Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Meeting Jessica

Jessica Liversidge was just 18 years old when she laid down to sleep in the early hours of Sunday morning, October 23rd. She never woke up. She was my niece through marriage, the only child of my wife Debbie's sister, Vickie, and Vickie's husband Joe.

I had only seen Jess in person twice since she was a very little girl, both times in her pre-teen years. Once their family visited our home in the Somerton section of Philadelphia. Another was at the funeral for her maternal blood grandmother, Alma Marshall, Debbie and Vickie's mother by birth.

I say "by birth" because the whole family relationship story is kind of unique, reminiscent of an "Oprah" episode where family members who were long estranged or never knew about one another are suddenly united or reunited.
Alma had 4-5 children already when she discovered that she was pregnant with Vickie.

This was the early 1950's, still the post-World War II years, and times were tough in the household. Knowing she was carrying a life inside of her, but believing they could not afford another child, she and her husband Bob decided to give Vickie up for adoption.

Incredibly, it turned out that Alma still wasn't done with mothering. About two years later, my wife Debbie came along, and the couple decided that it must be God's will to keep expanding their family. They kept Debbie, and even ended up adding two more children to their family after that.

Vickie was adopted by what all accounts seem to indicate was a wonderful couple who raised her in the area in and around Downingtown, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles to the west of the Marshall home on Huntingdon Street in Philly.


I am not sure of the exact circumstances, but from what I have learned, a part of the adoption agreement directed that the records would not be opened until Vickie's mother had passed away, or until Vickie had a child of her own. Both of these events ended up happening within a short time of one another.

Meanwhile, back in Philly, Vickie's older brothers and sisters were very young at the time of the pregnancy, and were kept out of the plans. Vickie's birth was not known by them, and was never made known to them. The same happened when my wife Debbie and her younger siblings came along. It was simply a chapter of life too difficult for Alma to talk about.

Debbie and I met in late spring of 1992, and so I was around the family when suddenly one afternoon in early 1993 a phone call came to the home of Deb's younger sister, Arlene, one of the kids born to Alma after Vickie's adoption. It was from Vickie, breaking some pretty big news to the family - the "Oprah" moment.

That phone call began a series of telephone and in-person meetings between Vickie and her blood family, Debbie's family, the Marshalls. When Deb and I got married in the fall of 1995, we asked Vickie to be in the wedding as one of our bridesmaids. It was a great period of getting to know one another, and a part of that was Vickie's husband, Joe, and their beautiful little daughter, Jessica.

Jess was an always smiling little bundle of sunshine and light. She would always seem to skip into a room, often bobbing her head from one side to the other, blond hair bobbing back and forth as she walked. I am sure she was a challenge as she got older, but around our family as a little girl she was always a joy to be around.

We saw their family at our home, at Arlene's home, and at a number of other family social occasions over the next few years. Jessica wasn't exposed to the drama of the family reunion situation as a young child. She knew our family only as what it was, hers, from the time she was born. She was around us pretty regularly right up until she was about 7-8 years old, maybe a little older, when visits got less frequent.

Lots of things happen with family and friends as our kids get older, and our lives gravitate more around what the kids are doing. When you live any kind of distance from one another, it makes those visits even more difficult and less frequent. We just simply didn't get together much, and didn't seem to have major family events come up.

Vickie and Joe fell into some marital problems that resulted in a separation, and eventually Vickie began a new relationship with a man named Bob. We saw Vickie and Bob at a couple of family functions, and eventually it just seemed like another casualty of modern family times. But somehow, and I don't know most of the details, Vickie and Joe ended up drifting back together, which was something that our family was happy to learn.

By the time early 2010 rolled around, I probably hadn't seen or heard from Jess in a few years. Then one day out of the blue I received a message at my Facebook account from her. She asked if I remembered her, and began to ask me for some law enforcement advice (I'm a Philly cop by profession.)

My first response was that, duh, of course I remembered her. She was my niece for God's sake (said in completely humorous tone with the requisite :) internet smiley face.) And I took her "my friend recently got in trouble, what should they do?" question as most cops do when confronted with this kind of thing, wondering if the "friend" was actually Jess herself.

I answered whatever her question was as best I could, we did a little chit-chatting to catch up, and then both said that we would talk with our respective families about getting everyone together soon. Over this last year and a half, I have probably had that same kind of exchange with her on Facebook 2-3 other times, but we never did actually get the family together.

Having Jessica as a Facebook 'friend' was a bit of a challenge for an uncle in that the language used and the pictures displayed by her and her friends was not always, shall we say, family appropriate. But I always took it as simply a young girl growing up and finding her way in a new-media world.

