My parents called me “chatterbox” as a child because I talked all the time. I’m still a chatterbox, but I’m at a loss for words about Jacquelyn, my college roommate and Theta “pledge mom,” who took her last breath exactly one month ago today.
Jax was an engineer. She was the kind of crazy smart you’d expect of someone who went to Purdue. (Fortunately for me, admissions let my solid C+ grade point average slide because my dad was a Boilermaker, too). Though our majors were different, our lives intersected thanks to a friend from the dorms who introduced us because, like me, Jax was a California girl … and being a liberal Californian in Indiana is much like being Elephant Man. We used weird words like “stoked” and “bitchin,” we wore both backpack straps and Flojos for shower shoes. We voted for Clinton (sorry, dad!).
Needless to say, from the moment we met, Jax and I were kindred spirits. Feeling very much like a fish out of water as a sophomore transfer student, I was homesick. Jax couldn’t deliver me back to the Pacific Ocean, but she was my proverbial fishbowl.
I went on to join Jax’s sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. She was precisely the reason I became a Theta. She was warm, funny, smart, confident and fearlessly true to herself. From my point of view, if the rest of the Thetas were anything like her, they were just the kind of people I wanted to spend the next four years of my life with. (Non-Greek friends: Yes, I know, a sorority girl. However, on a campus with 38,000 students, I always advocate for an activity. A sorority was mine, and I’m better for it).
Not long after I pledged, the women in the house chose a new member to mentor. Jax chose me. As her “pledge daughter,” we lived together for two semesters in our sorority house. She was always great for interesting conversation, an honest opinion and a good, hard giggle.
Jax was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 15, 2009 at the age of 37. After completing six treatments, six days before she turned 38, Jax went in for a double mastectomy. During surgery, doctors determined that Jax’s cancer was more aggressive than they had originally thought — Jax had Invasive Breast Cancer, the very wickedest of the Wicked Witches of the Breast (Breast cancer fact I wish I did not know: There are many forms of breast cancer. My mom had two different kinds, the second a totally separate, unrelated occurrence to her first diagnosis). A true advocate for herself, Jax decided to pursue the very best care she could find. From that point forward, she commuted from Denver to Houston to see specialists at MD Anderson.
In the two years that followed, Jax and her husband, Britton, spent weeks at a time away from home time to see her doctors, all while she endured multiple surgeries, side effects from her cancer cocktail, and intense chemotherapy and radiation.
The way Jax “did cancer” makes me think of something my mom’s surgeon once said. He said, “Lou, you’re more than a patient. You’re a mom, a wife, a friend, a sister…” Jax didn’t let being a patient rule her life. She was on the ski patrol at Loveland in Denver, she hiked, ran and climbed. She did a breast cancer walk, practiced yoga, and went to a conference for women with cancer. She and Britton took trips to see friends, visited family in California and celebrated her 40th birthday with friends in Vegas. Jacquelyn Arcaris lived, as her pastor appropriately called it, “arcariously.”
Meanwhile, her cancer was spreading — like wildfire. Jax’s cancer eventually metastasized to her liver, her bones and brain, in addition to some new lymph nodes and the tissue where her “good breast” used to be. How could such an incredible person end up in a field of poison poppies? Where was Jax’s yellow brick road? I’d give just about anything to give her ruby slippers so she could re-write her story and live the rest of her life happily, healthily ever after. Since I can’t, I will be forever grateful that she touched my life and showed me the true meaning of “carpe diem.”
Jax, you inspire me. I love you, I LIVESTRONG for you, and I’ll be watching for you at 19,341 feet.