Grief Memories

Building a Life

The first time I saw Jeff, we were in the Purdue Memorial Union. We were both tour guides for the Office of Admissions, and we were at a training. The facilitators split the tour guides into two lines, so we could compete against each other. We stood in line, waiting to get to the front and answer trivia questions about Purdue. I was in one line, and Jeff stood across from me, in the other line.

Boy, did I think he was hot. I remember thinking that he was wayyyy out of my league. And one little problem: I was dating someone.

So when my first sorority dance rolled around – and my current boyfriend was studying abroad in Scotland – I figured, what the heck? I’ll ask Jeff Thomas to go. I have absolutely nothing to lose.

I called him. Just like that. I’m still surprised that I picked up the phone and just… called him.

“Hey – it’s Jess Shepherd… from tour guides.”

“Yeah – I remember.”

“I have this crush dance coming up… my boyfriend is overseas in Scotland, and… well, I wondered if you wanted to go, since a ton of other Betas are going.”

Jeff made some joke about being second choice, and it was an exceedingly awkward conversation, but he agreed, and we went.

Can you believe that I unearthed a picture from that night? We’re sitting on a bus, on the way to the dance. We look like babies. So young.

After the dance, a bunch of people went back to Betas. Everyone was hanging out. The soccer video was on. And I had a moment where I realized, “Omigod — I can’t be here. I have a boyfriend!”

I dramatically said that I had to leave… right now. Jeff walked me out, and he kissed me. And I kissed him back! And then I really freaked out.

“I have to go!”

And I took off running. I ran the whole way home.

Jeff and I continued to have a little flirtation. I told myself that we were just friends. We didn’t kiss again, but we hung out. He came to my apartment. We watched his soccer video and my show choir videos. We would see each other on campus and smile and wave.

But then, my boyfriend came back from Scotland. Jeff had been dating a girl on and off, and I think they got more serious again. We drifted apart. That was the end of sophomore year.

I dated my boyfriend for two more years. Senior year, I broke up with him. There was more chaos, and it wasn’t until a year after we graduated that Jeff and I officially started dating.

It occurs to me that building a life is so gradual, that you almost don’t realize you’re doing it… even though we plan all the time for our future lives. Somehow, little things add up to a life that maybe you couldn’t have planned for. Maybe life could be better than the plan. That’s what happened to me. I think Jeff would’ve said the same thing.

Last year, that life was in complete upheaval. The life that Jeff and I had built over chaos and laughs and childbirths and weddings and binge-watching TV series… the life we had built during early-morning runs and late-night parties… the life we had built watching How I Met Your Mother and traveling… it had a big, fat question mark on it. And man, living like that is hard.

Jeff had the first bile duct stent attempt on May 8. The second one was on May 16. He knew enough about pancreatitis to warn the anesthesiologist and doctors. This would be information he would carry with him throughout his cancer project. Every time he was anesthetized – and he was anesthetized a lot… sometimes twice in a day – he would relay the information about the time he had pancreatitis.

The one on May 16 didn’t work, either. But we hoped it would. People say that you should plan for the worst and hope for the best. When there’s cancer involved, that’s kinda hard. Because planning for the worst means that one person making the plans won’t be there anymore. So, we planned for the best and hoped for the best.

I’m rereading Jeff’s paperwork from May 16. Looks like they placed a longer stent in his bile duct, hoping it wouldn’t migrate. His bilirubin had gone from 32 mg/dL to 21 mg/dL. But now, this day, it was 27 mg/dL. The notes also say “the patient’s pruritus returned.” I looked up ‘pruritus’ – it’s itching. Oh man. Poor Jeff. The itching was horrible.

Jeff couldn’t get comfortable, even at night. I would wake up to him running a bath, and he’d make an oatmeal bath and sit there. That gave him some relief, as long as he was in the tub. But it’s not like we have a huge, comfortable bathtub, and Jeff was not a small guy.

So, he’d be up, itching. And when you’re up, you’re thinking. He had all that time – while he was itching – to think about having cancer. No relief, physically, mentally, or emotionally. I wanted to stay up with him in solidarity, but I knew I couldn’t.

And now that I can look back on it, I realize that he only got relief from the itching because he had the percutaneous bile drain. From the day Jeff woke up yellow on April 14, he never again had relief. He got ahead of one thing, only to take on something else, usually more intense and painful.

We tried to carry on with that life we had built. The question mark was always there, but we both knew our kids needed normalcy, and as hard as it was to sometimes pretend, our kids gave us that gift. Normalcy. They needed it, and we had to give it… so we had it, too.

I have another big question mark on my life now.

I went back to work last Monday. I am so, so thankful that I had such a long leave of absence. To be there for my kids. To cry. To get my life in order. To go to yoga. To meet with priests and go to confession and organize my house and my mind.

Being back at work has thrown me back a month or two, emotionally. I think that’s probably normal. I’m not worried, but I’m definitely overwhelmed.

It’s not as much fun to build a life by yourself. I’m building it with Jake and Kate, of course. We’re a team. But I could never – and will never – expect of them what I would expect of Jeff. If I do my job right, they will eventually have their own lives and families, and that’s how it should be. Jeff was supposed to stick around for that part, and be my buddy. I miss my friend.

The other day at school, I thought about how I missed him. I didn’t think about it too much, and I kinda thought that he was in the hospital. I picked up my phone to text him, “I miss you.”

And then I remembered.

Not having someone to share things with… it’s definitely lonely. Last week, a student wrote me one of the kindest notes I’ve ever received. I’d normally share that with Jeff. I know there are other people I could share it with now, but it’s not the same. It’s Jeff’s acknowledgment I want. He could be a tough crowd, and acknowledgment from Jeff was incredibly gratifying.

“I’m so proud of you, Jess,” he would’ve said.

That made my heart full when he said that.

Sometimes he said, “I wish I were as good at my job as you are.”

I often took issue with that last one. I thought Jeff was good at everything he did. Mostly, because he didn’t do things if he wasn’t good at them. That’s why he hated to play Scrabble with me.

I’m trying to take my own advice. I’m building a life – through small choices – on an amazing foundation: the one Jeff and I had built together. The one my family prepared for me, before that. And I know I’m not alone. But I’m absolutely lonely.

Working full time and taking care of four heartbeats and a whole house — holy cow. Right now, I should be making my lunch for tomorrow and putting the laundry in the dryer. But, writing seemed like a priority tonight. And I know I have to prioritize what helps. This helps.

And maybe through those small choices, the life that I build will be better than one I could plan for. Just like it happened before. I’ll plan for the best and hope for the best.

While I’m building this new life – though – I know this for sure: I can’t forget to live the one I’ve got now.

2 comments on “Building a Life

  1. Aunt Lisa



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