It was Grade 2 and my first day at a new school in a different province. To help ease the transition, my mom had packed me a special lunch. A bag of chips (a rare treat) and a thermos of chocolate milk (rarer still).
At lunch time, I found a quiet corner of the schoolyard where I could sit alone with my new blue Holly Hobbie lunch box. Opening it, I looked up and saw three boys running towards me. Laughing, they swooped in, peeked into my lunch box, and grabbed the chips.
One of them opened my thermos and dumped out the chocolate milk. Another threw the lunch box back at my feet and ran off, leaving me with an apple and my sandwich that had tumbled to the ground.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl I recognized from my class. She was slowly but steadily approaching me from the other end of the schoolyard where she’d been sitting alone on a small grassy strip under the shade of a tree. She invited me to join her.
The other kids picked on her a lot, she said. Born with a rare heart condition, she couldn’t participate in gym class or sports. She couldn’t run, walk fast, or even play tag. She was very pale, her lips a purplish blue, and was frequently a target of cruel taunts.
To me, she was the most interesting and intelligent child I’d encountered up to that point in my life. She started sewing at the age of four and made her own dresses. She was also a gifted artist with a wicked sense of humour and a gentle soul.
We became immediate best friends and had a lifelong friendship that endured until she died in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
Her name was Katjana Biljan-Laporte (many of us called her Kat) and she was one of the most remarkable people I’ve had the fortune to know.
In palliative care twice
As an adult I learned that initially, Kat wasn’t expected to live past the age of nine. Then it was 16, then 21, then “maybe 30.” She was told she wouldn’t see 40. Yet two months ago she celebrated her 50th — and final — birthday.
Kat also experienced palliative care twice.
It’s not often a palliative care nurse gets to tend to the same patient 10 years later. But if anyone was going to provide that experience, it was Kat. When her 2023 palliative care nurse came to her home, (“Hey, you look familiar”), they realized it was the same nurse who had helped her a decade ago.
That first time Kat was palliative was in 2013. She’d been given six to 12 months to live. In June of that year, I found myself Ottawa-bound to say goodbye to my oldest childhood friend. Despite being dependent on an oxygen machine, her feisty personality was still on full display.
We spent a wonderful week reminiscing, story telling, talking about life and death, and laughing. So much laughing.
Among my many fond memories of that visit, I remember her insistence that our phones be put away so we could “be in the present.” What a gift that was.
That week, despite deep conversations about her imminent death, we avoided anything that even faintly hinted at a final goodbye.
So in the last 15 minutes before my departure, certain we weren’t ever going to see each other again, the tears flowed. We both shared how important our decades-long friendship had been.
I told her how her strength, drive, fierce spirit, and passionate desire to make the world a better place had always been an inspiration. She told me that I’d had an impact on her, too.
“When you moved away after Grade 6, that was my first experience with grief and loss. You were my first friend, my best friend. You treated me with kindness,” Kat told me, tears streaming down her face to match mine.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but whenever I was struggling in junior high and high school, what got me through was thinking about how you used to always cheer me up by sitting at the foot of your bed. You’d use your hairbrush as a microphone and you’d sing Corey Hart’s Never Surrender to me. And I was determined to never surrender. You have no idea how important that was.”
I often tell my sons that we can never know the impact our words and actions can have on others, both good and bad. I didn’t remember conducting those regular Corey Hart serenades, but am I ever glad I did.
‘Gifted with new hope’
However, that wasn’t meant to be our final goodbye. Kat’s doggedness, determination, and questioning of everything (as she did throughout her life) once again paid off.
In November of 2013 she travelled from her home in Ottawa to Toronto, where she received two heart implants. They couldn’t fix her birth defects, but the procedure gave her more time.
On December 31, 2013, she wrote to her friends:
“Wishing you a safe NYE tonight. Whatever you do, cherish your time (even if you choose sleep!). This year has been quite the “adventure” for me, from celebrating what was believed to be my last NYE in hospital last year to being gifted with new hope this year.”
In early 2015, Kat endured a complex and lengthy tissue implant surgery at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre in Toronto. Surgeons fixed a hole in her heart, and while the road to recovery wasn’t easy, she would eventually be able to travel abroad and even walk marathons.
