In Memory of Jesika (April 25, 2011)

Jesika Stairs

Two years ago today, I lost my partner in crime, Jesika Brooke Thompson, to an almost ludricrously brief battle with ovarian cancer, the “silent killer” of too many amazing women. Her 17-day struggle with the disease, and the effort to accept life without her, has been a huge factor in my personal transformation since April 25, 2009.

I am reprinting the eulogy I read at Jesika’s memorial service, as a small way of spreading the word about this fantastic friend, wonderful daughter, partner and professional.

In less than two weeks, I will be walking with Team June/Jesika as part of the Chicago Chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC). If you would like to make a donation to this important cause (and any amount is appreciated), click here to be taken to my personal page

 

I first met Jesika Brooke Thompson in September of 1992 when we were both freshman at Lincoln Park High School on the North Side of Chicago. Jesika had come over to Lincoln Park with a crew of her fellow graduates from Hawthorne Elementary school, some of whom are with us today. As for me, I was the lonely, 100 pound, 5′ 4′ refugee of a tiny place called Pilgrim Lutheran Grade School. My graduating class had 12 students, so I was both overwhelmed and excited to start my new life as the member of a freshman class of nearly 1,000.

Luckily enough, I knew a few people from a summer school program I had participated in only a few months before. Some of the students I met were from Hawthorne, so when the inaugural at Lincoln Park rolled around, I stuck close to them. That first day of classes, a bunch of the Hawthorne crowd, including Jesika, decided to grab lunch at Robinson’s Ribs across the street from campus. As I walked across the quad to meet my pals, I got a look at Jesika, and, more importantly, she had a chance to size me up. I will never forget her first words to me: “What is that thing on your head?”

Yes, I, the skinny 14 year-old white fish swimming for the first time in a huge, multi-cultural pond, had dared to wear a bandanna to class. I had some misguided notion that it made me look tough or cool. Of course Jesika called me right out, not for the last time in what would turn into a beautiful 16-year friendship. You see that was Jesika’s way. The more she loved you, the more she enjoyed poking you in the ribs, reminding you never to take yourself too seriously, or get too big for your britches.

The last time I saw and spoke to Jesika in person was April 10th of this year. It’s so hard to believe that was just six weeks ago. Though we had grown and changed so much in the last decade and a half, Jesika’s final words to me were as memorable as the first. By the this time, Jesika was aware that she was ill and carted around an oxygen tank and mask to help her breathe better. One would have thought this challenge might subdue her sarcastic side. Not so.

For a few years now, and much to the embarrassment of my husband Eddie, I have been illogically attached to this puffy, long black winter jacket I bought at H&M. The thing may be ugly as sin, but it’s warm and that’s all that matters to me when it’s 30 degrees below outside. Am I right? Jesika had taken a few swipes at this coat over time, but I forgot all about this as I spent time with her at the apartment she shared with her partner, Kevin Smith. It wasn’t until I put my jacket on to go home that I was reminded I ought to have had the presence of mind to wear something else. Because out came Jesika’s quiet and serious voice with an important question: “Becky, why do you always have to wear that? When you gonna buy a new coat?”

I told this story of our first meeting, and shared this piece of the final conversation I had with Jesika, because they are two beautiful and funny bookends to a friendship that spanned half my life. I couldn’t do anything remotely foolish or uppity if I wanted to escape Jesika’s notice. She kept me, and so many of us nodding our heads right now, honest. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I loved her for it.

Now that doesn’t mean that Jesika lived to giggle at the ones she loved, even if it sometimes felt that way. Jesika also had a way of letting you know when she believed in you, that she was 100% behind you, your biggest fan.

I had so many stupid ideas when I was a teenager: trying out for the high school dance team for instance, when I don’t have a lick of rhythm. Going to the homecoming party freshman year, though I was warned by someone we all know well that it would be “ghetto and stupid.” But you know what? I followed through with those plans, and guess who stood right by me as I made a fool of myself? Of course Jesika. She might tell me once I would be sorry if I made up my mind to do something I’d later regret, but that never, ever stopped her from supporting me. She was even willing to endure the same embarrassments if it meant I didn’t have to stand alone. What an amazing gift.

