Learning life’s lessons from Jessica’s smile
It’s her smile that I remember most.A smile that met people at the door. A smile that welcomed me every morning. A smile that hid the pain and ignored the ominous clouds of reality. A smile that always brought sunshine.Jessica McMillan was 56 when the smile finally faded. On Saturday, she lost her battle with cancer.Jessica worked for the Post Independent as a business office assistant. She also took calls from angry and irritated callers, mostly about problems with their newspaper delivery. Some of those calls made the smile disappear. It left her baffled by people’s priorities.Here she was in the fight for her life with cancer that knows no mercy. And people would call, some yelling at her over a missing or late newspaper.”I just don’t understand,” she said once. “Is this the most important thing in their lives?”Yes, it is difficult to understand. But that’s life. Priorities get misplaced. For Jessica, her priorities changed when she got the diagnosis that her cancer was terminal.She refused to accept that. She refused to go without a fight.That’s the legacy that she will leave with us at the Post Independent.In a story that we published in December, her resolve was powerful. “You have to remain positive,” she said in the article. “If you think negatively, your body will pick up on that. I have to think about being healthy.”I remember days when my priorities were a little out of order. I was having a bad day, the details were meaningless in the big picture of life; then I’d walk into the office and there was Jessica greeting me with the biggest smile you could imagine. My day suddenly got better.I remember when my mom was battling cancer, and she had good days and bad days. I can’t imagine the kind of torment cancer creates. I’m sure Jessica had those good days and bad days, too.But when she was at work, there was the constant smile. Being positive gave her hope. It gave us all hope.”You create your own life,” Jessica said in the article. “Some days are harder than others, but you just have to put out positive energy, and that’s what you will get back.”Deep down, most of us knew what was going to happen. When the cancer moved into her liver and into her lungs, it didn’t look good at all.But Jessica never let it show. For me, I talked to Jessica more. In an office with multiple departments, there are people that you really don’t know very well. And we all get busy, we all become overly selfish with our time. We all have more important things to do than sit down and have a conversation with someone who works down the hall.I felt bad that it took a cancer diagnosis for me to sit down and get to know Jessica a little better.I discovered that we graduated from the same college, and that she was a ski and toboggan instructor.”A toboggan instructor?” I asked, as she laughed and explained.It was her experience as a pilot and flight instructor that intrigued me the most. She talked about how much she loved to fly, and how amazing the exhilaration of taking to the skies was for her.She was a very accomplished woman.It’s not a cliché or an understatement to say life is fragile. We hear it all the time, usually after someone dies.We will miss Jessica here at the Post Independent. I will miss that smile. I will miss walking through the door and being reminded by that smile that my day isn’t as bad as I think it is. I will always be grateful to Jessica for teaching me that life’s priorities need to be rearranged sometimes. That’s what she told me with her smile and her positive view of life.Life isn’t about newspaper delivery or work, life isn’t about dying. Life is about the people that are part of your life. Life is about getting to know people before they get cancer. Life is about smiling, even during the times when there’s not that much to smile about.Today, life is about remembering Jessica’s smile and wishing it was still with us.Dale Shrull is managing editor of the Post Independent.
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