J is for Jillian – New Nonfiction by Agatha Zarzycki

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Nonfiction

This is a personal essay about grief and friendship written in 26 paragraphs. Each paragraph begins with a letter corresponding to the alphabet, which reflects both the fragmentation and continuity of grief. The format is inspired by Ruth E. Dickey’s “Alphabet Soup Kitchen,” an essay published in the food journal Alimentum.

Athabasca Glacier straddles two national parks in the Canadian Rockies. Jillian and I took a road trip there a couple of months before she died. We often went on road trips together. Before walking across the massive ice sheet to see the toe, the lowest end of the glacier, Jillian told me that she’d heard of hikers falling into crevasses. Sometimes, people didn’t notice them, because they were covered in snow. She stepped cautiously, checking that I did too. The highest peaks in the Rockies, rugged and relentless, surround the area, but even they began to look small as we inched closer to the glacier’s toe. Then there it was, the mass of ice, thick as the Eiffel Tower is high. Its sapphire sheen made the sky look colorless, but Jillian, dressed in her long, bright red coat, stood out, as always.

Blood in her hair, pooled underneath her swollen eyelids. In the ICU, she used every bag of donated blood. An inflated casing enclosed Jillian’s body to keep her organs in place. Later, they were deemed contaminated, because she used blood from so many different donors. I thought there was a bandage wrapped around her head until I realized the protrusion was the inflammation from her brain. I hugged Jillian, very, very gently, afraid of hurting her more, but it wouldn’t have been possible. I hugged her body and told it that I loved her; I said goodbye to Jillian’s body, not Jillian. After turning off the machines, I’ll never forget the look on her dad’s face nor her mom’s words. “I don’t want to leave her all alone,” she said. “Is that silly?”

Christmastime, after Jillian’s death, her mom filled a hiking sock for her daughter’s friends with ‘all things Jill.’ Lip balm: since childhood, Jillian loved lip anything; when she was little, she called it yipstick. Chocolates: every year for Christmas, she received Pot of Gold chocolates. An angel ornament that hung on their tree for many years: Jillian loved tradition. Christmas-in-Paris-inspired tea: when Jillian was fifteen, she visited Paris; she’d worn fashionable boots, so she wouldn’t look like a tourist in white sneakers. Maple-flavored mints that Jillian hadn’t tried: a symbol of moving forward, though we didn’t really want to. Deep in the toe was the other hiking sock: the mountains were Jillian’s second home. One summer, Jillian picked me up for a day trip in the Rockies. She’d turned off the volume but forgot to change the radio station, and when she turned the volume back up, carols were playing.

Drunk, the driver ran through multiple red lights, before crashing his Cadillac Escalade truck into the taxi Jillian was taking home after a craft beer festival. The twenty- year-old was traveling 123 kilometers per hour in a 50-kilometer zone. He didn’t have a license; he had a blood alcohol content of 30 milligrams over the legal limit. Upon impact, Jillian’s MAC compact case exploded into hundreds of pieces. I haven’t been able to buy one since. There were 75 victim impact statements on file: the judge considered 25. Mine wasn’t included. Sentenced to four and a half years in prison, the driver was granted full parole after nine months. The board deemed him a low risk to reoffend, and the future crimes he was unlikely to commit lessened the time served for the ones he had.

Every time I take a taxi, I feel as though something horrendous will happen. The car will crash or catch fire. The driver will kidnap or rape or murder me. The driver will get lost and, out of frustration, leave me in the middle of nowhere, where someone else will kidnap or rape or murder me. Like many things in grief, the latter two are nonsensical – Jillian’s taxi driver was a caring and honest man. A friend of mine and Jillian’s told me that she shares a similar fear, though hers isn’t limited to taxis, it’s everywhere. Another friend is on anxiety medication. Sometimes, I wonder if I should be too.

Footage from the dashcam inside the taxi shows Jillian and Amritpal, the driver, laughing in their final moment. His wife and now single mother of two girls, Lovee, invites me to their home for Punjabi dishes and chai when I’m visiting. She told me that Amritpal and Jillian had a lot in common: their love for adventure, the outdoors, and food. Both of them had business degrees, Amritpal his master’s, Jillian her bachelor’s. They were practical, warm, family oriented, selfless, and bold. Most memorably, they shared a contagious laugh. When we were high school students, I could hear Jillian’s, high-pitched and breathless, coming from the basement as I stood on her driveway: she was often watching the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Lovee told me that when Amritpal watched the Kapil Sharma Show, she could hear him laughing from outside too.

