LAWRENCE, Kan. — The day I moved to Missoula was an emotional one for several reasons.

For starters, I moved to a state I’d never been to for my first job after college. That’s heavy on its own.

But that didn’t hold a candle to the news my dad shared with me over the phone while I was lugging boxes up two flights of stairs.

His long-term partner — who I affectionately refer to as my stepmom, despite them not legally being married — was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer (large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma, to be specific) and the prognosis wasn’t good.

We knew something was wrong at my college graduation in May. She coughed to the point where she felt she would be too distracting at the ceremonies. She’d been like that for a while, but the doctors thought it was something less severe.

She battled hard, with all her strength and all her might. She was strong for all of us and was the glue that held our family together. Through it all, she was resilient and never gave up hope. But five months and eight days after being diagnosed, her fight ended.

I was lucky enough to have made it home just in time to say my last goodbyes. I hadn’t seen her in months, other than in photos. After I raced from western Montana to rural Nebraska and made it down the gravel driveway, I made it to her bedside.

Cancer and its treatment stole her hair, her appetite and a lot of her body weight but it could never steal her good heart. The latter was with her until the end.

I stood by her to hold her hand. She looked up at me and in that moment I felt a calm unlike any other I’d felt before. I talked to her for a half hour. She didn’t say much, just squeezed my hand when I got choked up by the tears.

It took about 15 minutes for me to stop using coherent sentences, as my brain and my mouth weren’t working on the same wavelength. She squeezed my hand tight and softly told me she loved me and that everything would be OK.

Those were the last words I heard her say. She died a few hours later.

In the weeks since her death, I’ve replayed that memory over and over again in my mind. And that’s all I could think about at her memorial service on Dec. 30. I’m so incredibly fortunate to have that memory and it’s one I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

***

One of the first people I told about my stepmom’s diagnosis was Shann Schillinger, Montana’s safeties coach.

I didn’t mean to say anything, considering it was my first encounter with Shann back in August, but it just came out. I was interviewing him about Luke Gonsioroski, a high school football player from Schillinger’s hometown of Baker who’d lost his fight with cancer.

And then I started crying. I’d never cried during an interview before, but there’s a first for everything, I guess. I told him about the battle my stepmom was fighting and how my mom is currently in remission as well.

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As the season went on, many of Montana’s coaches, players and administrators became aware of the situation and routinely asked for updates.

That continued when I shared the news of her passing a few weeks ago.

By the day’s end, I was overwhelmed by messages of condolences from coaches, players, administrators and fans alike. The messages have steadily rolled in since too.

The outpouring of support means the world to me. The past few months — and especially the past few weeks — have been a first-hand experience in how caring Montanans can be.

Truthfully, I needed all of it. The hugs, the cards and the uplifting messages have kept me going in what's been a dark time for me.

My stepmom was one of the kindest souls who loved with no bounds. Her laugh was contagious, as was her smile. Losing her has left a hole in my heart that won’t ever be repaired.

Rest in peace, Deb. I love you and I’ll miss you more than words can express.

Thank you, Griz Nation, for the support you’ve given me and my family during this time. It truly means more than y’all know.

Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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