Recently, and in a sorry economic state such as the one we’re facing right now, I made the decision to leave the stable comfort of my 9-5 job and strike out as a freelance writer. I had 6 years of undergrad and grad school to prepare me for this moment, in addition to the simmering will of a dreamer. But I feared what others might say. Did I have enough talent? Was I crazy to give up my solid income at the age of 30 for such a potentially risky endeavor? Would I live to regret taking a chance, and have to endure the ego check of crawling back to the corporate world? For as many doubts as I had in myself, Jesika made it clear that she didn’t have any. She was a registered follower of the blog I manage with my sister. Her only teasing complaint when I published my first piece in StreetWise newspaper last month, was that she’d have to hit the street to get what she called “her daily Becky fix.” Again for a moment, I have to stop and marvel that conversation took place only a month and a half ago. But that was the Jesika way: tickle you with one hand and hug you with the other. For everytime she kidded me for leaving my Facebook profile picture up too long, she would end her message by throwing in a reminder of how proud of me she was.

Maybe the reason I find it so hard to believe she’s gone, even a month later, is because I still feel Jesika behind me in so much that I do. When I walk through the mall and see a kiosk selling the latest model of pink Blackberries, Jesika is there. A week ago, as Kevin and I stumbled around the Lemont cemetery in the pouring rain, looking for Jesika’s burial plot as my worthless high heels sank in the mud, I could almost hear the heckle of Jesika’s generous laugh.

It doesn’t seem real, right or fair that a person so young, intelligent and hilarious be taken from us in such a sudden and terrible way. Sometimes I still have to sit quietly and repeat the words, “Jesika is gone.” Otherwise, I might let myself believe she is just out of town, catching a Janet Jackson concert with one of her many friends scattered across the nation. At a number of points in the last month, as I spoke to Kevin, or my husband, about my great friend Jesika Thompson, I felt as if I were choking on my own selfish desire to bring her back. I was Jesika’s side kick, not the other way around, and I wondered how I could keep moving forward without her love and support.

But that’s just it. I don’t have to. Jesika is right behind me, as she always has been. She will always be young, fresh and healthy. I don’t remember an old or sick version of my friend, just the bright light that she was. If there is any comfort to be found in the gaping wounds of her loss, perhaps that indelible image of Jesika’s teasing laugh, her unyielding support, is what will get me, and maybe some of you, through this difficult time.

Hurts So Good (April 23, 2011)

This Easter weekend, an auspicious period of rebirth and renewal in the Christian culture, yours truly is feeling very much like a 92 year-old woman. My whole body hurts, from the roots of my hair to the recurring tendonitis in my right toes.

I have pushed myself to the physical limits this week, in a not-so-subconscious effort to try to outrun my psyche, to strong arm the emotional pain and confusion I feel about my new life. I strained my right bicep tendon doing repeated G.I. Jane-style pull-ups on Tuesday. My thighs and glutes are painfully sore from squats, lunges and miles and miles of bike riding. My shins are bruised and scraped from a late-Wednesday night tumble off that same bike. And my corpus as a whole feels the kind of chilly fatigue that is hard to shake after traversing the City by cycle for hours in the pouring rain, wearing the armor of soggy jeans, wet socks and cotton clothes clinging to my frame.

I did wonder as I made my way back to my apartment last night if I didn’t have some sort of warrior-style death wish. I have always been a tomboy, and functioning as the son my father never had, I learned a lot from him about silently sweating out the pain, the gym as therapy. I do see a psychologist, and a brilliant one at that, but I recognize that I can only talk about my feelings so much. The story, for the foreseeable future, won’t change, and I hate wallowing. So I try to expel the negative energy through brute force, and even if that doesn’t work, I think as I sweat. There’s not a long of time between grunts for extraneous thoughts. One can’t help but focus.

But I forget sometimes that though the human body is capable of amazing things, it is still a human body, fallible, often frail and requiring proper care to continue running at peak performance. I haven’t been eating well, and at least this week, neglecting to sleep as much as I should. Combine that with self-induced samurai training, and I am in a world of hurt today, even after hibernating for 11 hours and consuming more victuals than I believed my stomach could accommodate.

