We're Supposed to Be Four - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “We’re Supposed to Be Four.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
It is very rare that I actually get to interview our guests in-person. Usually it’s online, obviously because there’s Covid. But even before Covid, it would just be way too expensive, way too time-consuming for me to be flying around the United States talking to people. This is public radio.
So that’s what makes the conversation that i had with today’s guest such a treat. Because Jose is basically my neighbor, and so he got to come over on a beautiful sunny day – I know they're all beauty and sunny here in Phoenix – this past summer. And yes, we had to turn off the air conditioner because it’s too noisy. And yes, my dogs interrupted us about a thousand times. But we also got to crazy some sparkling waters and talk like old friends.
But when I first met Jose, he was not yet a friend, and he was not yet a guest. He was just a guy at the airport.
Jose: I was flying to Austin for a random, like “leave the city” trip, because my girls were spending summer vacation with their aunt. And I was in line getting ready to board. And I saw you fumbling around with your backpack, trying to board. And in my, in my head, I was like, contemplating on if I should go up to you or not. And I just said, “fuck it.”
Nora: I did not understand what my ticket said. So another man had helped me. He was like, “You're A1.” I was like, “Cool…” He was like, “You're the first!” I was like, what? He was like, “Get up there!” Like, he was so concerned. He was like, “Get up there now. Get into the front.” I was like, OK. You came up, I was like, “This guy's going to tell me I'm in the wrong spot.” [laughs]
Jose: [laughs] Well, what's funny is that I had rescheduled my flight the night before. And then I was like, you know what, like, whatever. So I scheduled it back to my original 5 a.m. flight. Which was stupid.
Nora: So stupid. Dumb time to fly.
Jose: So dumb.
Nora: I feel so sick that early in the morning. It's just so gross. Ughhhh and then we we sat next to each other and we got a Diet Coke and cried! That sounds about right.
Jose: Yeah that's pretty much my life now.
Nora: Same same.
Jose and I have three things in common (possibly more, but this is what I know for sure):
One, we are both tall.
Two, we both like Coke. Not Diet Coke. A full-on Coke.
Three, we have both lost a spouse. That’s what really bonded us.
Jose’s wife Jessie — the mother of their two children, Mazzy and Luna — died in 2020. That’s what he tells me while we stand in line waiting to board our flight.
Nora: What prompts Jessie to go to the doctor?
Jose: We started noticing that Jessie's period would be off. It'd be weird, like we would get intimate and then all of a sudden her period would start. At least that's what we thought it was. And then one morning, she wakes up and runs to the bathroom, and she is calling for me while I'm in bed, and she's like, “Babe, something's wrong.” And she says that she's bleeding into the toilet like as if she were urinating. That's how much is coming out. So I gather up the girls, and I take her to the emergency room. And what's weird is that a couple days before, we had scheduled her yearly checkup, because we knew something was weird because of, like, the random periods and the bleeding and stuff. So she had an appointment on Monday, and this was Sunday. Took her to the emergency room. They stopped the bleeding, and they said, “Since your appointment is tomorrow, just go ahead and go to your appointment and see what they say.”
Jessie insists on going to that Monday appointment alone. Her doctor runs some tests. Takes a biopsy. By Wednesday, the results are in.
Jose: So we went to her appointment. We're sitting in the room and they said, “The biopsy came back. And she has cervical cancer. It's a tumor.” When you say that, like you're living this, quote unquote, perfect life of, you know, family of four, you know, we didn't have that white picket fence, but we live the suburb life. You know, she had a great job. I was starting to move up in my career. And then you hear those words, and your whole world comes crashing down.
What’s going on is that Jessie’s cervical cancer is stage 1b, on a scale of 1 to 4. Which doesn’t sound too bad. Right? The doctors tell Jessie that she has options, which is also good: They may be able to scrape the cancer out (that is such a terrible visual; just the word “scrape out,” ugh), or she may have to do chemo and radiation.
Jose: At that point, I don't think I was really feeling afraid. It was more of confusion, because up until that point, everything was going the right way for us. We would randomly get a promotion at work. We would randomly get a pay raise. We sold our first house on the second day it was on the market. Like, everything is working out for us. And this is the first hiccup, and it's not supposed to be there. Like, it's not supposed to happen, especially to us. This just happens to random folks. Not us.
