To Jillian, With Love On Her Birthday

36. Jillian should have celebrated her thirty-sixth birthday today, but she won’t. She’ll never celebrate another birthday. She’ll never eat birthday cake. She’ll never snuggle with her kids. She’ll never enjoy her favorite holiday – Halloween. She lost her life to cervical cancer.

The last time I saw Jillian was last year on her birthday. It wasn’t joyous. I think we all tried to make it joyous, but it was quite sad. Jillian was in hospice and she was nearing the end. I plotted with her friends and family to surprise her, and surprised she was.

I had never been to hospice before. Despite all the work I do in the cancer community I had never visited someone in hospice. I don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever it was that is not what I saw. In fact, it was just the opposite of anything I think of what “in hospice” would be like. Jillian’s hospice was beautiful. It was serene and everyone was friendly. It didn’t feel of death. Until I walked in and saw Jillian. There she was, sitting in her bed looking like Jillian, except she was very pale and her hair was darker. She was also quiet. Something that Jillian was not.

When she saw me walk into her hospice room, she looked as if she had seen a ghost. In some ways; I assume I looked that way too. I sat in a chair on the side of her bed. She reached out to hold my hand. Her hand was cold. My hand was warm. Jillian kept stroking my hand with hers and she looked intently at me. She kept commenting how warm I was. I’m always warm. My cold friends are always snuggling up to me and soaking up my warmth. Normally, I don’t mind, but this time I felt so uneasy about it. Perhaps because I could see the inevitable in her eyes. Perhaps she could see that reflection in mine. Perhaps because I so desperately wish I could fix it. Or perhaps it’s because we both knew this would most likely be the last time we saw each other — and it was. But that won’t be my final memories.

My memories of Jillian will be her potty mouth, that she had some soul to her, that she didn’t want to die, that she didn’t want to leave her boys, that she was sad the medical advancement didn’t happen fast enough for her.

I’ll remember what an outspoken advocate she was. I’ll remember her telling me from her hospice bed that the work I do is important and to keep it up. With so much death it can be hard to keep doing this work. But that is exactly why I can’t give up. Via social media I watch as Jillian’s friends, family and boys go on without her. At times it is painful and I have to keep scrolling. But this is why the elimination of suffering and death due to HPV related cancer — especially, cervical cancer has to keep pushing forward. The time is now. I’ll continue this work not only for Jillian. But for Curtissa, Nanette, Lisa and so many others, too. It’s what Jillian would have wanted. It’s the only birthday present that I know she would want. Happy Birthday, Jillian! You are missed.

Tamika Felder is a women’s health advocate, educator, mobilizer, author, and the Chief Visionary at Cervivor, a nonprofit dedicated to cervical cancer advocacy and support.

My Promise To Jillian

Wow, where do I begin? This has been one of the most difficult years of my life; losing my best friend Jillian Scalfani to cervical cancer.  I will never forget the day she came home from the hospital in Boston and told me she had cancer. This thought had not even crossed any of our minds. She thought at max, the news would be that she would have to have a hysterectomy and would be fine.  Her youngest was 2-years old at the time and she was not planning on more children. This was the start of her three year battle with cervical cancer.

During this difficult time, radiation, chemo and several clinical trials had failed her.  She would often get emotional talking about her children.  She was fighting the fight for them and boy did she.  She knew that her youngest Joseph (Jojo) would be okay because his father Big Joe, Jayden and her all lived together.  He would take good care of Jojo.  Her fear was what about Jayden?  Jayden’s father has never been a part of his life and who was going to take care of him? After a conversation with Big Joe while Jill was getting a Chemo treatment, I realized he had no intentions of raising Jayden.  He thought it would be too much having to raise two boys.  Jill’s wish was to keep her two boys together but that was suddenly fading.  We had many conversations about where Jayden would go and who could care for him.  Her family is small and she didn’t have anyone to take this role on.  Being her best friend, single, no children of my own, I offered to raise him.  I wanted Jill to be able to focus on treatment and not have to worry about this issue.  Thanks to another family friend, we were able to meet with a lawyer and get affairs in place.  She questioned whether or not I was ready for this, and I reassured her I was.  I often wondered if maybe this was why I did not have children of my own, I was meant to raise Jayden.

The 2017 school year began and Jill was in hospice. I went to the house and got Jayden off to school on the first day, took pictures so she could rest.  This was his big day…officially a Haverhill High student.  I reached out to the school Day 1 to inform them of Jayden’s situation.  A couple days later Jayden moved in with me.  It was time.  Jillian was now at the Hospice House and unable to care for him.  I assured her that I would try my very best to raise him as my own and take care of him.  It is challenging at times working two nights a week but thanks to Kelly Mac we make it work.  She has been my rock during this whole process, A true best friend to Jillian and me. Kelly and Jill grew up together and now their kids are best friends growing up together, as well. Jayden chose to be by his mothers’ side during her last breaths.  Kelly’s son and his best friend, Hector helped him get through this difficult time.

Jillian had a memorial mass in her honor a couple weeks after her passing.  Her grandmother, “Nana Big Hair” and I delivered the bread and wine to the priest in honor of her.  An older woman sitting in the front row saw me crying and handed me a note.  It read,“Tears are God’s way of melting a heart frozen in grief”.  I will never forget this woman and her kind soul.  She has no idea how much her words meant to me.

Jayden started playing football for HHS and had practice every night until 7pm.  This truly kept him going.  Keeping him busy was a big part of this process.  Now that football season is over, we will be checking out the Haverhill Boxing Club.  He has a minor set back with a knee injury.  He is basically growing too fast for his body and in physical therapy 2x a week.  I was super excited to spend Christmas with Jayden. However, it was a very sad day without his mother, but I did everything in my power to make it special for him. I surprised him with a trip to Disney World, where we will be joining Kelly Mac in March on vacation. The other surprise — a special gift in memory of Jill.  I know she is shining down and watching over us.  We love and miss you, Jillian!

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year! God Bless. Heather

Read Jillian’s touching letter to Heather here