Losing My Best Friend Gave Me Purpose
“You look disheveled…you have to fix your hair!” My friend Brooke was never one to mince words, even if that meant letting her nurses know they were due for a visit to the salon. My spitfire friend, so full of life, truth, and beauty was now in a hospital bed—far from her cosmetology and hair styling career. She had turned down chemo (that wouldn’t have been able to save her) in order to avoid losing her hair. She identified so strongly with making others feel their best from the outside in. Now that was all being compromised.
Brooke was 27 years old, lying on an examination table in her hospital gown, exposing her gangrene leg and feet. She was hooked up to a ventilator, yet her spirit was so strong and feisty that not even off-the-chart vitals could break her. I remember pushing through lab coats and finding my way to her face.
“If you can’t get to the salon, the salon will come to you,” I whispered before doing her nails and makeup in order to make her feel like herself again.
I watched my friend get stripped of life’s everyday pleasantries. Once the picture of health and always put together, she was now surrounded by charts, machines, and white coats. It was bad enough she was fighting for her life, but to lose her sense of normalcy only compounded the pain.
I took up residence in her hospital room after a while, eating the food and wearing scrubs. I could feel that sterilized environment start to take its toll on my own psyche, so I could only imagine what it was doing to my best friend with cancer. I wanted her to be reminded of who she was before the illness invaded her body. I needed her to feel as beautiful as she was. With makeup on and a fresh manicure, she wasn’t as hesitant to have visitors or take pictures. Somehow, giving her spa-like treatments, fixing her hair, and giving her pedicures helped revitalize us both.
I’ll never forget hearing the words, “I’ll write the order for hospice today,” and seeing Brooke carried away on a stretcher by paramedics. The stretcher that would ultimately be in her room, and eventually, the last bed I’d lie in with her. I could feel her slowly yet expeditiously leaving me. I was being put in a position I had put her in years ago.
“You left Detroit, and I stayed. You went to follow your dream and left me behind.” If Brooke never held back before, now there was absolutely no such thing as a filter. She was forever going to say what was in her heart and on her mind, especially now. “I stayed here the whole time, and now I’m the one who’s leaving and you’ll be here. Not in Detroit, but here on Earth.”
Today, I think about this constantly. Brooke said, “I’ve been thinking about it, and dying so young means I won’t have time to figure life out.” Here I was, able-bodied with so much opportunity in front of me, but I questioned so much about my path and what to pursue.
“Go grab two towels from the hall closet, and the holy water from my dresser.” Brooke was helping me navigate her family’s new home from her bed, setting up what would ultimately be our goodbye. The only way I can describe it was that it felt like my best friend blessing me, and making her last wishes for my life.
I am a woman of faith and have a very close relationship with God; Brooke, however, didn’t always express her affinity for a higher power. So to have her pour holy water over my head in her room that day and recite prayers from Catholic grad school was a bit shocking, yet comforting. There was a grace in the room, and a sensation overcame me that I’ll never forget.
“God, give Jackelyn a job that keeps her in Michigan so she’s close to me. Please watch over her and us. Keep her safe, and help guide her to what she’s supposed to be doing.” Looking feverish and holding back tears, Brooke was personalizing the prayers now.
She was asking God to direct me during a time in my life when I was living between three states—New York, California, and Michigan—auditioning and honing a craft I was prepped my whole life to achieve. She asked me to make a wish, something she always mocked growing up, and I thought to myself, Help me figure out what it is I need be happy.
I looked at her and she was visibly crying now, but I had a smile on my face that could not be removed. I felt light and fulfilled. I felt safe, and that there was no reason to worry…
We lost Brooke a week later and the devastation that followed was numbing, but it was nothing in comparison to the clarity I was about to gain. I ended up getting cast in a lead role in a horror film, followed by appearing in a Lady Gaga video and two other films. While I was elated to get these parts, I still didn’t know how to measure success because I constantly felt something was missing.
Seeing my friend’s life cut short and robbed of being able to explore what really matters made me want to live mine right. I interpreted this as a new lease on life. Whatever I did next would be in her honor, from the heart and making us both proud.
This is how I got the inspiration to start Simply From the Heart, and completely reroute my life. I had always been a performer—I’d tapped with Savion Glover at age seven, danced alongside Rudolf Nureyev, and had been to Fiorello H. La Guardia Performing Arts High School and Marymount College. Acting and dance was all I knew, but what I didn’t know was that there was something on the horizon to make me feel whole.
While I was always proud of and passionate about my previous endeavors, they were merely jobs where I was a disposable piece in the production. There was always someone else who could fill the part. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in the charity that I felt like an irreplaceable part of this world.
There’s a lot of magic that happens for an onsite Simply From the Heart volunteer. The minute they enter a hospital room, they can be forced to look at the big picture—life’s big picture. They can be gifted in that moment with a mindset some people work their whole lives to achieve. Don’t we all wish for times that teach us about what really matters?
I may have been instrumental in helping Brooke stay positive and feel alive during her battle with cancer, but she is the one that has eternally helped me. I’ve always believed it’s only the love of someone who’s passed that can make the wishes of the living come true.