Love and loss through an app
I feel frozen in grief. For as many thoughts and words that are swirling through my head at any given moment, I find myself unable to form coherent sentences.
But I’m going to try because I think that’s what Hayley would do.
Hayley Schmidtke described herself as a spirited woman. The title was an homage to one of her favorite YouTubers, Van Neistat, and it fit her perfectly.
Her spirit — her spark — was the brightest and strongest I’ve ever known. Is the brightest and strongest, I mean. Because I refuse to believe such a vibrant, potent force could ever die, even if the body that held it finally reached the limit of what it could endure.
Hayley was a natural leader and a fierce friend.
Anyone who’s had the pleasure of knowing her will tell you she valued inclusivity and creating community.
As I read other people’s memories of Hayley, phrases like, “always made me feel seen and heard,” and “inclusivity” keep popping up. I immediately noticed these qualities the first time I met Hayley at a Woodlands Running Co./Women of Woodlands group run in Ashland, Oregon.
Even though I was a new kid from out of town at my first group run, the warm welcome I received was more than enough to keep me coming back.
This trail running group was pioneered by Hayley and her loving partner, Evan. And if you tried to give them credit for it, they’d tell you, “It’s a community thing. We’re all making it happen.”
But they played a key role in creating the space to allow that community to flourish.
That’s something Hayley was reallllllly good at — creating space for people to freely express themselves and connect with others doing the same. Hayley wanted everyone to know they were included. As someone who’s always felt like an outcast, that alone was enough to make her instantly lovable.
My in-person time with Hayley ended when I left the West Coast. But, lucky for me, our friendship flourished through a video chat app called Marco Polo.
I reached out to Hayley shortly after I decided to stop drinking in August 2020. I knew she was about to celebrate her own 2-year soberversary and wondered if she’d be willing to share her experiences with me.
Even though her schedule was full of business-owner business, Hayley got on a call with me the next day.
As a side note, I’m a pretty awkward person in general. But my awkwardness really shines on the phone, and extra-specially so when it comes to talking about my mental health and addiction history. But Hayley’s charisma and compassion made the conversation flow easily. It was like we were on the trail together again.
After that, Hayley and I kept in touch via Marco — sending regular video chats back and forth. We shared cute videos of our pets, took one another on walks and trail runs, and bounced various hopes, dreams, and fears off of one another.
I learned quickly that Hayley didn’t waste time wading through the shallow waters of superficial conversation. Canned responses were not a thing with her.
She’d say stuff like, “Social conditioning has me wanting to say ‘I’m sorry to hear this,’ but I’m not going to because… [insert sage-like wisdom about a personal topic]... and I’m not going to say ‘everything happens for a reason’ either, because fuck that.”
And then she’d erupt in that classic Hayley giggle. One of many things I’ll miss.
I remember when wildfires ravaged Southern Oregon, burning the homes of some of our trail sisters. Hayley sent me a Marco describing her “full-blown middle-aged woman freakout” in which she kicked a pole in a California co-op parking lot. “Today I learned I’m only good at vulnerability when I’m in control of when and how it happens, “ she said. “So, I guess that means I’m not really good at vulnerability at all?”
Personally, I’ve kicked many things in anger. I can honestly say I’ve never used those situations as opportunities to learn about myself.
This is just one of many nuggets of wisdom Hayley had to offer. To recount them all, I’d need to write a book. And maybe I will.
Be the Buffalo
In one of her first Marcos, Hayley showed me a special notebook she’d just bought herself. It had a buffalo on the cover and was made from recycled materials.
“Do you know the story of the buffalo?” she asked.
She explained how cows and buffalo that graze together around the Rockies react to storms differently.
When cows see storm clouds rolling in, they run the other way. But buffalo do things differently. They head straight into the storm. Ultimately, this has the effect of reduced storm exposure for the buffalo. By moving toward the storm, they spend less time in it.
On the other hand, the cows that try to avoid the storm are fucked.
“It’s just such a beautiful metaphor because of course you have to face something head-on to move through it,” she said. “That’s one of my mantras, be a buffalo.”
That was five months before Hayley was diagnosed with what she referred to as “double whammy lymphoma.”
As I scroll through the archive of our Marco Polo conversations, all the ways in which Hayley embodied her buffalo mantra are clear.
Somehow, she was able to crack jokes about cancer and cancer treatment without sugarcoating or avoiding the harsh storm she faced.
And for all she went through, for all the times she had every right to complain, she chose humor and grace over misery and suffering. Every. Single. Time.
Once again, Hayley turned her pain into a learning opportunity for herself and others. She started a blog called The C-Bag Chronicles, where she shared her personal experiences and resources for people wanting to learn about coping with cancer.
But this storm she was running through had many layers.
Just when we thought there were clear skies ahead for our sweet buffalo, an even more menacing cloud appeared.
And then the same thing happened again.
