Three years ago today, my closest friend in the legal world, Sheryl Lapka, died after a very brave six year battle with ovarian cancer (see http://www.chicagonow.com/chicagos-real-law-blog/2010/12/how-to-fight-cancer/). You know how on the news when someone dies that their neighbors and family all talk about how great they were and you are thinking there is no way that all of these people could have been that great. Well Sheryl was that great and then some. Perhaps the most universally liked person I’ve ever known.
It wasn’t unexpected and we had our chance to say our goodbyes, but it was still stunning. She was the first friend I ever had that passed away and her death created a tremendous void for me and her co-workers.
I did a terrible job of making friends in law school because I had plenty of high school and college buddies around. I got along with most people, but Sheryl was certainly the only person that I became close enough to, to stay in touch with. We ended up working together for years at a big firm downtown, but even if we hadn’t done that, I have no doubt that our friendship would have endured. She and I saw the world the same way and beyond that she was just a ton of fun to hang out with. She was also someone who you knew had your back. It’s probably the best plutonic relationship I’ve ever had.
Her funeral was as sad as you can imagine. She left behind a great husband and a young son. She also left behind a family of co-workers that really cared about her and enjoyed being around her. Prior to her death I started my own firm and mostly worked remotely, but I rented an office in the firm where she worked. As a result I’d still walk by her old office after she passed away.
At first they left it vacant. I’d find myself walking in there to tell her something and then catch myself and remember she was gone. Then they stored some things in there. But eventually they were growing at such a rapid pace that her and my old firm needed the space and placed some poor young guy in her office.
While I admit this is totally immature, I don’t know his name, don’t care to know his name and have never introduced myself. I’m hardly ever there anymore, but every time I walk by his office and see him sitting at her desk it makes me cringe because in my mind, whoever he is, he’s not worthy to be in there. Totally unfair to him, but my opinion on that won’t change.
I hear updates from Sheryl’s mother and sister and occasionally e-mail with her husband. Everyone just has a huge void. 38 is way too young for the coolest person everyone knows to be gone. And the reality is that I’ll never have a female friendship like that again. We met at the start of law school at age 22 before I met my wife. It would be bizarre to develop that type of friendship in my 40’s and of course it’s not something I’m looking for as I have a great marriage.
I don’t know that I expected to get over losing a friend like this, but I’m happy that I haven’t. I’m happy that I still think to forward her an e-mail or ask her what she thinks about something totally trivial. I’m completely sad that she doesn’t know my kids and that I don’t really know hers. I miss her non-judgmental parenting advice.
Of course this is all just life. And life does go on. I helped raise money for ovarian cancer research and in my mind’s eye I thought that was something I could be passionate about and make a difference with. Perhaps it would become my life’s work. But the reality is that I have two kids whose lives take up all of my free time and I am running two companies. It’s pathetic, but I really haven’t done much of anything since that initial push to help another family avoid what Sheryl’s family went through.
The reality though is that I probably don’t have the skill set to be a successful fundraiser anyway. It would be a great way to honor my friend, but I’m not the right person for that job, at least not in a main role. So we honor Sheryl in other ways. My friends that I made from working with her and I toast her memory every time that we get together. We tell stories of her to new hires so they know how the foundation of her law firm was built. We’ve discussed taking her son out for dinner and drinks when he’s old enough to let him know how great his Mom really was. With my own children the way she lived her life to the fullest is a great example as is her illness an incredible lesson in courage and the fragility of life.
It’s weird though. I was extremely close with my grandmother who passed away soon before Sheryl and while I miss her tremendously, I can accept that she’s truly gone. With Sheryl though, I occasionally get an Andy Kaufmann type feeling that it’s all a hoax and I’ll learn that she’s just been on an extended scuba diving vacation with her husband and son. It’s totally irrational in some ways, but I still feel as if I should be able to call or e-mail her and get a response back. I guess that’s the sign of a true friendship and I’m just thankful to have the chance to develop a friendship like that. Similar to Kaufmann fans though, I REALLY wish it was true because this was someone who just can’t be replaced.
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