I got to know some things about Jess through those words and pictures that would often pop into my Facebook feed. She was obviously a pretty, fun-loving girl with many interests. She loved hanging out with her friends, and she loved her parents even as she challenged them. She seemed to flit effortlessly between her life at home in Pennsylvania, and up in Maine where her father Joe's family was from, and where she spent a good amount of visiting time.

There were pictures and descriptions of her waterskiing, and she talked about loving opportunities to go flying with Joe, who is a pilot, as well as boating with the family. From these pictures and her writings, I was largely able to fill in a representative picture of her life in the few years since I had last seen her.

Then just a couple of weeks ago, I happened to be off from work and in my bedroom in the morning when I heard the phone ring. Our daughter, Melissa, who is Jess's cousin and who, at 25, always seemed closer in age with her than the 7 years that actually separate them, walked down the hall from her own bedroom to answer the phone.

I knew that she wasn't going to get there before our answering machine picked up, and she didn't, and I heard a female voice leaving a message. I couldn't hear the words at all, but when Melissa started to break down crying out loud I knew that it could only be one kind of message.

Vickie and Deb's father, Bob Marshall, is now 86 years old, and so when I realized this message was the worst kind of news, Bob was where my thoughts went. I looked at Melissa and said "Poppy?", but she shook her head and said "No" through her tears. That probably made me even more worried, and then she told me it was Jess.

I played back Vickie's message, which was heart-breaking. I find it difficult to leave any kind of message on someone's answering service, let alone trying to pass on a message to my family that my teenage daughter had just died. I called Deb, Arlene, and their sister Joanne. Then I passed the word to my two older daughters from my first marriage, Chrissy and Kelly, who also knew Jess. I let the message spread out to the rest of the family from there.

Last Saturday, Deb, Melissa and I drove out to Downingtown for the open-casket viewing and the funeral service. No matter how professional a job a funeral home does, and this one did well, they can never capture the glow of life found in a teenage girl. The service after the viewing, however, was a completely uplifting experience.

Directly next door to the funeral home is the Downingtown Friends Meetinghouse. Vickie was raised there, went to school and attended their services. Personally, I had never been to a Quaker meetinghouse for any kind of ceremony. My first impression, with the bare walls and the stark, old benches, was cold and skeptical. Boy, was I wrong.

The premise of the Quaker ceremony is to celebrate the life of the descedent through anectodal recollections of times shared, events celebrated, and life lived with the person who has passed. A moderator stands and gives a brief introduction, and then invites others to begin sharing, should anyone feel moved to do so.

At first, just a young cousin of Jess' got up and shared a pre-written piece on their lives together. It was very warm and heartfelt, recalling a relationship that was obviously close between two young girls of the same age growing up together. The young lady obviously took time to think about what she was writing, and did an outstanding job both in her writing and in telling the stories through her tears.

A lengthy period of silence followed, and I started to get a little uncomfortable. I looked over at Joe and Vickie and hoped that someone would find something more to share. There were dozens of people in the hall. Someone had to have something to share about Jess.

When it wasn't happening, I decided to get up myself. I spoke on behalf of Deb's family, mostly recounting the things that I've now shared here in this piece. I ended by imploring her young friends and family members present to realize how precious is this gift of life. I asked them to realize that, even if on the wrong path now, or making some bad choices now, they still can make changes. Their whole lives are in front of them. I hope even one person that might need such a message was listening, and took it to heart.

Slowly, more and more got up to speak. At first it was older family members, and parents of her friends. But more and more her younger family and friends got up to speak. Many of the stories brought Jess' spirit back to life in that room, and filled it with warmth, even putting a smile on our faces and filling the room with laughter a couple of times.

One young female cousin told the story of how Jess had taught her to drive: "I was 12 - and she was 11." The place cracked up. She went on to share that Jess told her that the peddle on the right was for the gas. When the girl asked which one was the brake, Jess said "You don't need to know." That was Jessica right there, full speed ahead, no brakes.

In her lifetime, I probably spent no more than two weeks worth of days in the actual company of Jess. But she touched me with her loving spirit, which from the stories I heard that day was nothing unique. She touched everyone that way.

Jess had a substance abuse problem. She used drugs, and she drank, and she partied far too much. Her family tried very hard to get her help, but in the end it was not enough. We lost her from her own choices, there was nothing anyone else was going to be able to do. But as one uncle related, she lived life on her terms.

Jessica Liversidge left us with many memories. She left a warm spot in the hearts of those of us who got to know her on any real level. She lived her life in a way which taught us lessons, good and bad. She made a difference, she will be missed, and she will be loved. And it was really nice getting to meet her again in that Quaker meetinghouse.

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