My friend Carly passed away ten years ago Friday. This is how she lived.
Our lives are shaped by those around us. Family. Friends. Coworkers. Strangers. Everyone leaves an impact, no matter how small. Some people lead us astray; others direct us towards our chosen path. Most people we forget; some we remember in vivid detail long after they’re gone.
Aside from my immediate family, there is no one who has impacted the course of my life like Carly Hughes. Carly was a coworker and a friend. But she was so much more than that. She was a blond-haired bundle of energy. She was a prankster who always knew how to make me laugh when I was feeling down. She was also wise beyond her 24 years.
This Friday, February 17th marks the ten-year anniversary of Carly’s passing from a rare form of gastric cancer. Even after all this time, to write about her in the past tense seems strange. In my mind and in my heart, she is still very much alive.
When I started this site, I knew that I would need to acknowledge this day in some form. This week, I am going to take a break from my regular newsletter to tell you about Carly.
This is a tall order - words are limited and finite, making it hard to describe someone who was always moving, always talking, always living.
Perhaps, by sharing a few stories about Carly, I can come close.
Carly was my coworker from 2011-2013 at Visible Measures, an online video analytics company headquartered in downtown Boston. Carly and I were campaign analysts, paid to watch brand advertising videos, track their performance on various websites, and provide reporting metrics to our clients, which were usually media agencies working on behalf of large consumer brands. It was mundane work, but it was always fun to see the reaction on people’s faces when we said that we get paid to watch YouTube.
The analyst team was composed of four to six analysts, all younger than 25, and our boss, Timna, a couple years older. It was the perfect early career job in the sense that we were given every opportunity to acquire new skills, present our reporting to clients, and move up within the organization. We worked long hours, for low pay, but the company was so small - maybe 150 employees at its peak - that we were always able to see the fruits of our efforts. It was a rewarding feeling.
I started at Visible Measures in April 2011 as a 24-year-old. Carly, 22, joined two months later, after graduating from Boston College (BC).
Funny story about Carly’s interview.
It was my third week at Visible Measures when I learned that I would be a part of the interview team for the new campaign analyst position. I was still getting up to speed, learning how to categorize videos using our proprietary tracking software. I saw the meeting invite and panicked; I had never interviewed anyone before. I reluctantly tagged along with Adam and Colleen, the two other analysts, reciting over and over what question I wanted to ask. I remembered thinking that I was probably more nervous than this Carly Hughes we were interviewing.
When we entered the conference room, Carly stood up and shook our hands. She was wearing a gray business suit, with straight blond hair that glowed in the late afternoon sunlight pouring through the window. I could see that she was full of energy and quiet confidence. There was no question that I was the most nervous person in the room.
The interview itself went fine - she was more than qualified for the job. When it came time for me to ask my question, I inquired about her time at BC, which was really more of a personality-type question than understanding her skills. It was the best I could come up with on short notice. She said she had a great time at the school but was ready to enter the real world.
Then Carly turned the tables on me. “So, what do you do at Visible Measures?”
I looked at Adam and Colleen. I had no idea what to say because I still had no idea what I was doing besides watching YouTube. Would that be enough of an answer? I started to panic and mumbled something incoherent.
“I uh…I watch videos, and track them using our…using our…technology system…thing.” Smooth.
Adam and Colleen turned red, trying unsuccessfully to stifle their laughter. Carly smiled too, once she realized what was going on.
“Chris is still new to the company,” said Adam. “He still doesn’t even realize we can wear jeans.” I looked down at my khaki pants and the green argyle sweater I was wearing. Suddenly I realized why I always felt overdressed.
Carly burst out laughing. “Oh man. You don’t see argyle everyday.”
I was embarrassed, but I also knew she would be a perfect fit on our team. She accepted the job offer a few days later.
Carly got up to speed on the job much faster than I did. She was effortlessly smart. A math major at BC, she could make calculations in her mind with minimal effort, which was helpful when calculating complex data metrics for hours on end.
Carly sat two desks away from me, with our boss Timna in between. At first, we didn’t communicate too often, as Colleen trained her on the ins and outs of being an analyst. But over time, we started working together on client projects, and on the miscellaneous data requests we needed to fulfill on a weekly basis. Gradually, I experienced her full personality. She was energetic. Witty. Outgoing. Collaborative. Caring. Selfless.
