I can't remember the very first time I saw her. But I do recall our first conversation. It was in September, her daughter having started in Reception just a few weeks earlier. I knew her by sight because her daughter was in the same class as my school mum friends' younger children. With her small stature, she seemed like a lost, little waif. As I passed her in the hallway one morning on the way to deposit my own children, I asked her how she was.
"Not so good. I've got to go to the GP today. I found a lump in my breast. My mother died of breast cancer, and I'm really scared," she said.
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I hope it goes well for you," I replied, rather weakly.
I saw one of the school mum friends, and I repeated what Jill had just told me. She went up to Jill immediately and offered to go with her to the appointment. "I should have done that," I thought. But I was relieved that someone would be with her.
Soon, Jill started to appear at the PTA meetings, encouraged by the head teacher and the other school mums. At her first meeting, she appeared clutching a photo album to her chest. This she passed round the room. The photos were of her son, who had been born severely brain damaged but managed to live, with a lot of medical intervention, for three years. I was surprised by the change in her appearance in what I thought was just a couple of years.
I was later informed that those photos were 15 years old.
The other school mums in my crowd took her to their collective bosom fairly quickly. They had her round for coffee frequently. Weekly soon became daily. I was rarely included in this but then I didn't have a child in the same year as Jill, and they did. Jill became a familiar sight at the school as well, loitering in the lobby next to the head teacher's office.
Jill's had a lot of tragedy in her life, it was repeated to me in low tones. First, the boy, who had to be resuscitated after birth several times and never could go home in his short life. Then her mother died. Then, finally, the birth of a daughter but she too had a congenital birth defect -- a withered hand and arm that were operated on numerous times in her early life.
Poor thing, we would murmur. "She's like a wounded bird you just want to scoop up in your hands and nurse back to health," one of the mums said. And so they all tried to heal her. She'd never had friends like this, she told them. She'd never had anyone to tell all this to before, all the feelings of loss and bereavement, she said.
She told the head teacher this as well during what were becoming daily visits to her office. The visits at first were supposed to be about how her daughter was settling in and all her fears for her. The head reassured her, and Jill found the visits incredibly reassuring. Soon, Jill was telling her about the boy, the mother, the girl's operations as well.
In December I'd arranged a lunch for our group of five. I bumped into Jill on my way to the restaurant. "Oh, are you going too?" she asked. No one had bothered to tell me they'd invited Jill. I was a bit annoyed, but managed to forget it. Jill, with her loud laugh and shrill voice, could be good fun, they said. And she was, in a loud, shrill way.
Soon, Jill had insinuated herself into the group completely. Each night out had to be planned with Jill in mind. "Jill can't make that night. She has a singing lesson." "Jill is feeling a bit down tonight. It's the anniversary of her son's death." "Jill isn't too good. Today would have been her son's birthday."
When Jill did come out with us, she would insist on having the wine bottle at her side. On one night out, she loudly asked me to pass the bottle and to stop hogging it. I was actually tee-total that night and had had none. The others would laugh. "Isn't she fun?" they would say. And between the lines, "Isn't she brave to laugh after all she's been through?"
I began to feel relieved when she couldn't make it, though I wasn't sure why. Perhaps it was the too-loud laughter, the too-shrill conversation. She was trying too hard, and it made me uncomfortable. I said none of this to the others. They didn't seem to think there was anything strange about her.
I would moan inwardly when she appeared at the PTA meetings. Somehow she always managed to get the conversation off the particular item of discussion and onto herself. She did this at school meetings as well. When school fairs were being set up, she would make an appearance but not do much. Just chat to the other mums, who also wouldn't do much after she appeared. At times she appeared to be bouncing off the walls, pirouetting on the balls of her feet.
And the other mums in our group would laugh. "Isn't Jill fun?" they would smile.
To be continued.....