Guilt and grief are often inseparable. I feel guilty that I still haven’t put my life back together, for not taking better care of myself, for steering clear of intimate relationships. I feel guilty for moments of happiness, though I know Jillian would want me to feel them; I feel guilty for not having more compassion for myself. I’m still learning that moving on doesn’t mean forgetting her, fighting the feeling that contentment without her isn’t right, as though it means I’ve left her behind, accepted her horrible end. I feel guilty for not writing down every memory of Jillian while I could still remember it, for forgetting her mannerisms, expressions, words, the sound of her voice, everything beyond what’s left in photographs. I feel guilty for feeling guilty.

Hugh Everett III, an American physicist, proposed the Many-Worlds Interpretation. The theory reasons that if an action has more than one possible outcome – for instance, a situation where death is possible – the universe splits into separate universes for each result. In other words, infinite worlds exist at the same time and space as our own. If this is true, then in this world, me and others Jillian loved and left are in pain, but in a parallel world, Jillian and I are driving down the Trans-Canada Highway, past haybales on meadows and horses on ranches, clear blue skies above and frosted mountains ahead, drinking Starbucks coffee, listening to the ’90s music of our childhoods, laughing.

In a recurring dream I have, Jillian has come back. She’s driving me somewhere, like she often did, around our old neighborhood. She’s wearing her huge smile. I resist the urge to fling myself onto her and hug her, because she doesn’t know she has died, and I don’t want to frighten her. I feel happy again. It’s a happiness I’ve long forgotten, but it’s temporary; I understand she can’t stay. Though I don’t want to, I need to tell Jillian that she’s dead. It’s selfish keeping her here after she’s moved on to a different place. I don’t have the slightest idea how to explain and, as I’m trying to figure it out, I wake up.

Jillian loved reading; Anne of Green Gables was one of her favorite books growing up. As a girl, she loved Minnie Mouse but not Mickey, because she didn’t like boys, except for her dad and uncle. In her twenties, she loved beating the guys in sales at work. She loved Christmas and the Stampede, a ten-day rodeo and festival; Tiffany, Kate Spade, and Michael Kors; hockey players Monahan and Iggy; Starbucks and Tim Hortons; dancing, spin class, running, and hiking; red wine and craft beer; road trips, music festivals, traveling, and Paris; falling asleep during movies; artisan bagels, macarons, and gelato; red nails, dogs, and sunsets. Jillian was known for making sassy comments and putting people in their place. Though she rarely gave me attitude, she didn’t extend this to the people in my life whom she didn’t trust. One summer, in our late teens, we ran into my boyfriend at the Stampede. At the end of the evening, while we were all walking to Jillian’s car, she told me, “I’m not driving him home.” But then it began pouring and she changed her mind. When we arrived at his house, he said that he’d buy her a muffin as a thank you. “I don’t like muffins,” she said, even though she did.

Knowing I can browse Jillian’s social media accounts reassures me, so long as I don’t do it often. Having the possibility is more comforting than pursuing it: grief can easily turn into an obsession, and I’m terrified I’ll accidentally unfriend Jillian or find out one of her accounts has been removed. Only a few times, I’ve looked at some of the moments she thought worth capturing: sunbeams passing through cherry blossoms in Vancouver, dogs pulling a sleigh across a frozen lake in the Rockies, orange and pink hues washing over waves in Oahu. Then the last photo comes, always too soon, and I feel sick. It’s as though her life is suspended in 2015 and, in a way, mine is too. Less and less now, a family member or friend will share a photo of her and, for a second, I believe she posted it. I keep waiting for her to post something, so I can know she’s okay.

Laparoscopies, miscarriages, a variety of fertility medication: Jillian’s parents endured many hardships trying to conceive during the first five years of their marriage. They had two adoptions fall through before adopting a baby girl, Caitlin. When Caitlin was six weeks old, her and Jillian’s mom had emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy and was hospitalized for five days. Two years later, she became pregnant with Jillian with only one functional fallopian tube. She was convinced the pregnancy would end in a miscarriage. A few times, Jillian told me that she was a miracle baby. It was one of the few things I ever heard her boast about.

