Yesterday started out like any other day, as bad days sometimes do. I woke up after a full night’s sleep already tired. I nursed a toddler. I changed a dirty diaper. I went to work. I drank half a pot of coffee. Then my mom called, and I answered.
I knew before I even said hello this wasn’t going to be a phone call where I hung up dry-eyed. We text regularly. We schedule calls. Because I brought forth her only grandchild and live 2,500 miles away from home, we FaceTime almost exclusively. We like each other’s faces.
But Monday she dialed my phone directly, and that’s when I knew this week was going to have to go fuck itself.
Jessica was knee-high to a grasshopper when we came into each other’s lives. She was the elder of a pair of perfect sisters, the young daughters of my parents’ best friends. Jess and Rachel, younger than me by half, were endeared to my own sister and me back when lasting relationships were forged among offspring while the adults did whatever adults do out of sight of the children, hidden away in the other room. Probably with wine. Definitely with wine.
I need wine.
I was a challenging teenager. I was torn between the discordant desires of wanting to follow the rules, be adored and make my parents proud, and the addictive allure of being a complete asshole, accountable to no one for anything. Unable to settle in one camp, I committed full-force to both, confusing both my churchgoing choir girl friends and my smoking cigarettes behind the dumpster during study period compadres.
I assume the typical response by parents in these situations is something far from “let’s put this asshole in charge of some children,” but that’s exactly what our parents did, and that was the summer babysitting gig during which Jess and Rachel became not just our parents’ friends’ kids, but our sisters.
To be clear, I was a terrible babysitter. Do not put me in charge of your children. I’m barely keeping my head above water with my own child. But I loved those girls like they were my own, and I would have done anything for them, then and now. They did as much to get me through that summer as I did for them, babies though they were, and as Bethany recalls it, our days were filled with solid belly laughs, assuring each other several times every day: “WE ARE GOING TO GET IN SO MUCH TROUBLE FOR THIS.”
As the Facebook sympathies for Jessica started rolling in, my first thought was, no. Take these woefully inadequate RIPs offline. Jess was a towering force of nature, not a fleeting collection of likes. Honor that. Honor her. Go hug a person in real life.
But as I hit refresh a million times a minute, feeling so fucking far away and helpless and angry and sad, I began to find solace in the heartrending words her friends and family dedicated to her, thoughtfully — the raw outpouring of inexplicable, incomprehensible pain from people crying alone at their desks on the worst goddamn Monday imaginable, just like me. While the near constant stream of mourning folks processing their shock in real-time did nothing to make the nightmare any less real, and in many ways opened the wound up wide and fresh as shit every 10 seconds, I stopped feeling quite so alone, quite so far from home.
Jess was a writer, and I’m grateful she shared her writing projects with me. We sure do love words. She was funny and heartfelt and real. I read her essays over and over again, looking for some kernel of wisdom or insight or eternal truth, something that would help take the sting out of the overwhelming and unrelenting awfulness of losing her.
Reading her words again, I remembered how she came to my sister and me for input on a writing project she was working on – an earnest look at her own impact on the world, a genuinely funny dissection of what it means to be a gun-toting feminist in the South, and a collection of really hard-hitting, food-for-thought questions like “why is Miley licking a sledgehammer?” – and suggested it might be more interesting if it was about food or weddings or babies or anything other than what she had to say. As a former food writer (an extremely generous description of my past life) and current writer about my experience of parenthood, I assured her food blogs are even more overrated than mommy blogs (holla!). Bethany, another gifted writer, added, “It’s yours, it just needs to be yours, because you are awesome.”
And she was! SO AWESOME!
So in the end, for Bethany and me, the best way to honor Jess is to pay tribute to a beautiful, compassionate life extraordinarily well-lived with her own words.
I am a strong, independent woman…
I am attuned to who I am…
I am conquering my greatest fears…
I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world around me…
I’ve never been happier to be alive or prouder of the life I’ve built…
I have friends and family who love me.
So very many, Jess. So many.
Today started out like any other day. I woke up already tired. I nursed a toddler. I changed a dirty diaper. I went to work. I drank half a pot of coffee. When my mom called I answered, grateful to hear the sound of her voice.
But today isn’t like other days. Today is awful.
UPDATE: Jessica’s friends at Ole Miss have created a scholarship dedicated to her memory; the scholarship will be awarded to applicants who most embody the traits we so loved about her: loyalty, love, compassion, empathy and a true passion to have a positive impact on people and do good in the world.
You can contribute to the scholarship fund in either of two ways: Mail a check to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave, University, MS 38655; or visit the UM Foundation website and select Make a Gift online.
Please designate “Jessie McClain Pink Starburst Scholarship” at time of gift.