My body has officially revolted: basta, fini, enough. I have to respect that. But that means that for the next two days at least, I can no longer leave my thoughts in the wake.

The Cat Lady (April 19, 2011)


I was engaged in a text message conversation with my oldest friend in the world last night. Bob has known me since I was four years old, the year my family moved back to Chicago after my father’s stint in the Army. Bob and his clan lived down the block from my maternal grandparents and we attended the same grade school. There is very little he doesn’t know about me and vice versa. That idea could be scary, the inability to hide anything from another, but for me, it’s always been a source of comfort. In a world where I feel woefully misunderstood more often than not, the fact that I don’t have to say anything at all for Bob to know exactly where I am coming from is a wonderful perk.

So we bantered about his return to Chicago in mid-May for the occasion of his eldest brother’s wedding. Bob asked in one message if he had told me this information previously and I rejoined that he had clearly gone old and senile, because yes, I had heard this before. Ha ha. Until…..

I read his reply: “You are almost 33 and maybe I should get you a kitten since you’re turning into a cat lady.”

Ouch.

Yes it’s true, I live on my own now, in a studio apartment after my official separation last weekend from estranged husband Eddie. It has been a process and I am struggling to overcome waking up each morning with the distinct impression that I am missing a limb. My only companion for the time being is one very spoiled, very fat seven year-old cat by the name of Jordan. He has picked up with the same sense of loud entitlement where my ex left off. I have considered a little brother or sister for Jordan, but he’s never been good at sharing: space, attention, food. We’ll see how things go.

Bob meant nothing by his off the cuff text. He was only giving as good as I did with my senility dig, but something about what he typed cut straight to the heart of all my worst fears and insecurities.

Years ago, I remember watching an episode from Season 4 of Sex and the City. It’s the one where Miranda’s mother dies and the girls attend her funeral. Although I was in my 20s at the time, an astute observation from Miranda struck fear into my singleton heart:

“I’m fine. But everybody else is very concerned about me because I’m here alone. I didn’t realize I needed a date for my mother’s funeral. My sister and her husband want me to thirdwheel with them down the aisle ‘cause God forbid that I should walk it alone, because that would be the real tragedy, right? lgnore the coffin. There’s a single 35 year old woman walking behind it.”

I am approaching 35, and though I am satisfied with many aspects of my existence, I am well aware that a twice-divorced single woman has diminishing prospects of uncovering her soulmate at this stage of the game. I am not a fatalist, just a realist, and further complicating those odds is the “touch me not” state that my mind and body currently occupy.

At the same time, I recognize the looks of “concern,” the subtle vocal suggestions that I have become an object of pity amongst a section of my social circle: the invitations from happy couples to “thirdwheel” it when they go out for drinks, the suggestions from well-meaning girlfriends that I should meet their mate’s best friend’s-brother’s-cousin-who-went-to-Yale-law-and-oh-yes-he-reads-books-too.

It’s a question as old as the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, but why is it that a single man of the same age, who may also be a couple of times divorced, just doesn’t engender the same sort of worry? I might as well ask that question of myself because my thin-skinned reaction to Bob’s playful barb exposed just how ingrained into my subconscious the backward rules of sexual politics actually are.

As I meditated on the subject while performing my bedtime rituals (an insanely long process that may have done more to drive away my partners than any love of felines could), I asked myself what’s so wrong with being a cat lady anyway? Jordan’s love, adoration and body warmth require very spare emotional bandwidth. They are unconditional. All he needs me to do is love him back.

 

IUD: A Love Story (April 14, 2011)

12 years ago, at the age of 20, I experienced some mild problems with the birth control pills I was taking. The doctor in charge of my care at that time suggested taking a break from hormones. I was presented with two options: condoms or the insertion of an Intrauterine Device, more common known as an IUD. Well I know far too many children walking the earth today because of a condom-related malfunction, and since I could barely count to ten at that time, I figured I should go for the super-protection that only the IUD could offer.

The copper IUD, the version I selected, works in two different ways, which explains the contraceptive’s 99.9% effective rate. First, the t-shaped device negatively affects the mobility of sperm, preventing it from fertilizing an egg. Additionally, the IUD, by nature of its placement, safely distorts the shape of the uterus, rendering it nearly impossible for a fertilized egg, should it reach that stage, to implant.

