blast singing along to a song on repeat or busting out moves with hands in the air on the dance floor. We shared a passion for music — although her love of karaoke and obsession with the eighties went a bit further than anything I’d ever admit to. She certainly wasn’t the best singer, dancer or film critic in the world, but she knew how to let go and enjoy it.
7. Be mindful of your health.
Alyson was a goal setter to almost an olympic level. I would be amiss to not mention her devotion to creating critical paths and it was reflected in her amazing accomplishments. It’s well established that when diagnosed with her terminal illness, she made a conscious decision to take her health into her own hands. She started reading books like Anti-Cancer, which explained how sugar and certain foods could have an impact. Her health and wellbeing became priority number one.
There is no doubt in my mind that Alyson extended her life immeasurably because she took control of what she put into her body and stayed active with things like yoga. She would be the first to admit that it took cancer to finally put into practice all of the resources she had learned throughout the years. We all have busy schedules and it’s easy to put your health on the back burner, but nothing is more important. It is something I’m personally trying to improve on thanks to her example.
8. Live every day with gratitude.
To sum up Alyson with a single word is easy — gratitude. She describes its importance better than I ever could in a 2009 blog post.
“I know that everything is going to be all right because I have everything that I need to ensure that I can make it through whatever life throws at me. I write about these gifts all the time and when I feel like there is nothing to be thankful for I reach for my journal and am reminded of the continued abundance I have in my life. My positive or optimistic attitude comes from my ability to be sincerely grateful for all I have been given.”
9. Aim to be a leader of leaders.
A mutual friend Jeff Saul once described Alyson as a “leader of leaders”. It was the first time I had ever heard it outlined this way. I think many of us have grown up with a top down approach of how a leader or manager should act. Before it was even topical, Alyson was clear about how she always wanted to work with the absolute best people. Never intimidated by the talents of others, I saw her constantly encourage her team to take on leadership responsibilities. Knowing instinctively that empowering others to achieve their goals would only have a positive impact on her own work.
10. Sometimes you have to just go with your heart.
“I love when people ask me what brought me to Calgary. I smile coyly and say, Love. Jared’s concept of choosing a place to have a life and then finding a way to make a living rather than just trying to make a life wherever you can find a job was a completely foreign but very refreshing concept to me. It is probably the first thing that made me fall in love with him and I still speak about how I admire his clarity of what is really important in life.”
Last line of Alyson’s letter that I found while unpacking.
11. Handwriting never goes out of style.
If you knew Alyson, there is a good chance you have received a personal card or letter. In her sprawling, angled signature handwriting, she always made a point of sending thank you letters. I have a whole box of our notes, cards and letters going back to junior high. People questioned why I felt compelled to keep these mementos throughout the years, but I am now so thankful I have those words.
During her final days at the hospice in May 2012, I was able to have time to express how much she meant to me, but there was one important thing I held back. I wanted to let her know that she is the one person I would have wanted to stand up for me at my wedding if that day came. I felt it was selfish to say this now and didn’t want to upset her knowing we’d never get to share that experience. I couldn’t remember if we ever talked about it and as silly as it sounds I left her room hoping she knew that’s how important I viewed our friendship.
I moved back to Canada recently and my boxes had been in storage for a couple of years. I was unpacking a box in my kitchen when amidst the bubble wrap and dishes I found a folded piece of lined paper with the words ‘Bye Bye Mandy’ written across in her unmistakable penmanship. My heart stopped. I couldn’t comprehend how the note had found its way into that particular box. When I finally had the courage to sit down and read it, all became clear. While there was no date, I recognized it as a letter she gave me in early 2003 when I was moving to London — but the sentiments could have been whispered that exact day. Her words were motivating, encouraging, comforting about what adventures lie ahead. Alyson reassured me that I was making the right decision and how proud she was of the person I had become. She ended the letter by saying, “I promise you that we will always be friends. You will be standing up for me and I better be up there for you when that magical day comes.”
She always knew. Somehow she managed to orchestrate the best way to put my mind at ease, in her own words.
Please consider contributing to the The Alyson Woloshyn Cancer Research Clinical Scholarship to advance brain cancer research.