For many wonderful and heartbreaking reasons, these past two weeks have contained what will probably be the most memorable days in my adult life. In the span of four days I lost Jess, lived through a hurricane, became engaged. I’m going to use this entry to talk about Jess, because without her, very little of how my life has been, would have been.
It is not an overstatement to say the things I learned from Jess altered the course of my life. Bands and authors she introduced me to and taught me to love facilitated meeting new people, finding other writers, developing new interests. She helped me grow into my feminism, to be in love with my body. Shit, in my late teens she taught me how to look at my own vulva with a mirror. I remember sitting on the floor in her room, listening to Jack Kerouac read in his Lowell working class timbre, “You just don’t know how good this ham and eggs is,” while Steven Allen played the piano, feeling like we would never be cooler than at that moment. Oh! how I loved her! Even when I became annoyed she brought her Doc Marten boots full of snow salt into the room we shared, at the way she left every drawer open, at all her pastel sweaters askew on their hangers, I loved her. She was my constant at shows and shenanigans around town. When we would get anxious together about inconsequential things she would say, “we are not people.”
When I got married on a whim after graduation, she was the only one of my close friends to come, a favor I was too poor to return when she married eight years later. As I moved cross-country and struggled in my marriage, she moved too, from place to place, from one relationship to the next. But the letters were constant. Her handwriting a complicated scrawl, as if it was designed to be code, to keep secrets. Even thousands of miles apart, because of these letters, texts, and gmail chats, we became closer than ever. She began referring to me as her “wife,” even now that is how Facebook labels my relationship to her.
Eventually, we ended up living in adjacent towns and saw each other a few times a week. We would meet up for flan and coffee at the Brazilian place in Lowell on the weekends, she would come over for dinner once or twice a week to our place. It was during one of these dinners that she first complained about a worsening numbness in her left hand. On her way to the sink she dropped her blue dinner plate, her arm betraying her. That night in the emergency room they found the tumor in her brain. I was about six months pregnant with Foos. That blue plate sits under one of my plants now, chipped and cracked, an artifact of memory.
After her diagnosis, she ended up near Jacksonville, living with her father and receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic. A year later, after my husband left me, I ended up here, too. During that first year here when I was lonely and depressed, it was Jess who got me out the door when I didn’t want to, who took me out to dinner when I couldn’t afford to, who loved my daughter as if she were her own. She protected us fiercely, expressing doubt and alarm whenever my husband hinted at a change of heart. Eventually she met the man she would marry and moved to Rhode Island, where her condition worsened and her cancer did not yield chemo. She chose to end her treatment.
Her husband, never a match for her intellectually, turned out to be a charlatan, unable to care for her or love her the way she deserved to be loved. With just months left of her life, her family moved her back to Florida, where she was cared for wonderfully by them and the friends Jess had pulled into her orbit, including me. I am grateful that during out last visit a week before she passed she was lucid, that the void between talking and silence was punctuated by kisses and exchanged I love yous. I will remember the force of those last hand squeezes and those big brown eyes for the rest of my life.
At her memorial service a few days ago, a woman shared a note written by Jess in the ‘Book of Joys, Sorrows and Concerns’ at the UU church in Palatka. It read, “Today I am proud and grateful to have made it through another rotation around the sun. Despite setbacks, I have learned a lot about strength and kindness.” I, too, learned a lot about strength and kindness. From the hospice nurses who came to care for her every week, to our friends who flew in and drove up to be there for her. I learned from her father and sister whats it’s like to care, until the very last breath, for someone you love. I am so grateful to them and our friends for showing up when it really mattered.
All of this still feels too big to process, but I hope I can find creative ways to honor the memory of my friend.