I sit at the traffic light watching the young girl in black stretch pants and sneakers cross the road with her mom. She has hair which almost reaches down to her waist. Some would call it blonde. To me it is light brown. Jesi’s hair was the same color and when she was ten. Her hair was long to her waist too. Only her hair was straight and this girl’s hair has a few loose curls at its ends. I like the way she holds her mama’s hand, her own small hand tucked into the folded grip of her mama’s palm. She walks, her stocky little body half a step behind her mama’s. But it is her bottom and thighs, perfect in the outline of her stretch black pants that grab my attention. I see Jesi’s young body in them, that same curve of the bottom, the same healthy strong thighs. I blink, my mind wandering back years and suddenly I see Jesi joking and running ahead of me to catch up to Kari as we walk down the street together. We are going to the ice cream shop on a summer afternoon after school and there is nothing in the world that could go wrong. Or so I imagine. We are not even far from where I now sit in my car, gripping tighter and tighter to the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white as my memory cascades me into an arena I am not ready to enter. Now I watch this “Jesi” walking away from me, this young girl who reminds me so strongly of my Jesi, her strong stocky body only a year or two before cancer sabotaged it. I have been catapulted back seven years in no more than a few seconds and there was no way I could either predict it or control it.
The lights change and I move forward through the intersection. Perhaps if I accelerate I will escape back into the present.
But it isn’t that easy. I round the corner onto Gerry’s Landing Road and over the rise onto the bridge across the River Charles. I used to drive this route to take Jesi back and forth to treatment at the Jimmy Fund or to visit her in hospital, and now no matter how many hundreds of days that have passed since, although I was not thinking about it five minutes earlier, my mind has found its way back to the times Jesi and I drove this road together. A tear escapes from the corner of my eye; then another, and another and another. I wish myself to the animal rescue where I will work with dogs. One of the only ways I have found that totally absorbs me so that my mind doesn’t wander into the dangerous gloom of grief.
A woman I met last year in a grief group called me recently. We hadn’t spoken since the group fell away over the holiday season. “What are you doing to deal with your grief?” she asked me quite unexpectedly during our conversation, which had to that point been filled with talk of my new apartment, her recently completed degree, her up-coming vacation. I hesitated. Grief, I thought. Grief? I don’t even name it these days. In fact when she asked that question I had to think a moment, not even aware it still owned part of my life…it seeps so imperceptibly into me. “I don’t know,” I hesitated thinking how inept my response was, that I ought to have been able to reel off some sort of list of positive actions I took every day to fend it away. Then I continued, “I talk to Jesi a lot I guess. And I get sad sometimes. Sometimes I feel her around me. I always wish she was here like she used to be. Its like the ocean waves. You know, it ebbs and flows…” I felt strangely embarrassed to have been asked this question. Like I thought my friend was ‘better’ than I was at this thing called grieving to have known to ask me. My answer just wasn’t making the grade. Then she replied, “This will be the first Mother’s Day since my mother passed.”
I immediately understood why she had asked.
Two days later I was walking my dog in Lexington center. I looked ahead and realized that the back entrance to the high school Jesi attended for her last years of schooling loomed ahead of me, its stone steps and columns staring expressionless in the morning air. Suddenly I pictured all the times I drove up to those stone steps and waited for Jesi to appear so I could take her to physical therapy or doctors’ appointments. She should have been leaving the school from the front side of the building like most of the students did, boarding buses to go to their afternoon sports, not going to get her blood checked for white blood cells and platelets. It made me sad to look at that school. I could not see the stream of students wandering into the center of town on their breaks. All I could see was what had never been. Jesi growing to be a senior and graduating like she wanted to. She never returned after winter break of sophomore year. Large swellings had appeared in her neck over the Christmas period. Blood tests showed her blood was crammed so full of leukemia cells again they were blocking the growth of normal cells. The leukemia had come back.
I went back into the school many times during the year she relapsed. Jesi was, of course, only in hospital or at home and would be returning heself so Alan and I would meet with her teachers and talk about how to reintegrate her back into the classroom; what classes she would do and how she could stay current so she and Kari could still graduate together. Jesi was a phenomenal student and worked hard at her studies even whilst in hospital.
But after she passed away the halls suddenly haunted me with fantasies and half imagined memories of her smiling face. Or perhaps I saw her black and white checked hat bobbing on her head as she bustled with her uneasy gait down the corridors with a hundred other kids. Not to mention the stories Kari had told me about them passing each other, smiling and waving or texting to check in on how each of their days were going.
