“I would like some photos where I look and feel my absolute best at the age and situation that I’m in. I would like to see strength and confidence and a badass attitude in my eyes – so the photos can serve as lasting proof that my health issues do not define who I am.”
– Colleen Elizabeth O’Brien (January 10, 1969-October 12, 2022)
“I am an active optimistic woman who started having troubles related to cancer on my 50th birthday. I am now 53 and still dealing with cancer, flying back and forth regularly to Houston for clinical trials. I’m a mom to two teenage girls (17 and 15) and dedicated to being a good role model for the kids, traveling, volunteering in my community, being a good friend, making things with my hands, putting dinner on the table, teaching the kids stuff, being good to my husband… I spend much of my time trying to take care of things – plans, people, situations.
I like to try to clear the road of obstacles for others who need help.”
About her body, Colleen shared: “I like my hair and my hands. My torso is a sight to behold – I try to embrace it, but I don’t know if I want to be all ballsy and “here it is!” or keep it hidden and be more comfortable. We’re talking scars, devices, blech – stuff that has changed my appearance but in ways people might never know (except I’ve gained weight in the last year). I’m not even sure how I look objectively in normal clothes these days – I try not to worry about it, but I also just don’t look much.”
Colleen was smart, loyal, creative, generous, supportive, and kind. She self-identified as a hopeful, paper-dependent, detail planner who was also thankful. Resilient and rational, in her later days she became more of a worrier (“that’s new, unexpected, and unwanted, TBH”).
Colleen valued honesty and accountability, best efforts, sense of humor, and taking pride and accomplishment in whatever type of work one has to do. While she valued completion and finishing what you start, she shared that completion is “less and less important as I get older.” She loved drinking wine with her wine group, baking, macrame and painting rocks. She enjoyed writing and formatting things and adored going to new places. She started a local facebook group called “Kind and Rational” that brought together people in her community who may have thought they were alone. “We ended up with a lot of high school teachers and every parent of a trans kid in our school district. Both of those subgroups needed a safe spot to hang out, so we’ve worked as hard as possible to keep the group a safe space.”
“I feel confident when I feel like I know what I’m doing – maybe the third time I do something rather than the first, although I do like having to think on my feet. I also feel good when I’ve taken the time to do some hair and makeup and wear some clothes that fit really well.”
A beautiful tribute from her husband, Jay:
“Col has always been more adventuresome and unconventional than me. It was her idea to elope out on the sand at Cannon Beach (grabbing two random beachcombers as our witnesses) and she was the primary motivator for us going on the inaugural Salty Dog cruise (with the seventh iteration coming up next year). But she has had a tendency to hang on to some conventions pretty stubbornly. If I neglected to do something special on Valentine’s Day (a corporate holiday if there ever was one), I would not be let off the hook easily. So with one final nod towards her sometimes-fixation to convention, I emailed the following off to our local newspaper today for publication: Colleen Elizabeth O’Brien, born on January 10, 1969 in Newton, New Jersey, died on October 12, 2022, in Vancouver, Washington.
The pandemic has turned many lives upside down in traumatic ways. While we definitely experienced strain in our household, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for us as I was able to spend so much time with Col. Last year I read about a college classmate of mine who had set up a signboard along the Appalachian Trail with a phone attached to it. The phone isn’t connected to any regular network. Instead, it is intended to allow users to say things to departed loved ones. When I read about this project, I pledged to spend my remaining time with Col in a way that would help avoid any need for such a phone. Looking back over the past 2+ years, working in a regular office environment would have torn us to pieces. Of course, there were some difficult times over the years, and the last few presented us with challenges I wish we didn’t have to experience. But we faced them together, day in and day out. I was never more than 30 steps away in our outbuilding office and we often often made the trek back and forth during the average work day, sometimes to work on the crossword or spelling bee or to maybe just to relay some silly thought that came to mind. Many of those trips involved tears. However, even with the really difficult times we faced, I can say with all my heart that I don’t want to forget a single moment I spent with Col. I expect that I will have use for the phone. I will want to tell Col about our girls as they continue to grow, fall in love, and maybe have children of their own. But I think we got everything important out of the way that we were capable of talking about.
It’s hard for me to describe the joy that Col has given me over the two decades that have passed since we first met. I could write a book about all the fun stuff we did together – the kiddos, shows, trips, all of it. She also motivated me to realize potential I wasn’t quite sure I had to be a better friend, husband, and father. The strength and humor she showed as she faced a truly awful prognosis over these past years is an example I could only hope to emulate were I to face a similar fate. She was never really afraid of dying, at least as far as her personal experience was concerned. Her real fear was for those who would survive her. Our two daughters, who despite being all-knowing teenagers, still have a lot of growing up to do…