Typically, it is best to go with the IUD as a method of birth control if you have already procreated, as the body is in a better position to endure the patently awful insertion process. I have never been pregnant and I certainly had no idea how hellacious the procedure would be, but I had the self-awareness to know that I was not destined for motherhood for a long time, if ever. So I went for it.

For 12 calendar years and a few mongamous relationships, my IUD and I were sympatico. Except for some increased cramping during the PMS phase, this thing was a true blessing. I have been married for 10 of the last 12 years, and there’s so much to be said for never having to think about birth control: ready at any moment for loving, no pills to take, no frantic trips to the 7-11. Life was good.

But like all good things, my time with the IUD had to end. The copper device is typically recommended for a 10-year period, but as it was agreeing so damn well with me, my new doctor thought it would be fine to ride it out for another two. He received no argument. I cannot overstate the horrendousness of the insertion (when I spoke about this with Eddie, I likened it to a wire hanger up the prostate – men are often unable to sympathize without a relatable equivalent).

This week ushered in the 12-year deadline and ready or not, the IUD had to be removed. I am pleased to report that after a solid decade of working myself up, taking it out was in no way comparable to the experience of having it placed.

It is ironic walking around, able to be impregnated for the first time in 12 years, at precisely the moment when I have no one with whom to copulate. One of life’s many little pokes (pun intended – I’m here all week!). I received a prescription for a new kind of very-low hormone birth control pill, but I can’t start taking it until the completion of my latest menstrual cycle. Like so many other things in my life right now, it’s a new era.

I almost feel like a teenager again in terms of my inexperience. Clearly, as the pill does not protect against STDs (nor did the IUD for the record), I will also have to learn about the seemingly endless brands and incarnations of the “Jimmy Hat” (a term I first heard from the mouth of my trainer Rob). I haven’t had to think about this variable in ages, being immersed in comfortable, mongamous routine. What are the kids today using? What do they recommend?

As I thought about my beautiful time with the IUD, a long stretch of my adult life when I could focus on relationships, career and personal growth without the threat of an unplanned mouth to feed crashing in, I considered last week’s fight over funding for Planned Parenthood, which according to the Republican Party, was a big enough ideological deal to warrant a near-shutdown of the Federal government. If many on the right had their way, I would have never have had access to the device in the first place. Nor would I be on the pill in the near future. I am kind of tired of this conversation. I am tired of the conflation of abortion and contraception as if they are one and the same. Loving my IUD, and thus my reproductive freedom, does not make me a slut or a bad person. Stop telling me it does.

Have You Seen Me? (April 12, 2011)

I hardly recognize myself these days. Ruminating and paroxysms of despair are my norm, so is it strange, when going through a painful divorce, to work through the stages of grief this quickly? It has been six weeks since Eddie and I made the gutwrenching decision to move on with our lives alone, and once the words were uttered, I was on top of denial right away.

The part where I had to leave was definitely real, but I kept the naive, delusional hope alive that separation didn’t necessarily have to mean divorce. Because once I vanished, Eddie would begin to beat his breast, realize that he was lost without me, and somehow morph into the kind, supportive and attentive spouse I had been missing. Yes in the long run this temporarily split could even be good for us. We’d laugh over our impetuousness in the years to come, regaling our embarrassed children with tales of stubborn passion leading to mature contrition.

This phase lasted about a week until endless screaming, defiance and open disrespect made it clear that I could not stay in Fantasyland for an unlimited time. There would be no opportunity for reconciling, and even if we found an opening, the will is simply not there.

Then I spent about three solid weeks in anger. I am a hot-blooded Italian and was raised in a family of explosive emotion of all varieties. Anger has never been tough. I was mad that I am the one who has to leave the family home because my income will not allow me to stay. I have to let go of car, family, furniture, pretty much everything I have spent the last five years helping my partner build. It’s not about the money. It’s about disposability, loneliness and the struggle to start over that should have been avoided. Hell, I feel an anger flashback right now just pondering it. But I have laid my hair trigger reactions to rest. They will not change anything and will comfort no one.

