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.

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