She came to spend some time with me in Nova Scotia in October of 2015. What a wonderful reunion that was. We walked, we talked, we laughed. There were no tears this time. Just joy.
We both had an affinity for trees. Over the years she’d share photos of trees she encountered in her travels. I’d send her sunset tree photos taken on my hikes. We regularly forwarded tree-related videos and articles to each other.
When I found myself dealing with a difficult life event in early 2016, Kat randomly sent me a gift that arrived on a particularly hard day. Along with a box that held a tree ring identical to one she wore, she’d included a handmade card on which she’d drawn a tree.
“Like the trees we both love, people can be strong, stand tall, and bend with the wind without breaking,” she wrote.
I tacked that card to my cubicle wall where it remained as a useful reminder for years. I only took it down when the office closed.
With good reason, she also had a lifelong affinity with turtles.
“The ever-lasting and slow pace of the turtle has been an animal and symbol that has spoken to me since childhood,” Kat once wrote.
“Growing up with a chronic illness meant that I could never run like the other kids but I knew that I could still keep up with life. After all, as the tale goes: the turtle eventually beats the hare anyway.”
‘Present-moment becomes the most important’
In August of 2017, Kat shared the following with her friends:
“There’s such a different mentality when you are told you’re not going to live: you don’t think about a pension (I have no life savings), you don’t think about getting older, I get excited for every white hair (it’s still weird). The present-moment becomes the most important thing.”
But last year, her heart began to fail. After all avenues had been exhausted, Kat was running out of time. Never one to shy away from sharing details about her death journey, she often wrote about her experiences on social media for her circle of friends.
Last June she asked:
The afternoon of Feb. 12 of this year, Kat messaged me.
“Have time for a phone call? Not that it’s a rush, but today? I’d rather you hear this from me than read a Facebook status that’s coming.”
When she called, the first thing she said was “Things are happening fast and I’m afraid I won’t be able to call you on your birthday in May this year.” This was something she did every year, and I always looked forward to it.
That February call lasted well over an hour. Kat talked about how she wanted to die at home, on her couch with her two cats (her heart and soul), and with her sewing machine (her joy) nearby.
Death journey taught me about life
Unfortunately, Kat lost a few friends during her death journey. She wasn’t resentful, just sad and matter of fact. She shared with me that some people are too uncomfortable with death, unable to confront it because that meant considering their own mortality. The fact that her death was quickly approaching, and that she was so open about it, was too difficult for some to handle.
But by so openly sharing her death journey, Kat has taught me so much about life.
Her death leaves a huge hole in my heart. In the now-deleted blog that chronicled her experiences living with a chronic illness, Kat wrote that while her story was intimate and personal, she had nothing to hide.
“I would rather people know me for and from my heart than not at all,” she wrote.
There is no way I can possibly paint a beautiful enough picture with words to encapsulate everything that she was and what she meant to so many people. In addition to many other things, she was also an active and passionate ally of the 2SLGBTQ+ and Indigenous communities. I can only hope to provide a tiny glimpse into the amazing human she was.
Sadly, her hope of dying at home wasn’t to be. She had no choice but to spend her final days in a palliative care unit in Ottawa. She died at 4:15am ADT on Tuesday.
‘We only have the present’
Kat referred to her career as a “helping journey,” and she had a positive impact on many lives. She started out as a professional visual artist delivering expressive arts groups and workshops to people with physical disabilities and mental health issues.
A registered psychotherapist, she found herself working part time on a crisis line during the pandemic. She heard firsthand the struggles people faced: increased addiction, loneliness, suicidal ideation. I can’t think of a better person to help guide others through difficult times. It’s something she did with empathy and awareness even for me as a friend.
Deleted in the months before her death, the website that once hosted information about her private practice noted how being faced with a terminal illness in 2013 had changed her life.
“The in-between life-death-life time strengthened the gifts I learned from mindfulness, journeys inward, and survival: we only have the present,” Kat wrote.
“After a year of overcoming my terminal illness, it never phases me when I say “When I was palliative”… This profound experience has changed how I see trauma, growth, recovery and therapy.”
Kat and I had talked about me someday guiding her in the writing and editing of a book chronicling her life story. I’m so sad that this never happened.
