It was at a legal seminar in 2009 that Julie Johnston and Jim Robinson first made eyes at each other.
Johnston said the property tax attorney who joked his way through the presentation left her wanting more. She was 39 years old, single and looking to laugh.
“I remember seeing his presentation and thinking he was absolutely hilarious,” Johnston said. “Life is serious enough as it is, so you’ve got to have humor.”
Robinson said it was hard not to notice the striking city administrator from Dickinson, who was by far the youngest woman in the room.
But the self-described shy guy didn’t have the courage to approach her, so the professionals went back to business as usual until nearly two years later.
“It took a while to get dinner scheduled,” Johnston admitted.
It was at the same legal conference four years later that Robinson, a changed man, got down on one knee and proposed.
Getting to know you
She knew they had a lot to learn about each other.
Johnston was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, but the survivor insists her diagnosis is terminal only in technicality.
“We’re all terminal the day we’re born,” she said. “Doctors at UTMB are managing it like a chronic disease. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
The cancer was no surprise to Robinson when Johnston decided to introduce the topic during their third date.
“I knew about it going in, so I had the ability to make the choice before I was drawn into it,” he said. “That made it easier.”
Still, nothing can prepare someone for the overwhelming amount of medical information and cancer terminology that is part of the cancer vocabulary, Johnston said.
“It was a learning experience for Jim,” she said. “He’d never dated someone with an illness like mine, so he had some questions.”
Johnston credited her doctors at the University of Texas Medical Branch with teaching Robinson the lingo she has been fluent in for nearly a decade.
But the accomplished woman, who oozes confidence and strength, clearly isn’t afraid to give voice to her own vulnerability and fear. Robinson was going through the motions, but Johnston could only hope he would go the distance.
“What kind of guy gets involved with a woman who’s terminal?” Johnston asked.
Robinson surprised himself when he decided he was that kind of guy while vacationing together in Maui last December.
“When we had the scare is when I decided I wanted to marry her,” he said.
“The scare” manifested itself in headaches Johnston experienced that doctors couldn’t explain. She said they warned her it might be the beginning of the end.
Robinson said the possibility that his girlfriend wouldn’t be around motivated him to make sure they spent as much time together as possible.
“I had to make the decision early on if this was something I could live and deal with,” he said. “Once I realized I could, the rest was easy.”
They were elated when doctors determined the cause of the headaches posed no health risk to Johnston. But Robinson said the incident had already changed his life forever.
“When you’re in a relationship and have to cross something like that, it makes you grow up,” he said. “Protecting yourself is easy, but sometimes you have to let that go. Otherwise you end up 53 and never married.”
The best medicine
Humor is a source of strength for the couple.
“Humor is one of the best medicines,” Johnston said. “You’ve got to laugh no matter how bad it gets.”
In that case, Robinson plays the role of medicine man in Johnston’s battle-scarred life. He vowed to his bride-to-be that she would outlive him.
“I’m his biggest fan,” she said. “He’s absolutely hilarious and a man of integrity. If he says he’s going to do something, he does it. It takes a special person to be involved with someone with a terminal illness. There are great people out there who will step up and be there through sickness and in health.”
Cancer could have thwarted the relationship before it began, but Robinson said it made them look to the future instead.
“The thing I’ve learned dealing with her illness is that it makes you appreciate what’s important, and that’s being together,” he said.
Reflecting on the early years of her diagnosis, Johnston marvels at her good fortune. Being with Robinson means she no longer has to survive alone.
“Adversity has a way of doing that,” she said. “You’re either going to be stronger for it or fall apart, and I think we’ve become stronger. We are problem solvers as a team.”