Jose can be strong because Jessie is strong. Even when the doctors tell her that surgery is no longer an option.
Jose: You know that image in “Spider-Man,” the first one with Tobey Maguire, where he stops the subway. That was Jessie blocking all of us in that subway. And we took it for granted, because she was so strong at that point. And they told us it’s going to be three sessions of chemo and like 40-something sessions of radiation and then five sessions of internal radiation. So we start chemo. She doesn't lose her hair. It's a very low dose. Radiation is probably the worst part because, you know, it's going around her region down there, and it's messing up her stomach and all that good stuff. And never complained, just took it in stride. The only time she complained was when she was feeling nauseous after chemo. And even for internal radiation, you know, sticking 17 tubes, devices in her vagina. And it's like, I'm with her every day holding her hand. And that was the first time I saw her cry because it was painful.
Just six months after being diagnosed, Jessie is told that she’s cancer-free. Her scans are clear! No more tumors in sight!
Jose: But it wasn't the same after. There was this cloud that hung above our family. That is honestly a regret that I have, is because we never really talked about it afterwards. We did occasionally, but there was never that deep conversation of, “OK, what's … what's next?” Because I thought everything was going to go back to normal. Everything is going to be just like how we planned. Yes, this was a minor bump in the road, but now we're back on track and let's go have some fun. And that's what we did. “We decided, you know what? We're going to take those vacations.”
The four of them — Jose, Jessie, Mazzy, Luna — go to San Diego, and Legoland. They buy their forever home. And the cloud that Jose mentioned … it remains, too. Because what happened with Jessie — as brave as she was, trying to Tobey-Maguire-stop that train from hitting her family — it still affected all of them.
Jose: After Jessie was done with her treatments, I got sick. Like I came down with, like, a crazy, like cold/flu something. And at the time, my primary care doctor knew what I was going through. And when I was sick and I went to go see him, he’s like, “You know, this is probably not medically like something, but I think it's your body just saying, like, ‘OK, give yourself a rest.’” And so I remember one morning where I was out, like I just was not feeling good. And in the back of my mind, I'm like, “Well, if Jessie can go through freakin cancer treatment, I can go through a flu.” Like the whole man flu thing. I didn't want to be that guy! But I was pretty close to being that guy. And then Mazzy comes in my room. And I'm like, on the bed and Jessie's like, in the living room hanging out with Luna. And Mazzy comes in and was like, “Daddy, are you feeling better, or are you sick like Mommy?” And I was like, ohhhhh, OK. Yeah, I need to get up. I can't do this. And that made me realize, like, she knew something was different about being sick with Mommy.
Being sick with Mommy was different.
In December 2019, Jose has a business trip to London for two weeks. He tries to get Jessie to go with him, but she can’t get away from work.
Jose: While I'm over there, obviously I talk to her every day, multiple times a day to the point where (sigh) this is the first time we've been away from each other that long. And add that on top of me being away from my kids, I'm a mess. Like, I called her crying one night because I missed her so much. And she's like, you know, “I miss you, too. We miss you, but you know what? This is a once in a lifetime experience.”
Nora: Yeah. Get a life. Go outside. [laughs]
Jose: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] Why are you crying to me, you lil wuss?
One night, Jose FaceTimes Jessie and the girls, and Jessie mentions that she has a knot in her back, which doesn’t sound like the biggest deal. I’m pretty sure lots of us have knots in our back. And Jessie does have two young girls that she has to lug around everywhere.
Jose: And she's like, “It's just, it feels so weird, I think I just slept wrong.” Like, OK. And then a couple days later she's like, “I just, it’s still, it's not going away.” And I think she ends up going to a chiropractor and she's like, “It doesn't feel right.” So I'm like, OK, she's sending me pictures of it, you know, video chat showing me. And I'm like, “Wow, That's a big knot.” I'm not nervous, because I'm an idiot and I think it's a knot. She's nervous, because she knows it's not a knot. And I get home. They pick me up at the airport, and they're facing one way, and I actually come out the other door [laughs] and instead of Jessie being like, “Oh, my god. You’re home!” She goes, “Shit! I was trying to make it all cute with the girls running and then you come up behind me.” [laughs] I'm like, “All right, Well, I'm happy to see you too.” But, you know, we go have dinner. One thing I noticed about Jessie when we're eating, and it instantly put me back into her first cancer fight: She couldn't sit still. She was constantly bouncing her leg. And that's when I knew something was up. And then she had a cough that was just lingering and just would never go away.