‘I’ve done my job’
Because Kat was such a private person, I asked her wife for her thoughts before writing and sharing this story. She assured me Kat would have welcomed the chance to encourage others to meaningfully reflect on their own mortality.
This was one of her final wishes. To make people think about death and what we need to do before it comes. Following a procedure in the hospital last summer, she wrote:
Similarly, she wrote in February:
In the months before she died, Kat urged friends to drop by to take her belongings. Jewellry, books, movies, dishes, and more. Her approach always touched my heart.
Around this time, Kat asked for my address, telling me she’d set something aside for me.
A week later, a very well wrapped package (thanks Lucie!) arrived. Inside was a beautiful three-tiered dish. The plates were in the shape of leaves, the centre stem a pewter branch. Before I even saw the handmade card, I told my soon-to-be husband that this dish would be perfect to use for our wedding cupcakes.
Then I opened the card and tears filled my eyes. Kat had written that this dish was extra special because she and her wife had used it for the cupcakes served at their wedding. I called and assured her that while I knew she couldn’t attend my fall wedding (I sent her an invitation), she would be in my heart and her gift would be front and centre.
Late last Wednesday night I found myself in tears as three 30-second videos appeared in my inbox. Propped up on pillows in the hospice bed where she was dying, a knitted cap on her head and barely able to keep her eyes open, Kat wanted to say a final goodbye.
I don’t even know where to start with you. Grade 2. I probably shared this before but this is how important this is. Elementary school I was teased a lot and you were, you were my friend. And that was awesome. This is so important. What’s important was how you were very kind to me.
My best friend for four years. And just your sweetness. I’ll never forget that. Yvette, I love you. I’ve loved you since way back then. I’d always think about you because you were nice to me while others were mean and making fun. Know that you had a really big impact in my life. This video isn’t long enough for me to be able to give everything, so just know that, OK? So you take care.
Despite finding it difficult to type due to her pain, she followed this up with a written message, apologizing for not being great at making videos. In part, it said:
“You’ve impacted my life and treated me with kindness, respect, and offered such a friendship that I didn’t know was possible when I was being bullied. I love you. Never surrender!”
Time to sing
That ‘never surrender’ was, of course, a nod to 12-year-old me singing into my hairbrush. Those words that had often given her strength had become something we occasionally said to each other in the years after she was first palliative.
So that’s how I found myself sitting on my bed in the wee hours of Thursday morning, hairbrush in hand, Corey Hart’s Never Surrender on my laptop waiting for me to hit play so I could record it on my phone.
As the music started and before the lyrics kicked in, I smiled into the camera in a way I figure I might have at age 12. “Memories? The old hairbrush?” I said, wiggling the brush in front of my face.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve sung this song. Or any song. For anyone. Publicly. Outside of the shower.”
And then it begins:
Just a little more time is all we’re asking for
‘Cause just a little more time could open closing doors
Just a little uncertainty can bring you down
And nobody wants to know you now
And nobody wants to show you how
So if you’re lost and on your own
You can never surrender
And if your path won’t lead you home
You can never surrender
And when the night is cold and dark
You can see, you can see light
‘Cause no one can take away your right
To fight and to never surrender
Kat was still awake, because not even 10 minutes later I had a voice message from her. My final gift and the memories and love behind it had brought her to tears. She said:
What a gift, Yvette. I’m crying in my soul. It’s so beautiful. Thank you for doing this. For being vulnerable with your voice. You brought me to tears. I don’t have words. I’m just so grateful for that. Thank you.
And I’m going out and I’m never surrendering, even though I’m accepting a med to help ease the transition. My soul feels it’s the right thing to do and it’s not a surrender. Period. But as far as this video is concerned, this is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve had. What a gift. Thank you.
This was the last time I’d ever hear her sweet voice and know she was still alive. There doesn’t seem to be any appropriate way to end this tribute to a beautiful human who inspired me every day.
But I’ll share something she posted back in November of 2013 after she learned she’d have a bit more time after all. I saved this then, shared it several times over the years, and went back to it often as a reminder to live life more like Kat.
May we all live life in the present. Take time away from our phones. Care about others. Help those who are in need. Fight against injustice. Ensure our families know our wishes before our own time is up. All of these things Kat did, and more.
I love you, Kat. Never surrender.