Carly loved to talk. Often while working side by side she would turn her monitor and show me a ridiculous video that came up in her search results. “These people talk about Twilight endlessly. They upload videos and just ramble on and on about what they think might happen based on a thirty-second trailer. It’s absurd.” (Imagine if she saw TikTok.)
On Monday mornings, Carly would recap her weekend adventures. She had a mix of friends from back home in New Jersey and from BC. She would recreate events in great detail, how they would go out and have fun, until someone would inevitably get thrown out of the bar. Or how they would play pranks on one another, like the time when Carly fell asleep on her couch and her friend stuck her hand in a jar of peanut butter.
“What?” I said when I heard that. “There’s no way that happened. Come on.”
“Why would I lie about putting my hand in a jar of peanut butter? Who does that? Of course it happened.”
Every time Carly offered her unsolicited opinions about work, or shared the events of her weekend, she held a captive audience. She was a fantastic storyteller who knew how to draw people into her orbit. She was the anti-Debbie Downer - you always walked away with a smile. For the longest time, I was certain she wasn’t capable of a serious conversation.
Occasionally, we would go get coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts a couple blocks away from the office. Every time, Carly would order the largest iced coffee they had, and by the time we made it to the elevator in our building, her cup was empty.
The first time I noticed this, I was awestruck.
“Carly, did you just…drink that?”
“No, you’re crazy. It’s because you’re slow. Why aren’t you drinking yours?”
“I just got it five minutes ago. I’ve only had the chance to take a few sips.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
Her caffeine tolerance was off the charts. I think this partially explained why she had so much energy all the time. But then again, I am also convinced that even without coffee she would be bouncing off the walls, high on life.
Carly was a prankster. And I was an easy target.
If you know me, you know that I am usually very serious looking. My default is somewhere between stone-faced and Grumpy Cat. For Carly, who was easygoing but with a mischievous streak, it became her purpose to get me to break character and smile. At first, she didn’t know about my muscle disease (limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2B) since on the outside I didn’t look like I had any visible symptoms, even though I could feel my body deteriorating each day. The disease weighed on me constantly, and made it hard to feel optimistic about my future.
Once she found out about my condition, it only motivated her even more to brighten my day. Like a little sister, however, she also knew how to press my buttons.
Perhaps her greatest prank was the day when I came into the office and found all my belongings on the desk in front of mine, arranged exactly like my former desk. The notepad on the right of the keyboard. The monitor slightly tilted down to counteract the glare from the sunlight. The contents of my drawers identical, all the way down to the empty snack wrappers.
When I arrived at my desk, I saw that it was barren. Even my chair was gone. I briefly thought I had been fired. I turned to the analyst team, about to ask what had happened, only to see them laughing uncontrollably. “Where did your stuff go?” Carly asked, in between snorts of laughter. I looked around then noticed the desk in front of mine looking suspiciously like my own.
I was in a foul mood that morning, having nearly fallen on the street in front of the office. I was already on edge and this put me over the top.
“Carly! What the hell! Fix this!”
“Why? I didn’t do it.”
“Fix it! I know it was you!”
The analysts nearly fell out of their seats laughing. They had gotten me good. Part of my anger was an outward attempt to save face, although the rage quickly subsided. I knew Carly was the ringleader and I couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t possible to stay angry at her.
“Ok, ok, I’m sorry,” I said. “But seriously though, you need to put all this stuff back.”
“Why don’t you just work from there?” she asked innocently.
I gave her a stern look and pointed at the window. “I moved because of the glare.”
“Ok, ok, we’ll put it back. You have to admit it was pretty funny though.”
Then there was the time before the 2011 holidays when Visible Measures held its annual Festivus party, modeled after the infamous Seinfeld episode. We had everything: the aluminum Festivus pole, airing of grievances (a comment box where people could anonymously rant about their fellow coworkers’ annoying quirks), feats of strength (races around the office) and the exchange of Festivus gifts. At the office there were no Secret Santas, but everyone contributed to buy each other gifts. Everyone got at least something.
My gift took a long time to emerge from the pile of presents underneath the Festivus pole. Eventually, someone pulled out a small rectangular box, read my name on the sticker and handed it to me. It was relatively light. I tore off the wrapping paper and cut the tape on the box with a pair of scissors and opened it up.
“Oh, you have to be kidding,” I said before bursting into laughter.
Inside was a Justin Bieber notepad and pencil set. I knew who was behind this. “Thank you Carly,” I said, still laughing. It was technically from the analyst team but I knew she was behind it.
