The Birthday That Should Have Been (August 17, 2009)

This is Jesika Brooke Thompson (1978-2009) last year on her 30th birthday, at the home of her partner Kevin’s mother, behaving like any healthy and carefree young woman ought: pretending to be embarassed, but secretly thrilled that her future mother-in-law thought enough of her to bake a her a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to her, as if she were one of Mama Smith’s own children. It was a beautiful, forward looking and happy time in Jesika’s life.

What a difference a year makes. Today mine and Kevin’s monthly lunch debate took on a more serious mission: making the long drive out to Lemont to visit our girl on the occasion of her 31st birthday. It had been awhile since I last saw Kevin, more than six weeks, and though I worry about him – tired, worn, sad, I marvel each time that he gets out of bed each day, showers, dresses and goes to work in world that stopped making sense for him almost four months ago.

The day began, appropriately enough, with a downpour. I woke with Jesika on my mind, thinking shamefully of my own aging pity party of two weeks ago. At least I still have birthdays right? I drove over to the house where Kevin now lives with his Mom, slightly South of Hyde Park, thinking as I looked for a parking spot, of the day, less than a year ago, when Jesika drove me down the same road, showing me the houses she’d like to buy with Kevin when they were “grown.”

There was a pretty long break in the day’s rain, long enough for Kevin and I to track down the familiar headstone that neither of us had seen since mid-May. Jesika’s family still hasn’t placed her permanant marker, and the temporary one has had time to become overgrown with weeds, grass and the like. For reasons that only a shrink would understand, this made me mad and I spent the first several minutes of my visit pulling greenery in an effort to re-expose Jesika’s name. Yes, she is there – more than a plot of sod that seems not to want to mesh with the rest of the pasture around it.

Kevin and I both agreed that once my furious errand of exposing Jesika’s marker was complete, neither of us quite knew what to say. It was easier somehow in May when the newness of Jesika’s absence still made it possible to fool oneself into the belief that this was a temporary situation. 120 days, plenty of pain and sleeplessness later, the many times I wanted to reach for the phone and ask Jesika’s advice, make her laugh with one of my famous trainwreck stories – I know that her absence is permanent. Because nothing short of inability could have breached our loyalty to one another.

I left the house this morning with the notion that I was simply going to celebrate the day Jesika was born, the day that made it possible for her to befriend me on the steps of the Lincoln Park High School Mall almost 17 years ago exactly. But my stubborn heart would not rejoice. Instead I left Kevin to “have a moment alone” at Jesika’s grave, while I wandered the narrow gravel roads of the cemetary with tears streaming down my left cheek. It’s not fair, and it will never be fair that such a vivid and beautiful light went out on me, on so many of us, long before anyone was ready. I do not know who to blame and perhaps the worst and most painful part, is that there is no one to fault. These things happen. You tell yourself that, but it doesn’t help.

I am not sure what happens to use once we die. I am not ashamed to admit that. It’s frightening and I often think that life would be a lot easier if I could give myself over to the belief of an all-powerful, all-knowing entity. But I believe in Jesika. I always have. And darn it, she was kind enough to return the favor. It didn’t last nearly long enough, but that’s a gift if I ever received one. So thank you my friend. I hope you are resting in peace.

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