The Voracity of Death (November 16, 2014)

Early this week, a former colleague from the American Dental Association died suddenly. He went in his sleep after telling his wife in the evening that he didn’t feel well. The cause of death has not been made public, but it’s presumed to be some variation of heart attack/aneurysm/stroke. The arbitrary kind of turn that the story of life and its ending takes everyday.

Ed was in his late 50s. A few years ago, my friends and co-workers Diane and Jimmy volunteered for an Association charitable activity with me, as a change of civic pace from our usual happy hour/sushi bonding. Ed gave us all a ride in his car, which was just coated in dog hair, evidence of his pet devotion. He wasn’t the least bit concerned that we’d show up for duty at a food dispensary matted with health code violations. Ed was a weird, smart dude who loved a good debate and really didn’t worry about what people thought. I like weird, smart dudes. The world will be a little less interesting without him.

Later in the week, semi-famous reality TV star Diem Brown died at age 32 after a nine-year battle with ovarian cancer. This was on my radar in part because of a long and somewhat embarrassing love affair with MTV’s The Challenge, a competition series featuring former cast members from reality groundbreakers The Real World and Road Rules. I have a ceaseless appetite for frenemy tropes and the drunken, televised antics of my generation (and slightly younger people). It has a way of reinforcing that my own life choices are imperfectly acceptable.

There have been a bevy of seasons over the last decade with absurd “storylines,” fights and stomach churning behavior. What can I say? I traffic in highbrow and lowbrow in equal parts. But one narrative elicited no schadenfreude from viewers: the ongoing health battles of Diem Brown and her touching on again, off again relationship with ultimate sexy bad boy, CT Tamburello. Diem was always a competitor first, a conflicted lover second and a cancer patient third. CT brought out the best in Diem and never allowed her to hide her feelings or her chemo-induced baldness, even as he continued to make mistakes that drove them apart. They were an easy and beautiful pair for whom to root, and I always believed that once they finished sewing their respective wild oats, these two crazy kids would figure it out.

As of Friday, it is clear they’ll never have the opportunity. After her third battle with ovarian cancer, Diem succumbed to the disease, after devoting the best years of her young life to fighting it.

Of course all of this made me think of Jesika. Of ovarian cancer and how I might hate this killer above all others. The silent, hungry assassin sneaks up on the body, even the most carefully monitored and healthy ones, eating them slowly until it’s too late. All the while, the host feels just fine…until she doesn’t. And in too many cases, as the disease’s average age of onset continues to decline, she doesn’t get to marry the love of her life, or reach the full height of her cultivated career, or make a huge mess of it all and start over. She doesn’t get to do anything at all.

Ovarian cancer also claimed my paternal grandmother June, when she was in her 60s. I was there in her Wisconsin home-turned-hospice staging area in the summer of 1991. I was 12 years old watching her waste away, struggle to breathe. Grandma Crowley had six full-grown children and numerous grandkids. She’d been a great beauty who loved a good Manhattan. She’d lived. But that didn’t make it any easier to bear the live and needless suffering of one of the few adults who really gave a damn about my sister and I.

So much pain and death this week – for the living and those who experienced a karmic fluke or lost a war. So much futile anger and fervent wishing with no outlet. Such an inability to pull out a more profound lesson than the trite and oft-repeated warning to make every moment count.

Planning for the future is important. Some of us excel in the exercise, obsess about it. It’s a comforting illusion of control, a ritual we must repeat instead of scanning our environment fearfully or repeatedly rushing to the exam table. We will make our imprint. We will not be forgotten. We will not succumb to panic.

But the acts of living, of building, of wanting and working can, and often will be interrupted, painfully and prematurely. And there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s the truth. And it hurts.

April 2013 Is the Cruelest Month (April 25, 2013)

April 2013 is the Cruelest Month

I have been struggling this month my friends. Struggling to write, struggling to exercise. Many days I’m struggling to get out of bed, though insomniac tossing and turning allows no comfort. It’s not exactly a state secret that I war with depression now and again. In addition to emotional ennui’s position as the cliched birthright of the author, it’s been a full frontal assault and I haven’t enough weapons.

The weather is enough to engender a Midwestern Seasonal Affective Disorder pandemic. I saw a Facebook status morning that neatly summed it up, “We’ve having a lovely winter this spring.” Keen observation of the air’s lingering chill aside, it really hasn’t been lovely at all, has it? My fellow Chicagoans will perhaps join me in observing that it isn’t often we can call in “rain” to the office. Yet last week Thursday morning, that’s just what a majority of students and workers were forced to do. Mother Nature assailed us with up to eight inches of precipitation in slightly above 24 hours. I have never seen such a sustained downpour, but I was safe and warm in my apartment. The thousands still grappling with flooded basements and ruined memories are the source of my sorrow.