I appreciated the absurdity of the gift, but there was no way I was going to actually use the notepad. In fact, I went out of my way not to use it, jamming it deep in my desk under a pile of papers. The pencils I hid in a different drawer.
One day several months later, I was running late to a meeting and asked Carly to get my notebook and pen off my desk. When she came in, what did she toss on my computer but the Justin Bieber notepad. I groaned, turned beet red and facepalmed. Once again, I heard stifled laughter from the other analysts.
“What?” Carly asked innocently. “You said to bring your notepad, so I brought your notepad.”
“Not THIS notepad!”
“It’s paper, isn’t it?”
As time went on, I came to understand why Carly was doing all this. Why she insisted on going great lengths to make me laugh: she knew I was struggling.
Once she learned about my condition in the fall of 2011, she went out of her way to check in on me. She didn’t pry, she didn’t insist on knowing every detail of my disease or what was happening. But she wanted me to know that she was there for me, to be someone to talk to, even over Skype. She knew that if I wanted to open up, I would on my own time.
She always seemed to know what to say and how to say it. Some days she was effusive and energetic, sensing that I was in a social mood. Other days she would softly ask if I was ok.
“Yes,” I said, even though we both knew that wasn’t true.
Many times she offered to take on extra work so I wouldn’t have to work late or get more stressed than I already was. It was a standing offer, one that I hesitated to take her up on.
“You don’t have to do that, Carly,” I would protest.
“What kind of friend would I be? Give me your extra work.”
Whenever new analysts joined the team, they were quickly incorporated into our tight-knit group, due in large part to Carly’s hospitality. Her future leadership skills were undeniable. She went from mentee to mentor after only a few months, teaching the ropes to a new batch of analysts fresh out of college. Her original plan was to become a teacher, before deciding to change course. Her teaching instinct, however, remained.
The team grew as Visible Measures became more successful. By July 2012 there were seven analysts. We would often hang out together at the corner bar with others at the company who were our age. Our friends and roommates couldn’t understand it.
“You mean, the people at your company like to hang out with each other after work?”
It seemed like a novelty, and it was. Visible Measures had a culture that I haven’t seen replicated anywhere else in my career. If you asked most people who worked in that Boston office, they would say the same.
A lot of that was because Carly made everyone feel at home. She was the center of the company culture, the person everyone wanted to sit with at lunch and who welcomed everyone to her table.
Carly was especially beloved by our New York-based sales team, who frequently requested her for on-site meetings with external clients. In those meetings, which could get testy if a campaign didn’t perform up to expectations, Carly would calmly explain the metrics and by the end of the meeting would win over even the toughest of critics with her energy and enthusiasm.
Carly loved these trips. She could drive down to New York, attend a meeting, then stop at her mom’s house in New Jersey to do laundry. I found out later that all throughout college she would make this “laundry trip” every few weeks.
Mind you, she attended college four hours away.
It was on one of these trips home in late summer 2012 when Carly was first hospitalized.
The news came as a shock to the analyst team. We had just seen her in the office a few days prior. All we knew was that Carly had been rushed to the emergency room in New York in excruciating pain. Doctors weren’t sure what was wrong.
I texted her to see how she was doing.
“I’m ok,” she said. “In a bit of pain but I’m ok. How are you? How are you feeling?”
Even in the hospital, she was checking in on others. Her health was a subject where she didn’t want to be the center of attention, something I understood.
Unfortunately, in mid-October, that all changed, and not by choice.
Carly hadn’t been back to the office since her hospitalization. It was clear by this point that something was wrong, but we still weren’t sure what. When texting with Carly, she would answer vaguely that doctors were doing every test in the books to explain the pain. It appeared she was a diagnostic anomaly.
Then one day we got a meeting invite from Timna, titled “Chat with Carly.” It was her 24th birthday a few days prior, and I figured we were calling to wish her Happy Birthday. The analysts were excited to talk to her. We filed into the room and sat down at the conference table. The anticipation was palpable.
“Carly would like to tell you all something,” said Timna. She dialed FaceTime on her phone. Up came Carly, dressed in a hospital gown, in a hospital bed.
She waved frantically as Timna turned the phone around to show her everyone assembled. After some brief small talk, Carly grew somber.
“I wanted you to hear it from me first,” she said. “They found a tumor. I have cancer.”
