I didn’t know Jess as long as most people around here have. I mean, I was aware of her in the community music programme because how could you not notice an extremely tall woman with an American accent wielding a French horn or standing at the front with a baton? But we’d never really spoken apart from saying hello or sort of transactional things about the programme and social media.
And then one day early this year I posted something somewhere about depression (as I am wont to do) and I got a message from her: “Thank you for your post. I never would have thought you drown like me.” Yes, we bonded over the black dog. Knowing that the other understood what it felt like to be in the grip of the beast somehow made us more real to each other, and our friendship kicked off.
So yeah, I’d only known her well for about 9 months, which is nothing compared to the years people have worked alongside her or taught with her or been taught by her, but we were fast friends and just clicked on so many levels.
She was a complex person, as we all are. But she was extremely kind-hearted and generous and would do anything for anyone in need. Fiercely loyal to her friends, she would drop everything to make you (very tasty) food if you needed it, or offer to drive you home or pick you up even if it was half an hour out of her way, or tell you sternly to stop listening to the negative voice in your head (even as she couldn’t take the same advice herself). She knew about spoons without me even mentioning it and would always ask me if I had enough spoons to do whatever thing we’d planned to do (and always assured me that cancelling things if I needed to was so completely fine). She loved to share her favourite movies and music and art and show tunes, and we bonded over many of those things as well. We encouraged each other to do things that felt too hard because of what our brains were yelling at us. Sometimes it was just encouraging each other to turn up to band when one of us was feeling less than stellar; knowing someone else in the room knew what it cost you to be there helped immensely.
Life had been particularly crummy for her in the last couple of years by all accounts, but things were starting to look up. She had put plans in place to move forward. They were scary and big but important. She invited me to thanksgiving this year, “which basically means you’re family now”, and she called it a thanksgiving of new beginnings.
She hated so much being separated from her actual family, who are in the US. We had recently started talking about what travel would look like when borders opened up again, and she invited me to explore California with her. All the fast food we’d eat (the doughnuts!). All the places we’d go. While we’re over there, I suggested, we could go across the country to New York and do more fun things and see all the Broadway shows…except we have no money. She said:
The last time I saw her was Friday. I’d picked her up from her surgeon’s consult at the hospital and she bought me a delicious lunch at Neighbourhood and we talked about life, the universe and everything. I drove her home, helped her inside her house, hugged her goodbye, told her I was praying for her and she said she was grateful for it.
On Saturday she had surgery to fix the ruptured achilles tendon that had rendered her immobile and was causing her immense amounts of pain. She messaged me that evening that the surgery went well, she was staying in hospital overnight and the pain meds were good. She had seen me mention something on Facebook about my chickens being attacked and said she was so glad they were okay. Then I didn’t hear from her. I tried not to worry. Then yesterday one of her best friends, who had been by her side, messaged me. There were complications.
And now she is gone.
It still doesn’t feel quite real. It is shocking. It’s not how it’s meant to be. There is a reason Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died (even though he knew he would raise him back to life!)–death sucks. It’s not right. It’s not fair. A young, unexpected death feels even more incomprehensible. It makes absolutely no sense that someone was there one day, and now they’re not. It feels like, “oh she’s just gone away for a bit”. The finality hasn’t hit (though it will). I keep going to send her a message to tell her about something or other and then remembering.
I don’t really even have many photos of her, just bits of her sneaking out of frame. Despite my incessant need to photograph and post about everything, I knew she wasn’t comfortable being photographed, so didn’t do it when we were out and about. In fact, before we bonded over depression, we bonded over our terrible body image issues when I was taking photos of all the conductors and bands for social media. We had just talked on Friday about how it was her turn to be featured on the community music programme Facebook page and I said I knew she hated having her photo taken, but I said we’d take our time and stage it and make it look wonderful. She relented and agreed that we would do it once she had recovered; she trusted me. I had in my mind some beautiful pictures of her playing her French horn and how I would do them, and the ideas keep popping into my head even though now the shoot will never happen. I really wish we had done it earlier.
Several weeks ago, Jess bought herself a 2021/22 diary by Kate Allen and gave me a copy too, beckoning me over and pushing it into my hands after rehearsal one night. Called It’s your weirdness that makes you wonderful, it’s full of drawings of animals and slightly odd but strangely comforting sayings. I’ve been using it as a gratitude journal, writing down three things I’m grateful for each day (seeing as I no longer produce my own journals). Now I know I won’t be able to help but hear them in her voice when I turn each page to see the week’s illustration. For example, “Life is hard enough without beating yourself up over every small thing. Kindness today, please.” Or “I don’t care if my best sucks, I’m doing it anyway.” Or “It’s okay to be whatever weirdo you are today.” Here’s this week’s, which seems apt, even though she’s not here. Because I hear her saying it to me about this moment.
So today I am grateful for Jess, our unicorn friend. I am grateful for the Bread and Butter hangs, the QVMAG excursion, the chats, the Paddington at Cinco, the memes, the brownies, the vulnerability, the trust, the encouragement, the music recommendations, the crying in concerts together, the friendship. It was a very short nine months, but we packed a lot in and I’m glad we had it.
Though I would rather you were still here.