Then we have the terrorism, ricin letters, explosions and public executions which are becoming the stuff of daily domestic headline. It’s not Tel Aviv in 1984. It’s Boston in 2013 replete with high speed chases, car jackings and robberies. Honestly, I am more comfortable than ever with my decision to remain childless this month. I don’t want to have to explain this broken, deadly partisan and cruel society to anyone. We’re hyperconnected yet increasingly isolated, more mercenary than Gordon Gekko could have imagined. And we’re being led down the rabbit hole by national leaders who cannot pass reforms approved by 90 percent of Americans, laws designed to make purchasing an instrument of death slightly more challenging than obtaining cold medicine

This pungent month does not want to stop at threatening weather and dysfunctional, destructive events that make one assume a whimpering fetal position. Nope. On top of the regular global warming and existential human questions, myself and many of my loved ones have been gifted with disquieting personal challenges. I can say for myself that my romantic partner was injured and rushed to the hospital earlier this week in an industrial accident, which included a total information blackout and mindless race to his side that stopped the world for an hour (mercifully, JC is going to be fine). I’ve undergone tremendous professional upheaval and today, April 25, marks the four-year anniversary of the premature death of my high school mate, Jesika Thompson. My best friend lost an egregiously short 17-day battle with ovarian cancer at the age of 30 and while we share many happy memories, none of us who loved her will ever be the same.

I am not trying to justify my lethargy. It’s there whether I want it or not, and honestly, I’d prefer the distraction of the constant movement to which I’m accustomed. By my mind and spirit are trapped under multi-ton boulders this month and it’s making it hard to breathe.

I realize that the simple transition to May has no direct correlation with the shift in toxic anti-mojo I desperately desire. On behalf of myself and the Newtown families, the Boston bombing victims and their loved ones and everyone else facing an exhausting cluster of defiance this month, the movement of a couple dates promises no release. But let’s try it anyway, shall we?

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.

Pseudo Cancer (June 5, 2011)

Is it possible to experience survivor’s guilt before even going under the knife? If so, that’s what I’m dealing with at the moment. I tried explaining this feeling to my friend Diane on Friday evening. A few years ago, Diane developed a tumor in her chest that began to push on her lungs. Months of surgery, chemotherapy and hair loss ensued, and I am proud to say that my pal is awhile past the coveted five-year remission milestone. Diane is a singer/songwriter, artist, writer, and all around beautiful and fabulous woman. The world needs her.

Two years ago, I lost one of my best friends, Jesika, to a lightening quick 17-day battle with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, At the time, 30 year-old Jes was a lawyer, recent Chicago transplant, and impending bride-to-be. She was just beginning the best parts of her life, and her fast demise remains an epic tragedy for many who loved her.

I have Stage 2 cervical cancer. But big deal. I am having surgery this coming Tuesday morning, and there is every reason to believe that I will be absolutely fine afterward – no additional radiation, procedures or body-wracking chemo required. I will immediately move from patient to recovery in the span of two hours.

Except for the occasional bouts of depression which are only tangentially related to living with the disease, and far more associated with feelings of confusion and loss stemming from my impending divorce, I feel absolutely fine. And somehow, for lack of a better word, that just seems….wrong.

Last Sunday I rode 30 miles in Chicago’s annual Bike the Drive event along Lake Shore Drive. My conception of people battling cancer doesn’t allow for that picture of vitality. I have lost a few pounds recently, but again, that is to be blamed on poor eating habits and grief, rather than debilitating sickness. I am able to work, to write, to meet friends for drinks and attend family events. I am not flat on my back, shrunken and surrounded by pill bottles, as I recall of my grandmother June when she succumbed to ovarian cancer herself back in 1991.

Today happens to be National Cancer Survivor’s Day, a time of reflection and deserved celebration for those who have conquered the disease in its myriad forms. It is also a day to recognize the family, friends and partners who stood by each of these brave people and ushered them out the other side. I cannot count myself as one of the survivors yet, but even after I am released from the hospital on Tuesday, I’m not sure I have the right to join the party.

There are those in my corner who bolster me with accolades about my strength and fortitude. But I don’t feel either of those things. In fact I have been rather, weak, scared and anti-social, far more wounded and fear-stricken by the idea of spending the rest of my life alone, rather than afraid of not having a life at all. Does this sound like the average cancer patient?

Like so many other social groups: wives, mothers, workers and now battlers of the Big C, I feel oddly anachronistic. It’s another area of our cultural fabric where I feel somewhat alienated, meeting the criteria and yet not quite what is expected. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that I wish I were sicker. I have enough other problems to wrestle. I just don’t know my place.

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.