Lauren Dittrich Bilyeu: Celebrating Her Spirit
Avid traveler and adventuress Lauren Dittrich Bilyeu, of Chicago via New York via Montreal via Massapequa, N.Y., embarked on her final journey Jan. 20, surrounded by family and friends. Lauren, 33, was always researching a trip or going on one, from spending a college semester in Turkey to reading by the pool in Barbados to whisking her husband-in-shining-armor, Curt, away to Milan for their anniversary. Impervious to jet lag, Lauren planned her voyages down to the last minute and detail, leaving no museum unseen, no street unwalked and no bistro undined.
Beyond her affinity for travel, Lauren was a self-proclaimed “woman of many passions.” Indeed, she loved what she loved — and she loved a great number of things. Her passions are too many to enumerate here, but some examples demonstrate her joie de vivre:
Entertaining: Lauren was a consummate hostess and cook, throwing together a (sometimes raucous) dinner party with ease and somehow managing to look like Audrey Hepburn by the time she welcomed her guests. She loved recipes but didn’t need them, and took care to hand-select only the freshest ingredients. Lauren in fact loved fresh vegetables so much that Curt had planned to propose to her in the produce section of Whole Foods if the weather hadn’t complied with his outdoor plan (it did).
Yet Lauren didn’t wait for a special occasion to make those around her feel special, as every day was an occasion to her. Weekday evenings at her home often meant the sounds of musician Carla Bruni and a wooden spoon hitting a le Creuset pot as Lauren prepared a sumptuous, multi-course, but somehow cholesterol-lowering meal for Curt. Overnight guests found their sheets scented and pressed, with a chocolate or other favorite candy on their pillows at night.
Words: Lauren loved words in French most of all, in a life-long love affair that took her to favorite city, Montreal, and her other favorite city, Paris, and eventually earned her a degree in French language and literature from Concordia University. She was conversant in Spanish and Italian, and always tucked away and pulled out bits and pieces of
other languages — usually to make friends.
But words didn’t have to be foreign to win Lauren’s affection or study; she also loved English ones, as a voracious reader and prolific writer. Her taste in books was always evolving but she was especially interested in history and biographies — anything from the Kennedys to Joseph Goebbels to the last shah of Iran to Rue McClanahan.
Lauren was a talented writer who had been enrolled in a master of arts in writing and publishing program at DePaul University, following jobs in education administration and finance. Her narrative voice was strong and her attention to detail in life translated to the page: in her work — typically creative nonfiction, sometimes shared from far-off locales — readers are there, feeling, seeing, smelling and tasting life along with her.
Humor: Lauren was serious when she had to be, but it wasn’t her natural state. There was a twinkle in her eye and it was always scanning for opportunities to laugh or make benign mischief. She and her cousin, for example, once drove to their grandmother, Johanna Lovalvo’s, house in the middle of the night to scatter various seeds on the front lawn; watermelon and zinnias of mysterious origin soon followed. She loved “borrowing” people’s cell phones — especially those of her dear sister, Susan Dittrich Smith, and aunt, Deirdre Dittrich — to send silly, disarming messages to various contacts. The U.S. Postal Service was often employed in her shenanigans, delivering clipped news articles about scandal to unwitting relatives and friends. A little toy pig in a tuxedo might serve as a third wheel on date night.
Life with Lauren was never boring. And rest assured she kept her humor through the end: Though Lauren wasn’t able to cook her last Christmas meal herself, she asked that it be Sopranos-themed. Her loved ones could go on and on, but it’s sufficient to say that if there was a joke, Lauren either got it or made it. It’s probable that she inherited her impeccably quick and quirky sense of humor from her father, Drew Dittrich, in whose eyes a twin twinkle can be seen.
People: Lauren had a large, loving family and showed exceptional devotion to them, from sleepovers with her grandparents to executing her sister’s bridal shower down to the nautical dress code, to numerous daily phone calls to her mother and first best friend, Joanne Lovalvo Dittrich. Her many cousins, aunts and uncles made up much of her social circle and she was always eager to spend time with them.
Beyond family, the world for Lauren was generally divided into two parts: friends, and those friends she hadn’t met yet. Quick with a smile framed by generous dimples, Lauren won fans easily — but she also worked to make them her family, through unusual loyalty and affection. She loved bringing people together and her home was often a meeting place for those of all stripes. Lauren was also a loving but firm mother to her puppy, Scottie Pippen, and similarly loving but slightly less firm (especially in the toy and candy departments) with her goddaughter.
Life: It’s already obvious that Lauren loved life — that she was always on the move, wearing a beautiful grin and somehow feeding her insatiable curiosity. But instructive, too, are the circumstances of her death: after beating the odds for her grim, rare cancer diagnosis, again and again. Four years of life, let alone Lauren’s brand of life, after a cholangiocarcinoma diagnosis is virtually unheard of. She continuously mystified and impressed her medical team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Impressive, yes, but there really was no mystery. Lauren, always industrious, put in the work, completing radiation and a near world-record 47 rounds of chemo treatment, beating 15 episodes of sepsis, and so much more. Every possible complication was thrown at her and she faced them all with the poise of a lady and the heart of a lion. She eschewed hospital gowns for monogrammed pajama sets and accessorized with sparkly earrings and monkish focus.
Lauren was equal parts grit and grace, and her faith in God only strengthened during her illness, as she visited the miraculous waters of Lourdes, France, and became a dame of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. She loved sharing words of encouragement with others facing adversity. She could have warmed the world with her inner light for at least 70 more years.
Our darling girl’s last journey was not her choice, and she is gone far too soon. There is no sense to mine in her death, only peace now for her to be had. But if Lauren could send a postcard from the beautiful place she’ll eternally call home, she might say this: Be generous of spirit. Love what you love. Be a person of many passions.
The funeral will be at Holy Name of Mary Church- 55 E. Jamaica Avenue, Valley Stream on Friday, January 27 at 10:45 AM