WiLab Loves: I Fell In Love With A Dying Woman
Note from the Founders: This is a tribute to Carly Hughes, a dear friend of ours, who we were able to work with and build an unforgettable friendship with in her last few months of a beautiful life. Carly was nothing but a fighter and brought light to all those around her. We miss and love Carly everyday. Learn more about her story and how she continues to make a positive impact through her foundation Carly’s Kids – A Foundation for Education.
“How do you describe to anyone how much a four-month relationship fundamentally changed you as a person?”
Mike Hughes fell in love with Carly four months before she died. Carly Hughes (they have the same last name) was just 23 when she was diagnosed with gastric-esophageal cancer. Mike, Carly’s friend from college, came to visit her in the hospital. Those visits turned into all-night talks, a budding romance, and plans for the future.
When Carly passed away Feb. 17, 2013, Mike and Carly’s mother, Irene Vouvalides, channeled their grief into a charity in Carly’s honor. Carly’s Kids Foundation benefits Holy Family School, a disadvantaged elementary school in Mississippi that Carly visited twice while she was studying education at Boston College. The foundation also raises money for digestive cancer research.
Mike shares his story about the joys of irrational love, learning to live with loss, and the importance of keeping Carly’s memory alive.
When I first met Carly our freshman year at Boston College, I was a little bit afraid of her. Carly has always had a really strong personality. She is energetic, smart, beautiful, and she knew what she wanted — and pretty much always got what she wanted. I was still really shy at the time. We dated for about two weeks, but she ended up being too much for me.
But we remained good friends and hung out all the time. We became closer during our junior year. Her parents recently got divorced, and mine had just separated. We talked a lot about what we were going through. We could be sad, angry, and honest about everything because it was a shared experience.
During the summer before our junior year, Carly went on a service trip to Mississippi to volunteer at Holy Family School, which is the oldest African-American Catholic school in the United States. It was the type of school that didn’t have a playground, new books, or even basic supplies. Carly fell in love with the students there, and she convinced me to return with her the following summer. It was one of the many times Carly would be responsible for opening my eyes to new things. I grew up in a bubble in Westchester, New York. Going down there to see kids with so little who are so smart and eager to learn was an amazing experience.
After graduation, I moved to New York City and Carly stayed in Boston. We kept in touch like friends do — Facebook, texts, phone calls. She called me when she came home from a family trip to Hawaii in July 2012. She was coming into New York City for a work trip and to visit a vascular surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center who was going to check out her legs, which had been cramping. She wanted to meet up after the doctor’s appointment and grab coffee or something.
Later, I got a call from her mother, Irene, that she was going into surgery. They found blood clots in her ankles, and they had traveled to her lungs. Carly ended up having multiple surgeries to remove the clots. And then they found a tumor.
Her mother found out first, and she called me and our friend Mark to tell us it was cancer. I left work immediately to come to the hospital. Irene wanted us to be there when Carly found out so she’d have as much support as possible. It was a Friday night, two days before Carly’s 24th birthday.
I went to every doctor’s appointment that I could, and I spent a lot of time at her mother’s house in New Jersey, where she was then living. Seeing Carly quickly became the thing I looked forward to most every day.
After a few weeks, our friendship started to feel different. We went to dinner and a movie, and there was a vibe in the air the whole night. We were kind of moving away from the friendship into something else, and we ended up kissing that night.
There’s no rational way to convince yourself that starting a relationship with someone who was just diagnosed with cancer is a good idea. I knew it was crazy. This was the same girl who terrified me freshman year of college with her confidence, brains, and beauty. But now those traits drew me to her. What made it easier was that it was hard to tell that Carly was really sick. She was always bubbly, energetic, and positive.
We decided to see where things would go, but Carly established a rule right away: “We aren’t allowed to fall in love until I am back in Boston and have beaten this stupid disease. Things can’t get too serious before then.” She felt like her life was on hold. I was worried about being a distraction. I wanted her to be focused solely on fighting the cancer.
We tried to take it slow, but we were spending more and more time together. It didn’t take long for the walls that we had built around us to come down. We were already friends so we skipped all those awkward first-date conversations and talked about the intimate details of our lives. I remember one night we were going to see a movie in New Jersey. The first theater was closed. Then we drove to a second one, and the movie was sold out. Then we drove to theater in a mall across town. We were driving and talking for more than an hour. I just started laughing. It was no use. We were in it.