I’ve never liked being called Jessica. It’s what my mother still calls me when I lose my grip on my F bombs. It’s what the tax man and debt collectors know me by. It has too many letters, too many syllables, too many frills. It doesn’t help that I was one of 47 Jessicas in a graduating class of 48. I’ve always preferred to be called Jessie. It’s simple. It’s short. It suits me.
I have to admit, though, there was nothing better than hearing my uncle Jess call me “Jess” growing up. I can hear his ornery voice now, “How’s Jess? Stayin’ out of trouble? I hope not!” I took it as the highest form of flattery that he called me by his name. It was sometimes said as he was holding me upside down trying to shake money out of my pockets, but it sounded good to me regardless. As someone who has serious respect for shenanigans, I try to keep my aunt game strong. I know I’m not always my kids’ favorite people, but with my nieces and nephews, I just might have a chance.
My uncle Jess was full of shit. He knew it, his siblings knew it, and anyone who sat down to play cards with him figured it out quickly. That being said, the best advice I have ever received came from him.
I wish I had been the kind of person who could see the worth of a moment as it was happening, but I was in High School, and I spent those years counting down the minutes until my parents would let me go spend time with my boyfriend. I couldn’t have known then that I’d go on to marry that boyfriend and have more time with him than I would even want, but that someday I’d be desperate for another conversation with my uncle. Just one.
This brings me back to the advice. I don’t remember the conversation leading up to it. I suppose he was asking how I was, and I was working up a generic answer. I was active in every club and sport. I volunteered and worked as many hours as I could. I took college courses for dual credit. I made a lot of mistakes my parents would never know about, but didn’t we all? It all looked good on paper, and it always felt so repetitive to catch people up on what was going on, especially when I wasn’t sure why they cared. I think because I was too self-absorbed to really look outside my own shit at the time, I assumed everyone else did the same. I wondered why anyone even asked about my life. Being a teenager is a trip, y’all. So I gave the same answer I always did. “Busy, busy!”
What I remember so vividly is his reply. “Just lean in, girl. This is as good as it gets.” I laughed it off and thought of all the pictures of him and my dad I had seen in yearbooks and such. In some photos he wore jeans and boots and a ten gallon hat. In others, their athletic shorts were shorter than the cheerleaders’ uniforms. The good ole days. Of course. “Lean in? I’m barely hangin’ on!”
I would think about that conversation often through the years. His voice was in my head through some of the best and worst moments of the next few years. Happy, sad, angry, lost… “Just lean in, girl.” It stuck.
I knew the phone call was coming. He fought for years. I saw my dad age at twice the pace in the years he watched his baby brother fade away. I think we were all faced with our own mortality and that of our parents in those years. If it could happen to Jess, it could happen to anyone.
My three kids were bouncing off the walls of the living room that evening, running in circles and yelling over each other as they showed off their broken cartwheels and not-quite handstands. I looked down and saw the name on my phone and I knew. I carried my phone quietly through my bedroom and into my master bathroom and answered it without speaking. I couldn’t. “Jessie. He passed. He’s gone.” I sank to the floor. My heart was in my throat, but my mind was searching for pieces of him already. I wasn’t even off the phone yet when I remembered his words as plain as day. I heard his voice. “Just lean in, girl.” So I did. I dropped my phone and I leaned into the pain and sobbed on my bathroom floor. I leaned into the grief and I cried for my dad as I tried to fathom the pain of losing a sibling. I cried for Jess’s boys, for his grandkids, for his wife. I cried for his mom, who should never have had to outlive her child. I cried for my mom, who had already lost two sisters of her own and who had been part of my dad’s family since they were teenagers. I cried for the giant hole this would leave in our family. I cried for all the lives he touched.
My kids came to check on me, and a thought crossed my mind. I could hide what I was feeling to shield them from heartache. I could talk calmly and happily about what a beautiful place heaven is and how lucky he was to be there. That’s not what I did. I just kept leaning. I told them how much it sucks to lose someone we love. I told them how precious family is, and how much we are going to miss him. I told them it’s ok to cry and be mad and to ask questions. I told them heaven sounds amazing, but it’s just so far away, and that’s why mommy is so damn sad.
I think no matter who we are or what age we are, our lives are all so defined by these before and after moments. Before we lost him. After. Before he got sick. After. Before I knew grief. After. It’s easy to get caught up in asking why. Why us? Why him? Why her? Why now? Why? I won’t pretend I have answers or wisdom. Here’s what I do know. Jess lived in such a way that we were all left with a stockpile of happy and hilarious memories. He gave advice he didn’t even realize would take on a life of its own. No matter what he was faced with, he just leaned in. I think we can all learn something from that.