In 2006, I self published a book called "The Fairy Who Could Not Fly" for a college class I was taking on writing children's stories. My talented sister Kellie drew the pictures, and I made the whole thing rhyme. In it, a fairy who couldn't fly develops a friendship with a caterpillar. After her friend becomes a butterfly, she is sad because she thinks that her friend will leave her behind and fly off without her. Her caterpillar (now butterfly) friend doesn't do that, and lets the fairy climb on her back so they can both soar across the sky together. It is this selfless act of friendship that finally allows the fairy to fly.
Cover art for The Fairy Who Could Not Fly
When I wrote this story, I didn't know that this little fairy story was semi-autobiographical, at least in theme. I have many physical limitations. I can't walk, and I can't use my arms or hands. I'm pretty much dependent on others for nearly every physical aspect of my life. However, anyone who knows me would never describe me as defective or unaccomplished. This is because of the very many butterflies that I have in my life. They lift me up, and I am strengthened through the flights they take with me – metaphorically perched on their backs.
Of course, my wonderful family has served me as some of the most loyal, dedicated and fun-loving butterflies. I owe them so much – more than I can possibly or adequately express. However, this entry is dedicated to the memory of one of my most favorite butterflies – my dear friend Justin Lassen.
When I finally wrote this fairy story down, it was Justin who cheered me on and made it possible. He even helped me with the video presentation of this story that I showed to my class by narrating and editing it. You can view it here.
When we met in high school, we were in the same choir class, and he sat right in front of me. He always told me that he made fun of me a lot, because I dressed like a hippie and I came off like an airhead. I didn't really care what people thought of me, so I never stored these jests into my permanent memory bank, although I'm sure they were not made with mean-spiritedness. After I graduated, however, we became very close friends.
I loved how much we both loved music, movies, and creating stories. Justin was so impressive with his self-taught instrument playing and his music-creating computer setup. I love writing music, but all of my compositions were pretty much relegated to handwritten sheets of music. His recordings were so different, inspired, and fun! I could watch him create and record wonderful songs for hours and hours on his computer.
Justin and his totally awesome music-making computer setup
Even though he was vastly talented and very impressive, Justin never had anything but lavish praise for my own musical creations. He boosted my confidence in my own musical creativity, and he could not say enough wonderful things about my songs, my piano talent, and my singing voice. At this point in my life, I was in my first year of college and planned on majoring in music. Something about playing piano and writing songs made me feel more myself than any other thing, and he understood that more than any other person that I had met.
After my first year in college, we decided to go cliff jumping on a beautiful Monday in May with his brother Eric, who was my boyfriend at that time. The last physical steps that I ever took were walking with him along that creekbed, and after we were done, following him into Eric's truck. I was in the passenger seat, and Justin was sitting right next to me when we got into that fateful accident. The last time I ever felt my body was with him right by my side.
My life's trajectory had changed in the blink of an eye. No longer able to do any of the things that I believed made me who I was as a person, I struggled. I did my best to be grateful and find happiness and meaning in my struggle, but when something that fundamental is taken from you, it's HARD. Justin, however, never made me feel like I was less because of my circumstances. In his mind, I was always complete as I was, even if it was different than before. His friendship and belief in me were instrumental in propelling me out of those newly-injured, dark days.
Even though I moved to California a few months after my accident, Justin stayed in touch. Whenever I had some devastating moments, he always knew the perfect thing to say to snap me out of it and get me to change my perspective. Knowing that I had a friend who loved me as I was, and who sincerely and wholeheartedly believed in my dreams for the future, lifted me and gave me the confidence to pursue those dreams.
Me and Justin contemplating life at Venice Beach, 2004
Justin visited a lot, and he even lived with my family for a time. In fact, when I was doing my undergraduate degree at Cal State San Marcos, Justin drove me to and from my college a lot! Ever since the accident, Justin was nervous about driving. I think he only got his driver's license when he was 25 or 26 because of that. He also hated driving on freeways, so I know how much of a difficulty it was for him to drive me one hour there and one hour back on California freeways! I graduated cum laude, but it would have been nearly impossible without his help.
Indeed, during those years where he was bravely traveling all over the world in pursuit of his passion (music), my house served as home base for him a lot of the time. When he returned, he always brought something back for me from the places I would most likely never be able to see with my own eyes, and he would talk extensively of his experiences in those faraway lands. The most foreign place I've ever been is Mexico (or Texas), so being able to live vicariously through him was beyond valuable to me.
Justin in Budapest, Hungary
I was always 1000% sure that he would make it in the music industry because he was insanely musically talented, naturally good at connecting with others, and he had a mad hustle like I've never seen before. He never really got to taste the levels of fame and success that he envisioned for himself, however he was far from a failure in his chosen field. Justin wanted the musical limelight and influence more than a fish wants water. In my heart, I feel that he was a success in a more behind-the-scenes sort of way, but his truest successes were how he inspired and cheered on his friends, colleagues, and family. I can't count how many times he dropped everything to help out a friend or loved one, sometimes missing important opportunities to show his support. Although he wasn't perfect, his heart was in the right place – other people were what mattered to him – more than money, possessions or his own success.
Justin was insanely talented in music
Sadly, the world lost this bright star last year on February 22. He had had several health scares in the year prior to his unexpected passing. Every time he told me how close to death he had come, I was so grateful to God that he was spared, totally ignorant that death was just around the corner for him. He passed away in his sleep due to undiagnosed heart troubles.
We talked several times a week for hours on end for the past few years of his life. So, even though we were living far apart, Justin made sure our connection was tighter than ever. Although I do believe we will be reunited eventually, his loss has been profound. I miss him incredibly. He was one of my best friends, and to say that I'm not nearly always thinking about him would be a lie.
Me and Justin celebrating my birthday at Disneyland, 2009
While he was here, Justin was very preoccupied with his legacy – what he'd leave behind. I know he had wanted to start a family; he absolutely adored children, and they were drawn to him as well. He never got the chance. He wanted to be more financially secure before he became responsible for other lives, and the nature of the career that he chose put his finances in a constant state of flux.
What did he leave behind?
He left behind some beautiful pieces of art that have been downloaded and enjoyed by millions. The sound design that he has created has been used by thousands, including some of the biggest artists in the world. In fact, you can hear some of his legacy in the ambient sounds at the new Star Wars land in Disneyland, which used several of his sound samples from his most recent soundscape release – Black Fox Society.
Justin picked a bunny as his official avatar, and it represented him very well. Bunnies are notorious for their softness and purity, and also for their remarkable eyesight. Justin was likewise softhearted and pure and had the ability to see beyond what most people could. He didn't see me as the broken person I felt like I was, but as a human being capable of (metaphorically) standing tall and able to accomplish anything that I had my heart set on. It is partly why I have four different postsecondary degrees, and why I feel like I can fight for myself and others in the face of injustice. He was unfailing in building me up and unfaltering with his flattering words. I know there are many others out there who have been lifted by his generosity, optimism and creativity. That is his true legacy, and I will do my best to emulate it.
A drawing I did for Justin's birthday, with his favorite things
People have a tendency to compliment me, probably beyond what is healthy for most humans to hear. I mean, I know that I'm great, and I'm thankful that people recognize the good things about me. But I wouldn't be up here, flying through the air at such great heights, without the friendship of a wonderful butterfly named Justin.
Justin and me, May 2009