Staring Death in the Face, With a Smile

I’ve spent my life as a bartender, a restaurant owner, a reporter, and a basketball coach. This means I meet a lot of people, and it means I’ve been lucky enough to call a lot of people my friend.

It also means I have to say goodbye to a lot of them.

On Nov. 26, 2012 Julie Kroll, who had been battling an aggressive form of brain cancer for over a year, passed away in her home. Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

This morning I saw an obituary for Julie Kroll, 59, of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. I didn’t know her well – I only met her once – but seeing her face in the sidebar of the morning newsletter from back home took me back. Last year one of my reporters wrote a feature about her battle with brain cancer, a battle she knew she would lose.

I drove down to visit Julie at her sparsely decorated home a couple blocks from the shipping canal on a gray afternoon to snap a few photos of her for the article. I ended up staying for about an hour.

Julie knew she was going to die, yet she was remarkably positive about her fate.

“I’ve had almost 60 years,” she said to me. “That’s not so bad. And they’ve been good years. A lot of people don’t get that.”

When you work as the editor for a paper in a small town, you can get immune to news, to tragedy. Unfortunately, I wrote a lot of stories about people battling terrible diseases. After a while, I found myself discarding the requests for a story a little half-heartedly.

“How many cancer stories can we do?” I thought. “Do the readers really need another one?”

It’s an awful thing to think, and I admit that it crossed my mind with Julie. Even after we did the story, I wasn’t looking forward to heading down to take the photos. But I never regretted the stories after we wrote them. The true nature of a person is exposed when they take on their greatest challenge. That’s when you find out what they’re fully capable of as human beings.

I’m glad I had to take the photos of Julie, glad I got a glimpse of what kind of person she was, and to spend some time with a person staring death in the face, with a smile.

Click here to read Jen Zettel’s article “Kroll Battles Cancer with Positivity.”