Misconceptions about grief feel endless. People who don’t cry are suppressing their emotions; those who cry for ‘too long’ are weak; someone who has grieved will understand your grief; the first year is the hardest; grief ends. I was surprised to discover the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are based on stages of grief for people dying, not those they leave behind. Grief for those left is anything but linear. One day, work means researching, writing, editing. Another day, taking a shower feels like work. Most days, I remind myself to take good care of Jillian’s things in case she ever wants them back.

Noor, the taxi driver’s eldest daughter, interviewed her dad for a school project about ten days before he died. In English class, she’d read a novel in which Death was a main character. She asked him what characteristics he’d want Death to have if he were to meet them in a coffee shop. Amritpal said that he’d want a beautiful girl in her mid twenties with long, brown hair, who was smiling and laughing. “If she’s jolly, she can take me with her,” he said. Noor and her family laughed. They didn’t know Amritpal had described Jillian.

One summer, Jillian and I went paddleboarding on the Canmore Reservoir in the Rockies. The peaks were tipped with white, deepening the shades of evergreens surrounding the lake. Our paddles broke the reflection of clouds in the water as we tried to keep our balance; the air temperature hit above 77 degrees and the water temperature below 50. While we were paddling, a black bear emerged and began running down the hill. I did the smart thing and fell off my paddleboard. It turned out the bear was heading towards a berry bush and hadn’t noticed us. Later, Jillian told me that I’d looked like a wet dog. I told this story at her celebration of life, and everyone laughed. Later, I felt disappointed in myself, because I thought I’d failed to tell people what Jillian meant to me, what she could have meant to those deprived of knowing her. I worried that I’d reduced her to a funny anecdote, one that someone might tell at a party. I realize now it’s more than that. Much of life’s meaning is in its moments.

Pink Adidas running shoes, new and never worn, were left in the entry closet. Jillian had bought them for a Mother’s Day run, the day after her funeral. On the day of the run, Caitlin wore them and ran in her place. There were lots of things Jillian hadn’t had a chance to use. Blake Shelton concert tickets: I don’t like country music, but every now and again, she’d turn it on the car radio and give me her ‘are you sure’ smile. Dark brown leather cowboy boots that she’d worn for only one Stampede: every year, she and her family went to the chuckwagon races. Jillian kept the boots packed neatly in the original box; her mom told me when she opened her closet, she could smell their smoky scent. An off-white linen blazer that she’d planned on returning: it was a bit tight in the arms. High-top hiking boots her dad had bought her: after hearing she lost control while hiking on some scree, he worried about Jillian overextending her capabilities. Knowing she had sturdy footwear made him feel better. Now, the boots are a reminder of a vivid life fading into the background.

Quintin came to your funeral, Kristy and Steve got engaged, Kendra and I are closer than ever: the list of things I want to talk to Jillian about grows each day. I want to tell her that Gilmore Girls – one of her favorite TV shows as a teenager – returned for a miniseries, and it was disappointing. Does she think so too? The Stampede had scorpion pizza one year. Does this top go with these pants? I moved to Korea instead of Thailand. Did I make the right decision? I got accepted to do my MA in Writing in England like I’ve always dreamed of. Have I done her justice in how I’ve portrayed her? Is it okay that I’m writing about her?

Reaching across her ribs, Jillian had a tattoo of the lyrics, slightly altered, from “To Build A Home,” a piano ballad by The Cinematic Orchestra. It read, ‘I climbed a tree to see the world.’ In the music video, a man carries his significant other across green valleys to a home, old and worn. The woman is wearing a hospital gown and hiking boots. Inside, she looks through letters, photos, and postcards. In between their embraces, he cries, and she tries to comfort him. He watches her sleep and suddenly, the bed is empty; the video ends. After Jillian died, her auntie had the same lyrics tattooed on her shoulder. A friend got a tattoo of the sound wave of Jillian’s laughter.

Stories, even ones I’ve heard before, keep Jillian alive. Her parents told me that in first grade, Jillian’s teacher asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Jillian said that during weekdays, she wanted to be an artist, and on weekends, she wanted to work at 7-Eleven. I found out that in middle school, Jillian’s friend and some of her classmates would bully a girl who pretended to read the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. They’d make up fake plots to test the girl, and as soon as Jillian realized this, she’d walk away. The same friend told me that the time Jillian came over after a boyfriend and I broke up, reassuring me that she didn’t have plans, she’d left an Anne-of-Green-Gables-themed girls’ night straight after receiving my message.

