Forgetting to Remember Her (July 2, 2011)

 

Jesika

 

 

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two and a half years since Jesika died, and yet in some ways it feels like so much longer. Almost nothing in my life is the same as it was then. When I lost my closest female friend in April of 2009 to the briefest, cruelest battle with ovarian cancer, I was a part of corporate America, happily married (at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned), and just coming out of the fog that had previously prevented me from chasing a writer’s dream.

The world stopped for a long while after I returned from an ill-timed trip to Israel to discover that I had missed Jesika’s final days. She looked me in the eyes before I left and assured me that she’d be there when I returned, but that oxygen tank she was lugging around as she carefully spoke should have convinced me otherwise. The ensuing weeks were full of grief, funerals, eulogies and painful regret. I left my job not long afterward and pursued writing headlong. Jesika always supported me and trusted that I would find my voice. I owed it to her, who would never have the chance to fulfill her earthly dreams, to get serious sooner rather than later.

There’s not a lot of sense to be made when a 30 year-old bright, beautiful and hilarious woman is struck down so swiftly and in such a destructive way. Jesika’s life partner Kevin has since told me that one of the most demoralizing parts of watching her go downhill was the way the cancer started to affect her brain, causing her to speak periodic gibberish. I can only imagine how hard that was for him to watch, because it killed me just to hear it.

One of the few positive outcomes to a tragic wrongdoing has been my growing friendship with Kevin. I will not go into much detail because it is his story to tell, but he was prevented from attending Jesika’s funeral due to a family’s misguided need to find someone to blame for the incomprehensible. I am by no means a religious person but I felt strongly that Jesika was communicating with me, telling me to look after Kevin as best I could, since he was being denied so much, and she wasn’t here to make it right.

We were each other’s lifelines to the woman we missed terribly. I had known Jesika since the age of 14 so I could share the crazy stories of our adolescent misadventures with him. He in turn knew the Jesika of college and law school that I had missed. Between the two of us, we could form a nearly complete narrative of her life, her love and her humor. We visited her gravesite, cried together and through our shared grief and experiences, eventually formed an independent friendship of our own.

On Thursday night, we had dinner at Leona’s Italian restaurant, part of a local Chicago chain and one of Jesika’s favorites. Kevin and I hadn’t seen each other in four months, right after I decided to leave my husband and before I had my own, minor-by-comparison cervical cancer procedure. On Wednesday night, I had something close to a panic attack. I realized that I was beginning to separate our friendship from the original context from whence it sprung, and I felt a one-two punch of guilt and fear that stopped me cold. I was ashamed to recognize that I hadn’t thought about Jesika, at all, in about that same four months which had lapsed since I last met Kevin.

I am aware that human survival depends on healing. The heart cannot remain an open wound forever after tragedy, and yet that same ability to rebound can be painful in its own right. I know that I have not forgotten Jesika. She is an integral part of who I am. But since her passing, I have had so many new experiences and made so many memories that by virtue of her absence, she can never share. The memory, with its bias toward primacy and recency, tends to expend its energy on the here and now. And so it was that in a state of saddened remorse, I was suddenly assaulted with a highlight reel of my relationship with Jesika that left me crying on my bathroom floor.

Was I forgetting to remember her? As one of few people who knew her intimately, one of two souls who knew the whole truth about her death and the circumstances around it, and the only one with the bully pulpit and freedom to counteract the alternate version of the story that exists, I am invested with a huge responsibility. And yet preoccupation with my own complicated life and the damned human need to compartmentalize had led me away from the promise I made to Jesika, myself and even if he didn’t know it, Kevin in 2009. What did that mean? What did that say about my capabilities as a friend? Had I let Jesika down?

Kevin and I spent two hours over our meal at one of our girl’s favorite venues and in that time, she came back to life. I realized that the true Jesika, the full and complete bougie, sarcastic, and reality TV-loving woman, the girl who terrorized fast food restaurant owners and snuck into R-rated movies with me, is only actualized when Kevin and I conjure her together. When we meet, she is sitting with us, and probably wearing a huge smile over the fact that her two favorite people in the world have bonded.

That’s when it hit me that my close friendship with Kevin IS remembering her. It is honoring her and her life. In fact it might be arrogant of Kevin and I to assume we had any control in forming this link, initially connected by grief but continued through genuine regard and appreciation for one another. When Jesika first returned to Chicago and moved in with the love of her life, she wanted us to be friends. It may not have happened the way any of us planned, but we have fulfilled one of her greatest wishes. That’s a more effective and positive way of respecting her legacy than self-indulgent guilt.

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