Carly then started to cry.
I had never seen Carly cry before. I had never even seen Carly sad before. Almost immediately, tears began flowing all over the room, including my own. The room fell silent, outside of muffled sobs.
Sensing that we were all devastated by the news, Carly was the first to compose herself. She mentioned that she would have to have surgery in New York in a few weeks to remove the tumor and would be staying with her mom. She wasn’t sure when she’d return to Boston, but was adamant that she would return.
After a few minutes talking about the details of her health and upcoming surgery, she asked about work. As if that matters right now, Carly! Somehow, against all odds, she got us laughing about the awfulness of daytime TV.
Even in the worst moment of her life, after finding out on her birthday that she had cancer, she knew how to make us laugh.
The news spread around the office that Carly was sick. Everyone sprung into action, eager to help in any way possible. Some went down to New York to visit. The Boston office organized a blood drive and donated blood. Our graphic designer made t-shirts to commemorate the drive. (I wore this shirt underneath my suit when I graduated from the BC MBA program in 2016.)
I wasn’t able to make it down to New York to visit her, but I made sure to keep tabs on her from afar. “Cancer sucks,” she’d say. “But I’m doing as well as I can.”
Immediately after, she would follow up by asking about me. “How is the apartment working out? How have you been feeling strength-wise?” She had an uncanny perception even from hundreds of miles away. “I hope you haven’t been overwhelmed taking on my extra work. You can send some to me here. I am bored.”
“Not a chance,” I’d always answer. This was my turn to pay her back. It was my turn to help for once.
I was thinking about Carly on a cold December day before the holidays. Festivus was coming up at the office and I felt bad that she would miss it. Her seat was empty. It was untouched from the day she left, and would remain so until she returned to the office. We missed her terribly.
In the late morning before the lunch hour, I heard a commotion in the front of the office. Shouts, followed by laughter. Then silence. Suddenly, Erin, our office admin, showed up at our cluster of desks.
“Timna, you have a visitor.”
Timna, who is about as composed as they come, turned around, made a loud yelping sound and jumped out of her seat.
It was Carly!
Carly’s hair was cut shoulder-length, and she was wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and jeans that conveyed a newfound frailty. But she was in the office, in person. After a long embrace with Timna, Carly proceeded to hug the other analysts queued up behind her. When she got to me, I gave her a hug, in disbelief that it was actually happening. I could feel her shoulder blades as I hugged, and eased up. She had lost a great deal of weight due to strict diet restrictions before the surgery.
“How long are you in town for?” we asked.
“A couple days,” she said. “I wanted to see you all before my surgery.”
For the rest of that day, no one got any work done. How could we? Carly camped out on the orange bean bag chair next to Erin’s desk in the front of the office. Several people were competing for her attention and I wanted to give her some breathing room, but I made a point to visit with her in the early afternoon. She was ecstatic to know that my sister was going to have a baby and I would soon be an uncle.
Despite being sick, Carly was full of energy. She was nervous about her upcoming surgery, but neither of us wanted to dwell on that. She was adamant about finding out what the analyst team was working on, if we had taken on too much work with her out on leave, that sort of thing. She even asked to do some work while she was there, because she missed the ins and outs of the job.
Accepting that she wouldn’t take no for an answer, we obliged and handed her a laptop. She picked her work back up without missing a beat, enjoying every mundane detail.
On that day, our office was whole again.
That December day was the last time I saw Carly.
By now you know she passed. The cancer surgery would uncover that her cancer was far more advanced than previously thought. And the story about how we all found out on a Sunday afternoon, the impromptu trip to the bar on President’s Day to mourn, the piercing grief in the office on Tuesday, the memorial service in New Jersey, all of it - is just as sad as you would expect.
I was originally going to write about that day. But now, I don’t want to. Not today. Not that I’m unwilling - I’ve done it before - and I believe that an important part of healing is to talk about our grief.
But on this solemn anniversary of her passing, I owe it to her to talk about how she lived. More specifically, her impact.
I only knew Carly for a little over a year and a half. I’m 36 years old, meaning I knew her for roughly 4% of my life.
But the duration isn’t the key here. It’s when I knew her that matters. The years from 2011-2013 were the roughest of my life.
