Jolene and me at Girls in Wonderland

A couple weeks ago, two deaths occurred that were existentially jarring and incredibly sad. First, I found out through her Instagram account that Emily Hartridge, a friend of Viv’s, died in an electric scooter / truck accident. The next day, I learned that my friend and coworker at HER, Jolene Manibusan, passed away.

Throwing out shirts with Jolene at GIW

So many emotions came up, especially with Jolene’s death since I had just spoken to her days before as we were discussing future collaborations and had just partied in Girls in Wonderland the month before. Shock, sadness, gratitude, anger, confusion, and existential fear of my mortality.

I’m not proud to admit that the selfish fear was probably my strongest emotion, but I suppose it’s natural and healthy. It makes us grateful for what we have instead of taking it for granted; it reminds us to tell the people we love that we love them; and it reminds us that there are no guarantees so we should live our lives how we want to, right now. I feel pretty good about my current life decisions, priorities, values and relationships and wouldn’t change the way I live my life.

Here are a few words I shared earlier with the HER team about my time with Jolene…

I guess it’s so hard to write this because I’m in such disbelief and shock. I just talked to Jolene last week about future collaborations and had spent six days with her at Girls in Wonderland in Orlando only last month. I was just really getting to know Jolene, after spending hours in the hotel room, gorging on salt and pepper popcorn, organizing our group speed dating event, working the HER booth, and partying at night.  We talked about everything: our families, our cultures (she was so proud of her Chamorra – Filipina roots), our coming out stories, our ambitions and frustrations for the community and ourselves, and everything in between.  There were several things that struck me about Jolene:

  • Her approachable and unassailable optimism. It wasn’t that she was blind to all the challenges of life, especially living a non-normative life, but she welcomed those challenges with a winning smile and a twinkle in her eye, because it’s absolutely worth fighting for and helps us grow as people.  
  • Jolene was so confident and human.  She’d sometimes be self-conscious about the lingering effects of her stroke, but she’d own it and her insecurity, which made her even more inspiring, grounded, and approachable
  • Relatedly, she was a delight to be around. Even though Jolene was recently coming out of some major therapy, she was so strong, while respecting her body’s boundaries.  We were burning the candles at both ends at GIW, working the booth during the blistering daytime, feasting on Chipotle, and hitting the themed night and after parties.  We hit the pool at 2 AM on our last night with our new friends much to the chagrin of the graveyard security staff.  And what’s got to be one of my life highlights was heaving HER shirts/bags and a rubber doll (!) from the main stage to the gyrating, sweaty mess at the pool party.  And through it all, Jolene was always calm, always positive, always fun, and always authentically where she was at, whether she was really feeling it or whether she was just beat.  She’d always take the personal self-care path and head home when it felt right for her.
  • She was so good at her job.  She was able to connect with and resonate with so many types of people: diverse CEM personalities, festival partners, and HER users.  She represented HER with such authenticity and pride for the community.  She was also a strong leader, who was so inclusive but would make the decision when it needed to be made, which I deeply respected her for. 
  • What perhaps struck me the most about Jolene is how she would make you feel in her presence. She had such a genuine curiosity for your thoughts and ideas and though she had strong beliefs of her own, she was always open to new perspectives and approaches.  Jolene was always generous with her time, attention, and energy, which is so rare in our hustle-y world.  She made you feel seen and heard.  

Her recovery was so inspiring and made me appreciate all the things we take for granted.  Her passing really just makes me upset and terrified, because if a soul as bright as Jolene’s has no guarantees on this earth, we  all certainly don’t.  I will honor her by appreciating every day as a gift to embrace  the people I love, try to listen to those I don’t yet love, and build our community in all the ways big and small that I can.

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