Bargaining came next: time to utilize the health insurance coverage I enjoyed through Eddie’s job before divorce cuts me off. A short window to use the car that’s no longer mine to pick up new apartment essentials, run errands and visit friends and family I may not be able to get to for some time. In this stage of grief, the power imbalance in my marriage was never more clear. Out of a need to placate and survive, I became the pleading sycophant, dependent on the whims and good humor of my estranged husband to take care of business. At this stage of grief, I never hated myself, or him, more.

Two more weeks of solid depression followed, although truth be told, I had been languishing at this stage of grief for nearly a year. The stages are not necessarily linear. I lost weight, sleep, and more tears than I believed it possible to shed. I haven’t exactly cleared this phase yet and know that I may not for some time. Sadness and loss go together and I am not going to rush this one.

So what’s been left for the last week is a tentative form of acceptance. Acceptance is a tricky phase because knowing something can never be fixed is not quite the same as being OK with it. But awareness that my energies will be completely wasted in hoping for a happy ending has allowed me to start considering and planning for the future, a future of self-reliance and hard work. I am not a great fan of the dense, needlessly complex writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have always ascribed to his philosophy that the self-made (wo)man is she who enjoys the most satisfaction. So I am all set to go with my move, every logistical detail planned to perfection. My career, the paid day job and the freelance endeavors, are starting to take off in ways I never imagined. Dating is a long way off, but I am reconnecting with friends, old and new, and feel a wider range of emotions suddenly available to me.

I feel better about myself and my prospects than I have in months, but there is a voice of doubt residing in my gray matter, hinting that I might be fooling myself. Is it possible to be somewhat ok already? Can I trust the endorphins that seem to be telling me life will actually go on?

Fake It ‘Til You Make It (April 6, 2011)

The thing about divorce is, it’s good for the waistline. On the whole, given that I am a week away from embarking on a life of complete solitude, I have been coping well. I show up to work everyday and give it my full effort, despite a disorienting case of physical and emotional exhaustion. I stay engaged with friends and colleagues. I bathe. I sleep. I breathe. For those of you who have gone through a marital dissolution, just accomplishing everyday taks is a triumph.

The one thing that has completely fallen by the wayside is the ability to eat and drink. The glass of wine I wolf down to calm my nerves before Eddie and I confront each other for the first time every evening doesn’t count. We have nothing left to say, but the sight of his person walking through the door each night, casually humming as if the world isn’t ending, gives me the vapors. But the concept of actual nourishment is beyond me. I experience fleeting pangs that tell me it’s time to fuel up, but more often than not, I end up staring blankly at my plate and glass of water, like I do most other stimuli.

So the result is that I weigh 12 pounds less today than I did at my senior prom, and I was not heavy in high school by any means. Under different circumstances, the vain parts of my character (which are embarassingly abundant) would be turning cartwheels. But I can’t experience pride in results that stem from being hollowed.

The unintentional weight loss is a fairly apt metaphor for the shrinkage I feel as an individual. In very quick succession I find myself without husband, family, but even more than that, I have lost my guiding purpose. For five straight years, Eddie was my drug of choice, the center of my chaotic universe, the hard emotional rock against which I continually broke my body and spirit. I realize this isn’t the most positive of images but a purpose of any kind can be more comforting than gazing out into the unknown abyss. At least I knew the rules. Now, I am going through the motions but hardly know what to do with myself at a station that has stopped playing “all Eddie, all the time.”

Intuitively, I understand that I will figure it out. Somehow. One of the reasons I ended up in this predicament is a lifelong failure to learn how to live for myself. Now there’s nowhere to hide. I have always had someone to take care of. It’s kind of what I do. Growing up, I was the adult in my home, the one trusted with secrets, sought out for counsel, the cleaner of messes my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t address. This precocious level of responsibility didn’t leave a lot of time for figuring out what it is I wanted and needed, and if I’m being completely honest, I was fine with that.

As a young adult, I punted and focused on my my sister and her first daughter until I saw her safely married to a wonderful, responsible man. From there I jumped into a “starter marriage” that encompassed all the drama you would expect from two people barely old enough to drink, trying to play at adulthood. Not long after the ink dried on those 2006 divorce papers, I threw myself headlong into an all-consuming fascination with Eddie, the handsome, exotic, powerful man I was certain I needed. It made perfect sense. By aligning myself with people who had definitive ideas and opinions of the way things should work, I could defer having to draw a map for myself.

