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I didn’t want Jill to move. The house she wanted was on the next block, but the house she lived in was directly across from mine, enabling us to communicate easily from our front yards and our kids to cross the street to play.
The author and Jill (right) before her illness. Photo by Coley Gallagher.
I decided to stop her. I lobbied hard for a wider back entrance on her existing house. I suggested demolishing the deck to make more space in the yard. She moved anyway, to a grander place with a sprawling backyard. Once she was settled, I had to admit I’d been wrong. The new house was perfect for her family, and the layout and décor were pure Jill. She loved to entertain. In the new house, she could host epic family holidays or simple summer dinners. And the yard was paradise, with space for the kids to play, a trampoline, and a deck for us grown-ups. Best part was, even though the house was an additional 90 seconds away, Jill and I remained as close as ever.
Two-and-a-half years after her move, Jill’s husband rang the doorbell on a Friday afternoon. Since we’d spoken not 30 minutes before, I opened the door and asked, “Miss me already?”
Jeremy replied, “Jill has a brain tumor.”
Jill had been in our dining room celebrating her forty-third birthday only five days before. She had been tired, a little spacey, but fine.
A couple days after the party, Jill left for Florida. Jeremy explained how she’d been speaking and acting strangely while out of town. A friend rushed her to the hospital and an MRI revealed an egg-sized tumor nesting in her brain. He might as well have said Jill was kidnapped by aliens or she has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. I was too astonished to comprehend the information. For weeks, I remained too stunned to worry.
The news travelled quickly. Think of the most beloved girl at your high school. Maybe you weren’t overly tight with her, but she was whip-smart, humble, kind, didn’t take crap from anyone, a riot to be around. It is rare and super-annoying that there are people like this, but Jill was. Now imagine she has a lethal tumor in her capable, magical brain. Jill remained a hot topic the length of her illness and for months after her death.
In the beginning, I ignored all the chatter. I kept my head down and tried to be useful. I visited Jill in the hospital, helped keep track of her children. I wouldn’t think about the future, refused to learn about the type of tumor she had, a glioblastoma, basically the great white shark of brain tumors. About two weeks in, I could no longer fend off the worst case: Jill might die. Her kids might be without her. I might be. I sank to the floor and had a raucous, slobbery cry. Once I’d exhausted myself, I rolled into a ball and lay there, my heart literally aching. After a while, I picked myself up, blew my nose, and got back to business: looking after our two sets of kids, picking up prescriptions, spending time with Jill and her parents. Around then she was admitted into a promising drug trial. For people with Jill’s profile, young, strong, loads of familial support, this drug had the potential to work a miracle. Perfect, I reasoned, since Jill wasn’t just any patient. She was Jill, and Jill + miracle drug = kiss off, tumor.
I use this same mix of busyness, denial, and optimism to cope with her absence. I get too caught up in my life to miss her or I let myself entertain the possibility there’s been a mistake. She’s on a long business trip – somewhere without any cell towers or mail service.
A year into treatment, an MRI could no longer detect cancer in Jill’s brain. The miracle drug worked its miracle. Until it didn’t. The tumor grew back, fiercer, more determined. In March 2016, Jill died at home, Jeremy, their children and the rest of her family at her bedside. After they cried, they sang.
I knew when I started writing this that I’d have to share how, about the time of her clean MRI, I petered out. Jill being Jill and doing so well, I assumed she would make it. I have four kids, stories to write, maybe a book, and all these things take major time. I pulled back, sometimes seeing her every other week or only talking to her on the phone. Jill never said anything, but I sensed her hurt. Things weren’t as easy between us right before she passed and I will forever wish I had held out a bit longer.
• • • • •
This past summer, Jill’s husband exchanged their grand place for a smaller home with a more manageable yard — the trampoline just fits. It’s a cool house, on a better scale for Jeremy and the kids and, bonus, only four blocks from me. The one obvious problem is Jill not being there.
People closest to me or kindly neighbors who knew us together ask, on occasion, how I’m faring without her. I usually start and end with, Fine. I am fine, mostly. The whole truth is too fraught, too tangled to elucidate on the sidewalk or in a grocery store. To answer properly, I’d have to ask them to picture us dancing to the Grease sound track in my basement or almost getting booted out of the place where we celebrated my fortieth for laughing too loudly. I’d have to talk about the time I called Jill sobbing from my locked bathroom after an argument with my husband and she soothed me like a hurt child. Or about the time we combed the woods for edible mushrooms. Score: Jill 14; Coley 0. The Christmases, Thanksgivings, birthdays together. I’d have to get into how, once she was sick, I had to take her hand on a curb or icy patch, and I’d describe the way her fingers felt rigid, dry, would grip mine a little too tightly. I would have to tell of checking in on Jill on days she was down from chemo, barely speaking to her, only making sure she had a full glass of water, or in summer, plenty of ice, and always, before I left, I’d kiss her hair.
I could wax on ad nauseam, sketch scenes from life with Jill, and that still would not cover it. I could get figurative, ask you to imagine life without the color yellow. I’d remind you it means no green, either. How tough that’d be. No green grass, traffic would be affected, stop lights and all. And there’s no orange without yellow. Children could no longer draw the sun. With this doleful image, you would agree, no yellow would be a bummer.
Yet, that’s not even close to how it is without Jill. I might get you there if I told you to imagine going about your day, enjoying it, seeing something lovely, amazing, say a hummingbird, and, whap! – a hand slaps your face. Even having a bad day, flat tire, grumpy boss, being afraid the president will start a nuclear war, then, out of nowhere, BAM, you take a blow to your ribs. Jill is dead. That’s the blow: remembering. My mind tries to trick me into thinking she’s away or has been busy. My mind is sweet, but it’s a liar. She’s gone. She will not, not now, not ever, answer her phone even though, after all this time, I refuse to delete her contact.
Of course, in time, the sting abates, yet somehow that smarts, too, forgetting, getting on with things. It feels almost like a betrayal, although I’m fairly sure Jill would be having none of this. She’d want me to dust myself off and get back to laughing so riotously I disturb others, to write my book.
Life is for the living, right? Jill is gone, but we have yellow and green and drawings of a fiery sun and that tiny, nimble hummingbird is still there. So are the president and sentences to write, meals to prepare, kids who need hugs, rides. But soon, tomorrow or the next day, I will be struck again, no telling what will trigger it. That is life without Jill. Her lack is physical, a sucker punch. Telling you about her, asking you to feel the shock and pain of an unexpected hand flying to your cheek can only give a sense, a hint, a lousy metaphorical approximation of what it feels like without her.
Writer Coley Gallagher lives in Evanston with her husband and children.