Now as the school year comes to a close, I walk into the main foyer, making my way down the corridor to the office there is an uneasy hush inside my head. I am meeting one of the admin assistants to collect Jesi’s Memorial Scholarship plaque in order to have it engraved with the name of the recipient of this year’s award. The admin assistant is waiting for me, standing in front of the open doors of glass cabinet where it hangs all year. She greets me and I watch speechless as she carefully lifts the plaque out of the cabinet and holds it in her hands. I watch her turn it toward her, holding it close to her heart, run her finger along the beveled edges, gently lifting a speck of dust off the bronze header plate. I want to scream at her as she turns it over and over in her hands as though it is some precious jewel, as though it is Jesi herself she is holding. I want to scream at her because I have seen myself do the same with Jesi’s possessions, as if they could be any substitute for Jesi. I register that I am suddenly furious that I do not have the power to bring Jesi back and that this silly plaque or Jesi’s clothes or jewelry or stuffed animals are all I have as tangible reminders of who Jesi was and what she loved.
Sometimes I am nothing more than a mother fractured into tiny pieces of past memories holding them in my hands.
At the award night I stand at the podium in the high school auditorium and speak about Jesi and what she loved. Her scholarship, awarded to a senior student who has shown dedication through work and care for animals “beyond simply owning a family pet” brings to light the variety of innovative ways in which students demonstrate their passionate love of animals. One applicant volunteers at a disabled equestrian school, reminding me of the weekly horseback riding lessons Jesi took while she was rehabilitating from the severe neuropathy caused by chemotherapy. Another volunteers at the Boston Aquarium caring for sea creatures and educating the public about the part we play in keeping their environment healthy. Another works to rekindle the failing SPCA club within the school. The young lady to whom we awarded the scholarship spends her weekends training and socializing service dogs for a disabled veteran organization.
When I read her application it burns into a memory inside me….I am touched in a way I cannot describe, seeing the image of this unknown young woman who each weekend spends her leisure time with ‘her dog’ whom she ultimately knows she will be giving up “because someone needs him more than I do“.
It is the picture in my mind of her sitting next to her dog Trooper at the lily pond near her house. It is the love and care she gave to Trooper, accompanying her to soccer games, rolling around on the grass with him, just as I know Jesi would do, snuggling and cuddling into his soft body, the two of them a mass of fur and hair and limbs, feet and paws flying. I know Jesi would have done just as our applicant had done, given Trooper all the love she had to give so he would be the best companion dog he could be, and then one day, just as our award recipient had done, hugged him goodbye and sent him into someone else’s arms. Someone whose needs were greater than hers.
Now, with June in full brew I am deep in the middle of Walden Pond, gliding in the tranquil waters. But my mind is anything but tranquil. On the walk down the ramp to the water I have been telling my friend about my dear sweet little (and old) dog Mimi. She has lung disease, heart disease, is almost blind and probably deaf. “I get the impression the vet thinks she is living on borrowed time…..” I say. Our conversation moves on but I remember it while swimming, the water abnormally cold due to the erratic spring weather and abundance of rain. I remember the day Mimi came into my life. She came into Jesi’s the very same day when Jesi accompanied me to the animal rescue and we met her together. Later, after we took Mimi home, Jesi and I would joke about whose dog she was. “She’s mine! No, she’s mine! No, she’s mine…” and we would go on until I would give in with an impish grin. Now my only comfort is knowing that when Mimi leaves me Jesi will be there to scoop her up and love and care for her. But that is not what I think about in the middle of Walden Pond. Suddenly I am immersed in grief and it dawns on me that I will not be able to cope with losing Mimi. That I will “fall apart.” That it will be losing Jesi all over again…
My body is no longer skimming along the surface of the water. I am struggling to maintain the rhythm that has propelled me across the center of the pond. My legs are sinking and I am gasping for each breath and each arm seems to have lost the memory of how to work with the other. I look ahead to see the faint outline of the beach house. It seems a million miles away. I know I cannot afford to think about these things, not now, not in the middle of Walden. So I do what I did the many many times I swam in Walden while Jesi was still with us, when I bought my worries to the pond during the time she was in transplant, fearing she would not make it, feeling the same feelings of anguish and desperation should she be taken from us. Not knowing then how I would ever go on. Crying inside my heart and head for her to be spared. Please, please God don’t take her from me… But she was taken. Her body had had enough. She had to go. And I had to go on. Just as I do now, in the middle of Walden. Just as I have a hundred times before.