Family and friends have all been wonderful during this hard time since Jill got sick and through her passing and the aftermath of that. There’s one particular group I’ve been wanting to thank and haven’t been able to find the words or the moment or something. I’ve been trying to say this for a long time. The fact that I’m writing it accurately signals that I’ve given up on being able to say it out loud.
I have the great good fortune to be a partner in a special place called PwC. I am humbled by the talent of the people I get to work with. More than that, though, I am grateful.
To my partners in the firm, thank you for carrying me professionally through the long period of Jill’s illness, my times when I had to step away, and the grinding aftermath of her death.
Working at PwC I’ve been given the opportunity to help create this beautiful and perplexing piece of cubist art called the Experience Center. To my partners in the EC, thank you for carrying me emotionally as I’ve slowly glued myself back together. Thank you for the kindness and support. Thank you for artfully saving me in those moments when I get hit by a wave of longing for Jill that I didn’t see coming and start to tear up. Thank you for pretending you don’t even notice it happening.
As indebted as I am to those two groups, I am most beholden to the crazy, brilliant, life-affirming people who work at the EC and make me look good every day through their effort, intelligence and creativity. Thank you for giving me a place to heal. Thank you for picking up the burden when I abruptly left back in January to bring Jill home for the final act. When I say I left abruptly, I mean abruptly. We got the news on January 17th that medical science had nothing left to offer my girl. I sent four emails, made three phone calls, and I was gone. Partners in the firm and my friends in the EC jumped in, despite the fact that I had several things going that were at a critical juncture and they had to come in cold.
When that happens it sets off ripples. Because when someone takes on something additional on another's behalf, they need others to pick up things that were on their plate, and they need others, and they need others and it ripples out in concentric circles like dropping a stone into calm waters. And all y'all at the EC took the biggest hit on that front.
In so doing, you gave me gifts that I couldn’t previously imagine. Here’s a taste of what you gave me…
When my Jill Harper had her time run down to the point where it was measured in days and hours, you gave me every second she had left. Those seconds mesh together into moments. Those moments into memories.
I got to cook for her. Even when I knew she couldn’t eat much I’d make her favorite dishes and when she’d take a bite she’d smile.
While she was still in the hospital, before we brought her home, she had a minor surgical procedure. She was supposed to be out for hours so the girls and I went home to chill out and to watch the Packers play the Cardinals in the playoffs. My phone buzzed. It was Jill...30 minutes after she’d gotten out of surgery. I picked up the phone. She was stoned out of her gourd.
“Where are you?”
“We’re at home watching the Green Bay Packers”
She turned that into a song. “Green Bay Packers, Green Bay Packers, Green Bay Packers.” It was adorable. She was really, really stoned. She should have been, in the most generous estimate, out cold for another three hours. So, again she asked…
“Where are you?”
We replayed the whole Green Bay Packers song.
“Are you coming back up here,” she asked.
“Do you want us to come up and see you, sweetuh,” I responded.
“I thought you could come over for a howdy-do.”
“You want to have a howdy-do, honey?”
“Everyone likes to have a howdy-do.”
This was not some secret terminology we had developed over the years, the way couples do. This howdy-do thing was brand new. Throughout the rest of her illness Jill would let us know when she wanted to have a howdy-do. The short answer, by the way, was always. She always wanted to have a howdy-do with her posse. She was sound asleep 15 minutes later when we got to the hospital. We stayed there for another four hours until she woke up and we could have a howdy-do.
I got to lay down on the air mattress on the floor and sleep next to her bed, both of us providing comfort to the other in the most mundane but priceless ways...Jill liked the rhythm of my snoring. I liked being where she was and reaching up and holding her hand.
I got to hold her when she was scared. She had a big wall of denial up, always focusing on the miracle that she was sure was just around the corner. But she knew that miracles are hard to come by. So, sometimes, despite wrapping herself in optimism, the fear and the pain and the regret would punch through. And I’d hold her as hard as I could.