2011 was when I fell for the first time due to the advancement in my condition. Doctors fitted me for leg braces, which made me feel like Forrest Gump. Although they stabilized my gait, they made climbing stairs impossible. Since I lived on the second floor of a house, that meant I needed to break the lease on my Boston apartment that I shared with my best friends from college, which then led to a brief falling out as we argued over how to cover my portion of the remaining rent. Then, once I found a new apartment in Cambridge, I found myself alone, in a new city, far from all my friends and hangouts I was accustomed to.
2012 and 2013 were years of isolation and falls. Each fall bruised and bloodied me physically, but it was the constant fear of going down that tormented me to the point where I was hospitalized in August 2013 for a panic attack in the middle of the night.
Yet those were also the years Carly was in my life, a light through the interminable darkness that kept me from sinking to even lower depths.
I often think about how life could easily have turned out differently. What if I didn’t get the job at Visible Measures? What if I liked my previous job enough not to look for a new one? What if Carly decided to become a teacher rather than join a tech company?
Thankfully, I’ll never have to find out.
For all of Carly’s majestic qualities - her energy, her humor, her intelligence - it was her love that shines through. She understood better than anyone I’ve ever known the power of presence, of being there for a friend in their darkest hour.
I would like to finish with one final story.
It was January 2012. I had just moved into my apartment in Cambridge one week prior, after the argument with my former roommates and all the drama that transpired. Outside of my new roommate John, who I had only met a few weeks before, I didn’t know anyone in the city, let alone my neighborhood. Cambridge was a much different place than Boston, with terrain and street layouts I had yet to memorize.
I felt alone and unsure of the move. Did I make the right decision? Should I have tried to make it work at my old place? Should I have moved home to Connecticut? The whole process tore me up inside, and I was depressed. I missed my friends, and felt guilty I had put them in a difficult position by breaking the lease.
When I texted Carly where I was moving to, she lit up, responding in all caps, “YOU ARE NEAR ME!” It turned out that Carly lived one neighborhood over in Central Square. When she found out about the reason for my move and my hesitation about Cambridge, she promised me point blank, “I am going to ride the T with you when we return to the office.” (The T is the subway in Boston.)
On the first work day after the new year, Carly and I agreed to meet at the Central Square station platform at 9:30, to avoid the morning rush so I wouldn’t be knocked off balance by mindless passengers. I knew it was later than she normally came in, so I appreciated her accommodating me.
That morning, I took the escalator down to the platform. The next red line train was three minutes away, but Carly was nowhere to be found. Minutes passed. The train came and went. I stood in the back, away from the crowds, wondering if maybe I should have gotten on the train when I had the chance. I decided to give it a few more minutes. Surely she didn’t stand me up, right?
Then, at the end of the platform, I heard my name. “Chris! Chris!” I turned to my right. Carly came running over and gave me a hug. “Sorry I’m late. Did you have a nice New Year’s?”
“I did! Thanks for coming.”
“Of course. I wasn’t going to just leave you after saying I would ride in with you. I’m not a monster.” I smiled and briefly considered answering with sarcasm, but decided against it. It meant so much to have her there that morning. We traded Christmas stories as we waited for the next train. I didn’t have many stories to offer, as my break was dominated by the move.
A few minutes later, the next train rolled into the station and came to a stop. The doors opened and I could see that the train was just full enough where every seat was taken but not full enough where I’d bump into anyone. Carly and I stood next to each other and grabbed hold of the metal stanchions.
“Ah yes, the Red Line,” I whispered. I looked down and felt a wave of sadness come over me. I used to ride the Red Line in college to catch a concert at the Middle East or TT the Bear’s, or go to a party in Harvard Square. But now, it was a different context. More impersonal. More soul-crushing. Gone were the days of spontaneity.
I traced the outline of the commute in my head. Five stops on the Red Line. Disembark at South Station. Go up three escalators to street level. Walk two blocks to the office. I felt tired, exhausted by the thought of what was ahead of me. Many opportunities to fall.
I looked at my reflection in the window as the train zoomed through the tunnel. Looking back at me was a defeated soul.
The train pulled into Kendall Square station. I stared at the door as passengers got on and off. After a couple minutes the doors closed and the train left for the next station, one stop blending into another. As I stared at the window, I fixated on moments in my past, desperately trying to bring them into the present, if only for one last time.
Suddenly, I remembered that Carly was standing next to me and turned to look at her. She was uncharacteristically quiet. I expected her to start talking or to yell at me for forgetting about her. Instead she smiled back.
Even in her silence, she knew exactly what to say.