Tiffany & Co stocked the eleven necklaces Caitlin picked up for her sister’s eleven best friends. The necklaces were the same as the one we’d chipped in to buy for Jillian’s twenty-fifth birthday, her last birthday, a disc charm pendant with the letter ‘J.’ We were invited with our parents for dinner at Jillian’s house, where her bedroom door stayed closed, as though she were on vacation. After eating, Caitlin handed out the necklaces while her mom said kind, thoughtful things about each of us. I remember Jillian’s mom saying that she taught Jillian to choose friends she could count on. I remember her saying that when Caitlin went to Tiffany’s, there were exactly eleven necklaces left.

Under talisay and palm trees shading me from the sun, I hiked Tablas Mountain in the Philippines, wishing I’d brought the Tiffany necklace. Wearing it makes me feel closer to Jillian, especially while doing something she would have liked. My friend and I reached the summit later than expected; the sun began dipping down into the Sibuyan Sea, transforming the lush green valleys into golden tones. We needed to hurry back but not without a photo. When I looked at it, I noticed the flare from the light had created a disc-shaped spot in the same place my pendant would normally rest.

Visiting places far from my hometown should, in theory, bring me further from memories of Jillian. However, in reality, nothing is far from her. I don’t need reminders to think of her, but sometimes they’re inevitable: watching a sunrise on the top of Mount Fuji brought me back to our hiking adventures; seeing the Vienna State Opera House – its Neo- Renaissance style, the marble interior, the auditorium’s red and gilt decoration – made me think of her elegance. Reminders in some places, though, surprise me, like at Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul. Strolling past traditional houses with Giwa-tiled roofs, I passed a shop. Outside on display, in a country where I often communicated using gestures, were colorful ABC blocks spelling out Jillian’s name.

‘What if’ is one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. What if I’d messaged Jillian to see how her evening was going? What if I’d accepted her invitation to join, instead of going to yoga class? Perhaps the drunk driver wouldn’t have raced through the intersection at the same time she was passing through it. Perhaps she would have caught a different taxi. A friend pointed out that had I joined, I might have been in the crash. If I could travel back in time, that’s a chance I’d take. Another friend said that thinking like this will make me crazy, and he’s right. A grief counselor told me that these thoughts are a way of negotiating an unnegotiable outcome. What if it takes me longer to learn a new meaning of happiness than the years I have left to live?

X variables and linear sequences weren’t my strong suit, but Jillian helped me. At the high school where we met, students learned at their own pace. As the year came to an end, she was relatively on track. I, on the other hand, had left the entire math curriculum until two weeks before the deadline. To finish the course, I needed to complete exams for around three different topics each day. My parents were convinced I’d have to spend the summer in school, repeating the course I’d failed. “That’s not happening,” Jillian said. “We’re hanging out.” So, every day after school, we stocked up on junk food and energy drinks and, in addition to doing her own work, she patiently tutored me until we couldn’t fight off sleep. I offered her a hand in English literature, but Jillian didn’t need it and, like always, didn’t want anything in return. “You better pass,” she told me. And I did.

Years continue to wear on. Sometimes people say, ‘Jillian’s death was so long ago already.’ I hold back snapping at those people; they’re not trying to hurt me. I want to tell them that it’s not only the few years that have gone by, but the other fifty without Jillian, should I grow old. It’s knowing she never will. Knowing she’ll never meet her niece, whom she would have loved dressing up, never have her own family, never again bring tea, chocolates, and wine to cheer me up, or show up to my birthday dinners before I do. It’s knowing she’ll never again change someone’s life the way she did mine. But I say nothing; talking about grief makes people uncomfortable.

Zara, one of Jillian’s favorite clothing brands, made up a large part of her wardrobe. After Jillian died, her mom put aside clothes for each of Jillian’s friends that she thought would suit them. “This is an Agatha dress,” her mom told me, without knowing Jillian had let me borrow it once for a night out. She encouraged me to take other clothes too, like Jillian’s black knitted Zara sweater. To this day, Jillian’s clothes are some of my most prized possessions. I returned home with the bag of outfits and sat on my bedroom floor. My mom came in and looked at me with sad eyes, silent. Her sister died around the same age as Jillian. Perhaps she knew there was nothing she could say.

I’m a Polish-Canadian nonfiction writer living in London, England, where I work as the Content Editor on High Life, the print magazine for British Airways, and as a freelance journalist specializing in travel and lifestyle. I completed my MA in Writing with Distinction at the University of Warwick in the UK, and my BA in Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. I have also lived in Germany, South Korea, and New Zealand.