Jessie goes in for a scan on December 23rd. She’s told they won’t get the results until after the holidays. On January 2nd, Jessie’s doctors confirm what the couple already know.
The cancer is back. And it’s … really bad. Jessie has 13 tumors. The cancer has spread to her lungs, her liver and her kidneys.
And her doctor asks her...
Jose: “Do you want to know how much time you have left?” And when you hear those words, it's like, selfishly, myself, my whole life flashed before my eyes. And I'm crying uncontrollably crying, sobbing. And Jessie's fine. You know? I look at her and I'm like, “Do you want to know?” And she's like, “No, I don't. I don't want to know how much time.” And so she gives us a game plan. “This is what we're going to do. We're going to start chemo.” And then after that we leave her office. And I just … I just break down in the hallway of this medical building next to the elevators, just crying my eyes out because ... I know eventually that this fairy tale that I've been on with my wife is going to be over. But Jessie's fine. She's like, “We'll be OK. We'll get through this. My sisters will help us. I want you to just ... let's just face it.”
A week later, Jessie starts treatment again. And her doctor also recommends a clinical trial for immunotherapy. Some of their patients are seeing amazing results, and they’re hoping Jessie will, too.
Jose: I kept telling myself, “I can't go through this again. I can't do it.” But internally, I was like, that's selfish of me, you know? It's not my battle. So if Jessie's ready to do this, then, all right, let's do it. And so we started chemo. She ended up losing her hair around her birthday. We actually shaved her head I want to say like the day before. And that, that was the hard one. Because we told the girls that Mommy was sick again, but we didn't tell them what the ultimate outcome was going to be. And the night Jessie shaved her head, I asked her, like, “Do you want the girls to see?” And she's like, “Yeah.” So myself, Mazzy and Luna are just sitting on the floor watching Jessie get her haircut. And kids have a hard time explaining how they're feeling. All I remember … I mean, Mazzy was crying, because Mommy was losing her hair. Mommy didn't look like a princess. Her hair's not long anymore. Luna just was like, “Daddy. My stomach hurts. My stomach hurts. My stomach hurts.” And Luna has always had such a sensitive stomach, and she’s like, “Daddy, my stomach hurts. I need to go to the bathroom.” And so I try to take her to the bathroom, but she can't go. And Jessie, once again is like there to save the day, she's like, “Babe, she's just really nervous. She doesn't know how to handle this.”
Nobody knows how to handle this. It’s now March 2020, and COVID-19 is fast becoming the pandemic we now know it will become. Being part of this immunotherapy trial means Jessie has to stay in the hospital for a month.
Remember how scary everything felt those first few weeks, when there was still so much we didn’t know about COVID? People were more or less being told, “Do not go to a hospital unless you’re dying, because hospitals are danger zones.”
Jessie and Jose felt that same fear, coupled with the fear that they have to enter the danger zone to try and save Jessie’s life. Typically, a partner or family member would go with, or at least visit regularly. But new hospital protocols evolve in the wake of COVID, and it turns out Jessie must go alone. She enters the trial just after their ninth wedding anniversary.
Jose: She's in this place alone. And when your wife calls you from a hospital room, when she's all alone, she's high on whatever the hell that they gave her. And you can't have a conversation with her, because she's falling in and out of sleep. And she's having these video chats with her daughters that she can't even recognize because she's so high. And my girls are scared, because this is the first time that they've been away from their mommy for this long. And it's not because of a vacation; it's because mommy is sick. And the questions are, “What's mommy doing now? Can we call mommy?” Like, no, we can't. Like, we have to wait for her to call us. And you have no idea what is going on with your wife because you're not there. You don't know if things are going right. You don't know if things are going wrong. “I was supposed to receive a call from her at this time. Why haven't I received it?” Like, what's happening? And then, you know, her doctor started texting me to start giving me updates. Yeah, it made me feel a little bit more at ease, but it's still not the same.