Dying hurts. It hurts physically. It hurts cognitively, It hurts emotionally. That kind of hurt can make you lash out. She hit all of us with that fury at some point and even though you knew it was the disease talking it still hurt like hell to be on the receiving end. I saw her lash out at Erin in a particularly cutting fashion. I got to watch Erin wrestle through that. I got to peak in the room the next morning and see Erin on a the very uncomfortable stool next to the bed stroking Jill’s forehead while she slept. And looking down I saw Jill clutching Erin’s hand so tight that Jill’s fingers were white and Erin’s hand was turning purple. An hour later, Jill hadn’t let go. Erin hadn’t moved and her hand was such a deep purple it was scary. I suggested to Erin she take a break. She looked at me like I was the dumbest person alive. Another hour later she was still there. She wasn’t leaving for nothing.
When Jill hit the point where weakness had claimed her ability to speak and the drugs were causing wild hallucinations, I saw a moment of lucidity hit her with a startling suddenness. She was tossing and turning and mumbling incoherently but the words that would come out clearly were a little crazy. Then it was like she woke up. She turned and looked at Kim standing next to her bed and every one of Jill’s features softened to a look of such love and yearning. She held Kim’s face in both hands and couldn’t look away from her. I came across a picture when we were cleaning out Jill’s dresser. She was cradling a new-born Kim hours after she joined the world and looking down at her with that look of beatific contentment I’ve only ever seen on a mother’s face. It was precisely the look I saw on Jill’s face that day near the end when she was looking at Kim.
Early on in our relationship Jill and I had one of those blowouts only couples can have that started out as a stiff breeze and built to gale force winds with no warning. One of those fights where you’re wondering how the hell it got that ugly that fast while simultaneously wondering if this is the moment when the whole thing falls apart. We retired to separate ends of the sofa, each of us seething silently to ourselves. After some interminable interlude, she came scooting down the sofa and said, “I’m coming in” and nuzzled her way next to me forcing me arm over and around her. I acted like I didn’t care while inside I was thanking the God I believed in and every other god I could name just as a hedge in case my beliefs were misdirected. We sat like that for a few minutes, pretending to watch the television, which was a lot easier than talking to each other. She reached out with her forefinger and gave me three gentle scratches on my ever expanding Buddha belly, real fast...scratch, scratch, scratch...then pulled her hand quickly away like she didn’t want to get caught. And then again. And again. And again. I don’t know how long this went on but it felt like forever. I finally asked her what the hell she was doing.
“You’re my guy. I looked for you for a long time. Sometimes I need to make sure you’re real.”
Titles. We collect so many titles as we go through life. Son. Brother. Nephew. Cousin. Friend and on and on and on. I knew at that moment that I had collected the best title I’d ever had and ever would. Her guy.
As Jill’s condition deteriorated we had to make decisions about her care that she didn’t like. That made her angry and resentful. She was so mad at me. The last few pleasures we had to deny her were particularly hard on her and she was livid. And demoralized. Of course, we wondered if we were making the right choices. Of course, we told ourselves we were. Of course, we quietly agonized and doubted the truth of that. The last words she’d spoken to me were rather angry and unkind. Then her condition worsened. The pharmaceuticals were increased. She couldn’t talk any more. I was tearing myself into little jagged pieces afraid she was going to go to her grave hating me. Jill was down below 60lbs at this point. She had no strength left. I was standing next to the bed stroking her hair. With an effort that had to be painful and calling on an energy reserve that she couldn’t mathematically have had, she lifted her arm and put her hand against my stomach and gave me three little scratches. In case I missed it, she did it again. She was looking me dead in the eyes with a look of such pleading...willing me to understand. I knew I was still her guy. I knew she forgave me. I knew she still loved me. And I really, really needed to know that.
And so, what you gave me were three things...three things of incalculable worth. You gave me time. You gave me opportunity to love unabashedly and unreservedly the person I loved more than I’ve ever loved anything. The person I loved more than I’ve ever loved everything else combined. And you gave me beauty.
Here’s the hell of it, the rattling, searing, bone-crushing hell of it. If I needed a pen and you gave me one...I’d say thank you. If I couldn’t figure out how to use the damn printer and you printed a document out for me...I’d say thank you. If you walked past me and invited me to join you for lunch...I’d say thank you. You...you PwCers and ECers...you gave me time, love and beauty. And all I have to offer you is “thank you.”
But that is what I have to offer. That is all I have to offer. So with a sincerity I’ve never before known and a depth of meaning I’ve never imbued the words with before and never will be able to repeat..