I can’t say I ever felt fulfilled but for a grown woman in complete denial, pretending at a self-assuredness she never actually possessed, the arrangement suited its purpose. Until I began to chafe. Until little voices I never knew existed started to scream that I had it all wrong: a career in corporate operations that asked nothing of my creative capacity, a union in which my voice was the fourth most important (after that of Eddie and his folks), an upper-middle class lifestyle as foreign as walking into the men’s room by accident.

A part of me would love another human project to throw myself into. I am a creature of habit, of schedule, and am not really sure how to pencil “find myself” into the weekly calendar. But I am nothing if not stubborn, and I admantly refuse to let myself duck a responsibility that has led to so much poor decision making.

So I go through my day making swift calculations, taking actions to establish the next phase of my life with a certainty that I don’t yet feel. It’s all about forming new pathways to replace the destructive ones.

 

Losing My Religion (April 1, 2011)

Earlier this week, I was able to open up about my impending divorce for the first time. I understand very broadly that I have only begun to process the millions of conflicting emotions and feelings that overtake one, often at the oddest times, when going through a separation from a spouse, even under the best of circumstances. So far, our schism has been the opposite of cordial, which rather reflects the general combative tenor of our five-year relationship. I do not lay the blame for this on Eddie. For whatever reason, we always seem to bring out the worst in each other, and hammering out the financial and logistical details of our split has been no exception.

The last four weeks have been marked by attempts to discuss business like adults, inevitably devolving into a flaring of tempers, finger pointing and tremendously wounded feelings. With two weeks left before I officially relocate, we have worked out most of the details, and while sidestepping each other in our still-shared space, there is little conversation left. We both carry the mien of two PTSD-afflicted soldiers who want to patch ourselves up and go back out to the field, but no longer have the tools or the emotional bandwidth. We’ve lost the ability to comfort each other, because how can the person killing you be the one who saves your life?

In one strained and measured discussion held this week however, Eddie raised a point that I had yet to consider. Born into Lutheranism, I had pretty much rejected all organized religion by the time I reached high school. I flirted with Buddhism in my 20s before finally converting to Hinduism at age 29 as part of the package deal of marriage to my Indian-born mate. I will not go so far as to say I’ve been a devotee, but there is really a lot to appreciate. Though there are rigid, right-wing practitioners (as there are in all religions), at its core, the Hindu religion is quite flexible. If one so chooses, they don’t have to move much farther than two core tenets: do no harm to the living (humans, plants, animals), liberally thank the god(s) and seek their blessings.

In a fit of pique, Eddie suggested that the breach of our partnership invalidates my Hindu “membership,” the argument being that since I converted simply for expediency’s sake (his family would never have accepted the marriage if I hadn’t), deciding to invalidate the union did so with my adopted beliefs by extension.

I mention that this was said during one of many tense discussions, but emotions aside, I had the sense that my estranged husband was fairly serious. But do things work like this? I have a friend, a converted Jew, who made the switch after marrying early in his 20s. The religion stuck even when the wife didn’t, and now in his early 50s, he is one of the most dedicated members of the Jewish faith I have ever encountered. His rights were not “revoked,” so to speak.

But branding and permissions aside, I find myself wondering what my admiration of the Hindu faith means without Eddie and the rest of his family. His mother has spent a lot of time over the years educating me about mythology, the holiday calendar and the auspicious meanings behind it, rituals, etc. I have gone to mandir (temple) on my own numerous times, a practice that often bring me a lot of peace, but I realize that in the past, a lot of that peace stemmed from a sense of belonging – not just to the faith, but to a family that pays more than lip service to the teachings.

So what do I do with all of this knowledge and experience now? Why do I feel like I am not wanted and no longer have the right to practice, though I stood up in front of literally thousands of people in a foreign country to swear my allegiance? And mind you, I don’t go around doing that sort of thing regularly. I realize that my religious quandry is part of a larger and troubling question of trying to figure out where (if anywhere) I actually belong, odd and broken bird that I am.