It’s been difficult for me to talk about Julia’s decline and death. For the last few months, I have felt simultaneously wrenched and yet also numb. Silenced. Muted. It’s been too much to process. Too much to feel. Julia was such a large presence in my life. When I look around at her home, at her business, at all the things she left behind, I still can’t believe that she’s gone.
We didn’t exactly get on right away, Julia and I. When I first met her back in the year 1990, she was aloof, suspicious, and distrustful. I had just started dating her son and she wasn’t inclined to like me. I can still remember how she looked then. The skin on her face still had a dark-ish tinge about the sides, and she looked tired. She hadn’t yet learned how to heal herself, and so her demeanour was bitter and weary. When I said ‘hello’, she looked down at the ground and self-consciously patted her hair into place. I wondered how I, a young 20 year old girl, could possibly make her nervous.
As I look back now, I don’t think I made her nervous at all. Those gestures were merely a way for Julia to examine me more closely without appearing too obvious about it. In truth, she had most likely already made a judgment about me. Julia lived her life by following her gut instincts, and she trusted those explicitly. If she got a negative feeling about you, from something you said or did, that feeling would be exceptionally hard to shift. I don’t think I passed her test on that first day we met, but somehow, over the next three years, I did.
I knew that I had passed her test because, suddenly, out of the blue, she asked me to come help her at her health food store. She didn’t have to do that. By that time, I had been married to her son for almost a year and had just graduated from university. I was looking for work, and Julia said she could use some help. We figured we could help each other out. And so our humble journey together began.
If you worked for Julia at that time, you couldn’t help but respect her. Deep respect. Customers would come for miles to get her advice, and this was before she started selling her own Chinese herbal tinctures. They would ask her advice about which supplements to take, which foods to eat, which foods not to eat. She spoke with such intelligence and knowledge. I was in awe of her. One night, I sat at the dinner table with her, long after everyone else had left, and listened to her personal story. She was incredible. So smart, and yet so humble. A vulnerable little bird who hadn’t yet come into her power. I will always remember that special time.
In the years that followed, Julia and I worked more closely together. I became her right-hand man. I helped her manufacture her products. I answered email for her for years. We consulted with one another about her customers late at night, bouncing ideas off of one another. But make no mistake, it was always Julia who was in charge. It was she who made the decisions, and they were usually bang on.
And so it was very difficult for me, for all of us, when Julia began to decline. When her decisions stopped making sense. She would forget things, and Julia never forgot things. She, who had always been so sharp, began to do and say things that were definitely off. She forgot the names of common objects. She couldn’t tell what time of day it was. Long-time customers that had come to see her for years were suddenly forgotten. We would confer with one another. Is this normal? Should we be concerned?
It turns out, we needed to be concerned. The last five or six years have been tumultuous, to say the least. For, even as her memory slip-ups and judgment errors increased in number and severity, Julia never would accept that she had a problem. Up until the very end, she still believed that she was fully in control of herself. That she alone knew all the answers. She’d been deeply independent and distrustful of other people her entire life, so when we tried to place limits on her freedom, she could only ever see it as a personal attack. It was a very painful and difficult time.
Even when she was finally confined to a nursing home, she found a way to stay in charge. In her own mind, she was still going to work each day, and doing important things. She would tell the other patients that they needed to cleanse their liver. She would continually harass them for payment. “Where is your receipt?” she would demand. It was kind of funny, but it was also incredibly sad.
We finally lost Julia this past February. Although, in truth, we had already lost her years before. During our last visits with her in the nursing home, before the pandemic, I would watch her face, ask her questions. It was difficult to get her to sit still. She continued to believe she had work to do. That she was far too busy to sit and talk. And then, when the pandemic happened, visiting with her became almost impossible. During her last weeks, we had to watch her slowly decline over Zoom calls. She had lost the ability to swallow, and just withered away.
I feel privileged to have known, and been close to, such an incredible woman. I learned so much from her over the years. Many of her thousands of customers have told me the same. She inspired people. She changed lives. There are many pictures of her around our house, so I still ‘see’ her every day. I think of her often. I know that I will never forget her. She has left her mark on me, so she now comes along with me wherever I go, living through my eyes, and feeling through my heart.
If it is at all possible, I know she’s still having an impact, wherever she is. That’s just the kind of person that Julia was. Original. Exceptional. Unforgettable. I hope you rest peacefully, Julia.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Waterloo, and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.