Throughout all this, Hayley continued to do what she does best — build meaningful connections and grace us with her full, undimmable presence.
Hayley called me her “fringe friend” because she could talk to me about crystals, astrology, and all things woo.
I gifted her a tarot reading for her 40th birthday, after which she promptly asked if she could pay me for two more readings to gift to her mother and best friend. This was the inspiration for my side business as an intuitive consultant. I don’t know if I’d have launched that business without her encouragement. I’d probably still just be thinking about it.
We often compared horoscopes from CHANI and shared messages received from “The Universe.” It was one of the things that made our friendship so special. Not everyone wants to hear that kind of woo-woo shit.
In one of Hayley’s last videos, she told me about a download she received from her spirit guides during a reiki session.
“I’m going to work in death,” she told me.
She had seen the path laid before her. It began with beating cancer and ended with her starting a business. She didn’t love the title “death doula,” but that was the gist.
She was so sure of this. I can’t shake the feeling that she’s still walking that path on the other side of life.
Look, I’m not going to pretend to know what happens to our spirits when we die. I know that Hayley wanted to be reincarnated as a spoiled pet dog in an upper-middle-class household. And while I hope her wish is granted, I’m also witchy-woo enough to believe that Hayley will continue working in death.
When I learned Hayley had passed away the day after Christmas, my heart went numb. I remember bracing myself for a conversation with Evan the way one prepares for a strong punch in the gut.
After getting off the phone, my husband suggested we take a walk on the beach. At first, the logical side of my brain kicked in. “At least she’s not in pain anymore,” I told myself. There was a sense of release. Freedom from the cycle of suffering that is life on earth.
Things got rapidly illogical after that.
At the beach, I saw Hayley’s face in the golden sun, smiling down at me in her yellow beanie. She told me she didn’t want me to get super bummed out, even though she probably knew I would anyway.
Hayley knew grief and loss in the visceral way I’m only just learning now.
Later that afternoon, I sat at my living room window and stared at the crescent moon. Again, I saw Hayley smiling at me and felt her presence. I was compelled to grab my tarot deck and pull a few cards. Two Queens (Pentacles and Cups) and the 4 of Swords came up. The message to me was clear: My body is at rest, but I love and support you forever, and our friendship will never die.
That night, I lit a candle for Hayley’s spirit. I sat up in the dark, watching her flame flicker wildly. It reminded me of her spark. The one thing cancer couldn’t take from Hayley — her bright, wild, and dynamic spark.
That spark inspired, touched, and warmed the hearts of all who knew it.
Hayley was my greatest supporter and #1 fan of everything I created. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn. If you are a writer, artist, or creative entrepreneur who knew Hayley, I bet she was your biggest fan, too. It’s like her unspoken motto was, “let me lift you up and move you closer to your dream.” At least, that’s how I felt.
Every time I typed up a blog or newsletter, I was writing to Hayley Schmidtke. Sometimes, I think she was the only one reading, and that was fine with me.
When I think about Hayley’s loving support, her laughter, and how she lived her life, I can’t help but feel like it’s my responsibility to take what I have of her spark, light my own torch, and keep moving forward with it.
I’m not sure exactly how I’ll do that, but I have some ideas.
After that first day of feeling Hayley’s presence, I was hit with the agonizing heartbreak of her absence. No — agony and heartbreak don’t describe it. I felt like I had lost something really important. Not like a wallet or car keys. Something that would make life much more difficult moving forward. Like my right arm.
I went for a long walk in a place I’d go to watch Hayley’s Marcos and send my own back to her. I sent her one last, long video. Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but I felt like I had to do it.
While I was talking to her, I got the idea that maybe I should just keep doing that — talking to her, I mean. I thought maybe I would continue recording videos and/or voice messages in a project called “Dear Hayley.”
Hayley often told me she missed seeing me on Instagram and wished I’d share more of myself publicly. When I got home from that walk, I downloaded the IG app after being absent from it for many months. I think I’m going to start sharing these conversations with her there. Anyone who wants to watch/listen is welcome to.
Either way, I feel like stepping out of my reclusive cave is a good way to stoke Hayley’s spirit of connection.
One more thing I’d like to do is offer a complimentary 3-card tarot reading to any of Hayley’s friends and family. Pulling those cards the day Hayley’s spirit left her body brought me comfort. If that sounds like something that might work for you, I’d love to help.
I’ll send your reading through a Marco video. The best way to contact me is at email@example.com
This offer stands until Dec. 18, 2023. It may take me a few days to get to it, but I’ll do my best to get these readings done in a timely manner.
To bring the story full circle, Hayley recently got her own tarot deck and asked me for advice on how to learn. I suggested getting a blank notebook and designating at least one page for each of the 78 cards. Then, pull a new card each day and write the messages that come intuitively.
“I have the perfect notebook,” she told me. “It has a buffalo on it.”
If you’re still with me, thank you for reading. Now go tell your friends how much you love and cherish them.
I love you,