Many years ago, while married to husband #1, a friend who lived next door worked part time for an apartment community down the road. She enjoyed it, but felt it interfered with her weekends spent with family, so before quitting she tried to convince me to apply, to fill her position after she left.
I declined at the time.
Six months later, I was driving down the road to see what this apartment community had to offer.
This is where my friend Jill entered my life. Jill was the property manager, and our first meeting scared the crap out of me. She was a bit abrasive, and had seemed annoyed with me. There were two applications in front of her already, and it appeared she had already narrowed her choice down for who she wanted to hire, but I decided to throw my hat into the ring. It was a weekend only job, but I wasn’t going anywhere, and after a few minutes Jill started to warm up to me. So much so, that she and I talked for two hours.
I was hired.
Jill and I shared birthdays, July 5th. She was born exactly twelve years before I was, and even though she had three boys, she felt like I was another one of her kids. Every year, she’d call me up on July 5th and ask me: “What are you doing today on our birthday?”
She was the quintessential mother, always taking care of me in ways I hadn’t noticed in my younger years. When I was going through my divorce from husband #1, and needed more hours in order to support myself and afford an apartment, Jill lined up a gig for me working with her and for our sister apartment community, so I could achieve full time hours. When I moved into my apartment, she allowed me to pay half the rent on the 1st, and the other half on the 15th so I didn’t overextend myself. She would always ask how I was, or want to know about my life and what was happening in it. Most of the time, the advice she gave me was candid and brutal, but that was the way she was. Jill was right roughly 95% of the time, and it was something all of us who knew her and loved her just had to accept.
She was beautiful, in an unassuming way, with big brown eyes, legs that went on for miles and a cute pixy cut that I had never seen change in the decade I’d known her. She refused to grow her hair out, once telling me that short hair was much more professional and attractive.
While making plans for my wedding to husband #2, I had purchased a Hallmark card for Jill, and inside it I had written to her a heartfelt message, and asked her if she’d do me the honor of representing me as my mother at my wedding. It was one of the few times I’d seen her get emotional. She wasn’t one for tears, or for physical touch with people she didn’t know well. There were few hugs passed between us in the beginning; the initial ones were stiff and awkward but as she got to know you, she enveloped you with love. She showed her affection in other ways, though. When I’d wear my hair into a bun, she’d walk by and scrunch it with her hand. She seemed to enjoy doing that. She called me “Sara Lea”, which became my nick name, and I started calling her “Jill Erin”. When she was with me, helping me to pick out a wedding dress for my big day, she was teary eyed when we’d found “the one”, and she seemed to beam with pride as I walked down the aisle, as though I truly was one of her brood.
She loved babies, and was never remiss to show her affection or gregariousness with them. When both my boys were born, she enjoyed them immensely, holding them, feeding them, giving them kisses. She also gave me multitudes of advice in regards to them, because she was mom, and she knew best. As a mother, she often talked about her own boys and how much she loved them, or if they were pissing her off on a particular day, which really meant that she was showing them off, showing how proud she was of them. Jill was a big talker, who loved having conversations. She was always on the phone, and one time a good friend of ours told Jill, “I’m buying you a headset for Christmas, so you can talk as much as you want with ease”.
Jill’s response: “Fuck off.”
For all her conversation though, Jill was an intensely private person. I noticed quickly how conversations were turned around on myself, and what I was doing. Rarely, unless it was about her boys, would Jill give you glimpses into her own world. It would often be months or years before I’d find out about an event in her life, and I visited with her once a week for years!
When I found out she had stage IV small cell carcinoma, I was numb and devastated. I couldn’t believe it. I went to see her right after she told me, and she talked about her plans to fight the disease like “the bitch she was”. I cried a little and gave her a big hug, and she patted my back gently and told me it was going to be all right. She was so strong and brave. The word “fighter” comes to mind. When I asked her how she felt about everything, she sat for a long pause, looking away at the far wall behind me. She looked at me then, and told me how she wasn’t afraid to die; it was the fear of what her boys would be put through that scared her most of all. When she said this, her eyes were glistening with unshed tears that never fell, and I nodded in understanding.
There have been many times over the past decade that I’ve related to Jill, as a person, as a mother, as someone who feels almost identical to someone. So many times, she’d say something and say to me, “I know you know what I mean” and I truly did. It was almost scary sometimes. I understood her tough exterior, the hard time she had with showing a soft side, because I struggle with those same issues, the same walls.
All that said, I had a hard time keeping it together during one of the last visits with Jill. She’d lost a substantial amount of weight, and there was something almost child-like about her. I went to see her with good friends of mine who were also close to her and had known her for many years. I sat on one side of her, while she lay cuddled up in a warm blanket on a recliner. She said she was so glad we had come to see her, and she needed to tell us how the chemotherapy had done nothing for her, and there were no other options for her. I started to cry, and I turned my face away so she couldn’t see me. She said she was sorry for making me cry, and her hand reached out to stroke the top of my head, telling me it would be OK. Later we hung out with her in her bedroom, talking in between the mini-nap breaks she would take at random times. When it was time to go, we all gave her hugs and told her how much we loved her. She apologized for making me cry earlier, and I kissed her cheek and told her it was OK. I loved her anyway.
That was the last time I could bring myself to visit Jill. I know this makes me cowardly. I’ve never been good with death. Seeing someone you love fading away is such a painful experience. I commend anyone who has the balls to witness to it every day. I constantly prayed for her. I prayed for her sons, for her sister who moved in with Jill to tend to her as best as she could. I prayed and hoped and wished for a miracle every single day. It made it that much harder when I heard that Jill was placed on hospice status. My prayers were directed differently, in that moment. I prayed for her to be at peace, and for her sons and her family to also be at peace.
I had a dream with Jill, recently. She was sitting in an SUV, sipping on the biggest milkshake I’d ever seen in my entire life! I was confused by the image of her, because I knew it was strange to see her like this, ready to go on a trip while knowing how sick she was. I walked up to her, and we both glanced down at the milkshake, and she said, “Well, it doesn’t matter now!” And we both laughed at that. I touched her arm and told her how sorry I was that I hadn’t been by to see her, how hard it was and she stopped me mid-sentence.
“Sara Lea… it’s OK. Whenever you need to talk, you know how to reach me.” And she smiled her famous Jill smile, the one that’s full of warmth and a touch of humor.
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling as though things weren’t right. It was hard getting back to sleep. I just felt off, if that makes sense. Things were fuzzy and strange. I noticed when I finally got up that I had missed calls on my cell phone, and a voice mail message from a good friend, letting me know that Jill’s journey on this earth had come to an end. She’d passed away in the early morning hours.
I still feel numb and shocked, even though I knew what was coming. We all feel this way, in this moment. So many of Jill’s friends, including myself, have been messaging each other almost daily in a thread on Facebook, keeping each other posted on her status and giving updates. Many of these individuals I’ve never met in person, yet we share a common bond and are linked through Jill. Only Jill could bring people together in this way. The common theme is one of sadness, grief, and yet relief that Jill’s pain has come to and end. She fought bravely, and with so much strength and courage.
She is truly free, now.
I love you, Jill Erin. Thank you for all you’ve done for me over the years.
Kick ass in heaven, sweet friend.