Yesterday marked four years since my best friend Jackie passed away from a brain tumor. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about her. I may not reflexively grab my phone to text her anymore, but I always think about how she’d react to current events, how much she’d laugh at my kids, and how amazingly proud she’d be of her family.
I’ve started several paragraphs about her today, but I’ve found myself unable to finish a sentence. So I thought I’d share something I wrote four years ago, something that I feel really explains just how much she meant to me.
I have written my name on the closet wall of every room I’ve ever lived in. It’s my own little way of saying, “I was here,” as if etching my name in several locations guaranteed me a sort of permanence – a literal mark on the world. When I was moving out of the apartment I lived in with Jackie, she walked in just as I put my pen to the paint. “What are you doing?” she asked me. I explained, and she laughed at me and said, “You’re crazy. It probably gets painted over!” Then she grabbed my pen and wrote her initials above mine with a heart.
I remember the moments I met most of my friends, but I don’t remember meeting Jackie. I think it’s because I’m meant to feel like I’ve always known her. We never had an awkward “get to know each other” phase, we just had friendship. And a good one – one of the best. It was easy, it was loving, and it was pure. Even when we’d fight over who had to take out the garbage (a ridiculous fight that we had entirely too often), we always fell back into our comfortable relationship. Even when we were on opposite sides of the country, or opposite sides of the state, it didn’t matter. Our friendship was as solid as they come.
It’s easy to be there for your friends in the good times, and there were many, many good times to be had. But it’s said that the ones who are there in the hard times are your truest friends. During my rocky pregnancy with Madeline, Jackie was there. She checked up on me often with calls and emails. When I was put in the hospital, she came down from San Francisco to visit. When I was told Madeline was going to be delivered almost twelve weeks early, Jackie heard the news first, because she was on the phone with me when the nurse told me the news.
Her strong support continued during Madeline’s rough time in the NICU. She asked for updates and pictures. She wasn’t horrified by the wires and monitors attached to Maddie, and after every new picture she declared Maddie “gorgeous.” Jackie was my first friend to come over after Maddie was released from the NICU. Jackie walked in and announced, “Time to meet Auntie Jackie!” From the moment my girl with the bright blue eyes looked at my girl with the bright green eyes, they were bonded.
Not long after, Jackie’s brain tumor was discovered, and it was my turn to be there for her. Perhaps because of everything I’d been through up to that point with Maddie, Jackie knew I could handle the dark stuff. She confided in me her desire to beat the disease, but was honest with her fear that she probably wouldn’t. The mere idea that she might not beat cancer seemed absurd to me. She was Jackie! She wasn’t ever going anywhere – we were going to grow old together.
When Madeline suddenly died the following year, Jackie was there the next day. She laid in bed with me while I slept, and comforted Mike when I couldn’t. She took care of my family, and helped plan Maddie’s service. She did all this during a chemo week, which meant she was suffering massive physical side effects to go along with the emotions she was feeling over losing her little buddy. She made sure I never knew about her discomfort, and I didn’t for many years. I only knew that Jackie was there for me when I needed her most.
Losing Madeline made me realize that death isn’t just something that happens to other people, and I remembered Jackie’s confession that the odds were against her beating GBM…in fact, it hit me like a ton of bricks. But if Jackie wasn’t wallowing, I couldn’t either. I adopted her “live in the now” attitude. We visited each other when we could, talked often, and texted almost daily. We weren’t physically close, but emotionally we leaned on each other like never before.
When Jackie learned in February that her cancer had stopped responding to treatments, her first worry was her family. You all know by now that I have an amazing family, but you should know that Jackie’s is equally wonderful but much more massive: loads of siblings, a dozen nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and cousins, and her fabulous parents. She wanted to fight for them; she wanted to live for them. She cried about leaving them, and I cried about her leaving me. But she firmed her chin and started experimental trials with the hope of not only gaining more time, but of helping find a cure for brain cancer.
Jackie’s final days were not unlike the rest of her days: she put her concern for others ahead of her concern for herself. She apologized for not being able to care for herself. She furrowed her brow when we were sad around her. She even managed some jokes to make us smile. It is mind-blowing that anyone would think about anything other than themselves at the end of their life, but that was the true essence of Jackie. Her love for others was even more vast than the love others had for her, which is amazing when you think about just how many people love her.
Jackie never felt the need to graffiti her name on plywood to leave a mark, but she never had to. The way she lived and loved and dedicated herself to finding a cure for cancer has guaranteed that she won’t ever be forgotten – and that’s not even considering the impact of the Jacqueline Oswold Chair in Systems Biology. But even without any of that, her name would be etched on my heart the way our names were once etched on my closet wall ten years ago:
forever and ever and always