A wise philosopher, Winnie the Pooh, once said in reference to his friend Piglet, “Isn’t it nice to have something that makes it so hard to say goodbye”.
Now, this is gonna be hard for me to get through and the only reason I’m even trying is because I can hear her in my head. And I’d like to say she’s saying, “You can do this. I love you. And if you can’t, it’s okay”. But that would be someone else. No...what Jill Harper is saying is “suck it up. You gotta a job of work to do so get ‘er done”.
As I’ve spoken with people about Jill it occurs to me that she was such a wonderfully complex symphony of a woman that we all knew, depending on context and stakes and timing, slightly different Jill Harper’s. So, I wanted to take some time to tell you about the best Jill...my Jill Harper.
We had our first date on New Year’s Day, 2006 and it can most charitably be described as a dating catastrophe. I didn’t like her. But that's okay because my baby had a competitive streak and she didn’t like me first and she didn’t like me more. She won. I don’t know why I kamikaze’d in to talk her into another date 5 weeks later...and I just lied to you. I know exactly why I asked her out again. That girl in tight jeans walking down Hennepin Avenue could screw up traffic for hours and the sight of her in those tight jeans prancing across the parking lot to her car...well, it lingered. Those of you who know me will not be the least bit surprised to learn that the great love of my life is built on a foundation of the most base prurience.
So, while I know why I asked her out again I am utterly baffled as to why she said yes, but I’m awful glad she did. On that second date I was exposed for the first time to that full on Jill Harper smile. This thing that would start as kind of a sideways grin and then keep growing and growing until it looked like it was going to swallow her whole head and it would make the freckles on her cheeks dance. Long before I fell in love with Jill I fell in love with that smile.
I don't know exactly when I fell in love with Jill. I was in denial about it for a good long time. But I know exactly when I finally admitted it to myself. We were up in Morris, MN where Erin was going to school and we were in some grocery store picking up something I don't remember. Jill was struggling with allergies which culminated in a massive sneezing fit. When my baby sneezed it wasn't some polite, girly, Minnesota nice little thing. It was an explosion. It was a Busby Berkeley musical embedded in a Michael Bay film. It was a production. She’s firing off one after another of these thing, scaring the hell out of people, they're jumping and dropping things and I said “stop that”. She said “it’s a sneeze. I can't stop it.”
“Not the sneeze but that whole show you're stapling on to it.”
“I have to do that.”
“No you don't.”
“Yes, I do. If I don't make that sound it's not really a sneeze and it's not fulfilling.”
And I thought, yep. That is the most absurd thing I've ever heard. And then I thought, huh. I'm completely head over heels for this girl. And then I thought, oh, hell. I wanna marry her.
I have not accumulated much in the way of wisdom over the course of my life but here's the best nugget I've got...if you are with someone and you find that person’s sneeze to be ridiculous, embarrassing, intoxicating and disconcertingly sexy...buy the ring. Don't overthink it...buy the ring. You are owned and if like me, you are afraid of that, don't be. Give into it and you will find it to be the most delicious loss of control.
My grandfather used to refer to my grandmother, in a tone that you knew was high praise, as the “goddamndest woman I have ever known”. After years of hearing that, I asked him what it meant. He gave it some thought and then said “if you ever meet someone and you know exactly what it means...you hold that girl close. And you don't ever let her go.”
I met Jill. I knew exactly what it meant. And I held her close. Holding Jill. Being held by her...felt exactly like being alive is supposed to feel.
You cannot talk about Jill Harper without talking about the two most important things in her life. They are called Erin and Kim, her daughters. The two remarkable young women I have the privilege of calling my stepdaughters. Jill and I had been seeing each other for awhile before I got to meet the girls. Things were going well but the girls...they were her life and she did not cavalierly open the door to that part of her life. She invited me over to meet them and within about two minutes I realized I was in the presence of something so special it was sacred. They were this amazingly tight little posse. They'd finish each other's sentences which was beautiful and baffling. They could hold 10, 15 minute stretches of conversation without ever using nouns. Try that sometime. Try expressing yourself without using a single noun. You won't know what you're talking about. But Jill didn't just raise the girls to be as formidable as she was. She raised them to be kind and generous. Not wanting me to feel left out, one of the girls asked me what I thought. “About what? You didn't use any nouns. There wasn't even an errant pronoun that went whizzing past for me to grab onto.”
That intimacy, that understanding could also lead to moments of such transcendent beauty. The last few months of Jill’s life, particularly the last six weeks when we had her home in hospice care, were pretty rough sledding. About a week before she died, I peaked into our bedroom. We'd cleared it out to make room for Jill’s hospital bed and we'd also brought in a big recliner that could lay all the way flat so one of us could always be hanging out with her and sleep next to her. This particular time Jill was turned onto her right side, which was rare as that's where most of the tumors were and it hurt her to lie on that side. Kim was sitting on the floor wedged into the narrow alley between the bed and the recliner holding one of Jill’s hands. When the pain would sometimes punch through the heavy pharmaceuticals she was on, you could always bring Jill immediate relief just by touching her. She loved to be touched. Erin was twisted into a terribly uncomfortable position so she could get her face right at eye level with Jill and she was rubbing Kim’s back. Because big sister is always looking out for little sister. And our little dog, Caya, who Jill wasn't sure she wanted at first but then became inseparable from, she saw her opening and crawled up onto Kim’s lap and had her ears back and was giving tentative, nobody yell at me licks to Jill’s free hand. It had been so long since I had seen that smile I loved so much that I had resigned myself to never seeing it again. But there it was. And from across the room I saw those freckles dance. I couldn't think of what heaven could offer Jill that would be better than that moment.
Throughout my time up here I've referred repeatedly to Jill by both first and last name, Jill Harper. It's not because I think you're an addled audience who wouldn't know which Jill I was referring to unless I provide the clarifier of her last name. It's because if I walked out of here right now, hired a staff of 20 and we worked around the clock for the next month creating the most comprehensively researched, most beautifully written, most gloriously edited, longest Wikipedia entry in history it would still fall achingly short of capturing the poem, the song and the prayer that was my wife. That is why, from the moment I first saw that smile until the end of time the two most descriptive words, the two most meaningful words, the two most beautiful words , the two most loving words and the two most perfect words the language has ever known are simply the words Jill. Harper. Jill Harper, Jill Harper, Jill Harper, Jill Harper, Jill Harper.
To my baby. I know you made it up to heaven and after your rough ride I know the first thing you did was take a long, hot soak...because in heaven the water is hot right now and it won't cool off if you don't want it to. I know your awesome sense of responsibility eventually made you drag yourself out of that tub, head down to the registrar’s office and get all signed up and through orientation. Upon the completion of which you immediately signed up for four different committees and then you did that thing you do where without anyone noticing you somehow got yourself installed as the chair of three of them and you're getting things fixed up and running right. I know you've found your spot and you're building your nest on a shoestring budget, not because budget constraints apply in heaven but because you just like the sport of it.
But I know you, honey. I know you're a little sad. I know you miss Erin. I know you miss Kim. I know you miss your little dog. I bet you even miss me some. I don't know what the policy is on dating in heaven but I don't want you to be sad. I don't want you to be lonely. So if you need to have a dalliance or two or three or twelve, that’s okay. But you tell those angelic souls that you're just killing time because I married you for this life and every life to follow and I am coming. I am not sharing. And I will hold you again.
And thank you, Jill, for making it so very hard to say goodbye.