This period of time is hard for everyone. It’s hard for Jose, who is used to being by his wife’s side. It’s hard for Jessie’s two older sisters — Janae and Michelle — who take turns isolating themselves in their homes in LA and Albuquerque so they can safely come into town to help Jose with the girls.
But it’s especially hard on Jessie. At one point, she retains so much water from the chemo and immunotherapy treatments that she gains more than 40 pounds in just a few days. And doesn’t hearing that just make your body HURT?
And she’s doing all of it alone.
During these 30 days, Jessie’s doctors communicate with Jose through text messages, and they eventually arrange to sneak him into the hospital where she’s in a separate ICU, far from the COVID patients.
Jose: We get to her room, and they're like, “Oh, don't go in yet. Let me go talk to her.” And so they leave the door cracked. And the nurses are checking on her. And all I hear is like, “He's here, he's here?! How do I look?” Like that girlish, high-pitched voice of excitement. Just crushed me. But crushed me in a good way. Jessie is drugged up, but she sees me, and is just like, "Hi, babe. Hi. You came." And she tried so hard to stay awake. And she wasn't making any sense, because she had a lot going on. But, you know, I was just trying to make sure that she was comfortable. And she’s like, “No, I'm OK, I’m OK.” And then she just falls asleep and I just hold her hand in silence to what ends up being five hours, not saying anything, but just holding her hand. And the nurses come in around six o'clock and go, “It's time to leave,” and I didn't want to, I couldn't. But they're like, “It's time to go. We can get in a lot of trouble.” OK. But I leave and I just cry the whole way home. And I know she's going to be OK, but you never know, something could go wrong. And I'm at that point where everything is going to go wrong for us. But the next day, you know, doctor calls me and was like, “We've never seen Jessie perk up this much. She's walking now.” And I just go back, because what if this stupid pandemic wasn't going on, and I was there for her? Like, how much would have changed? We get the thumbs up to go visit her a couple of days before she leaves the hospital. And we take our girls. But the girls can't touch her. The girls can't see her. We're communicating through tinted windows and a cell phone with signs. And Mazzy is trying so hard to touch her. Luna is trying so hard, but they can't. All they can do is see her through the window.
When Jessie is finally released from the hospital, the scans show that her tumors have shrunk by 1 to 2 centimeters, which is great news!
But it doesn’t last long. Within weeks, Jessie is extremely weak. When she goes in for scans, the tumors have already grown back.
Jessie’s doctors offer her one more round of what Jose calls “sympathy chemo.” It’s clear by now that nothing will fix this, that nothing will stop Jessie’s cancer from spreading, let alone put her back in remission.
But Jessie agrees. She says yes.
Jose: We go for our first treatment, and she holds my hand the whole drive over. And she just looks at me and goes, “Babe … I'm tired.” And she's like, “I'm just really, really tired. I'm tired of being poked. I'm tired of random fluids. I'm tired of random medicine.” And selfishly, I was like, “Don't don't say that. Don't tell me that right now.” So we get to the doctor's office. I can't go in there with her. They come with a wheelchair to pick her up, because she's too weak to even walk two steps. They take her up. They draw her blood from the port. They do tests before they do chemo. And then I get a phone call from her doctor. And her doctor's like, “Hey, Jessie's in here with me. Just wanna let you know that her body's too weak to handle chemo.” I was so confused, because I was like, “OK, great, what's next?” And Jessie goes, “Babe … I can't.”
Normally, a couple would receive this crushing news together. They’d be able to hold hands and hold each other. Instead, Jessie and Jose are alone — her in the hospital, him in his car.
She can’t. Because of course she can’t.
On their last drive home from the hospital, Jessie tells Jose, “I’ve accepted this. I can leave you with the girls, because you’ve got this.”
But Jose … he doesn’t have it.
Jose: I can't, I couldn't. What am I going to do without my wife? What am I going to do without saying, "Hey, babe. I really don't feel like cooking." "Okay, I'll do it." Or, "Let's go out to eat." What am I going to do when my daughter comes up to me and says, “Can you braid my hair?” I can't, because Jessie would. What am I going to do about periods? What am I going to do about crushes? First loves? I'm not the typical, you know, machismo, "Oh, you're not going to date." Like, no! My family did that to me, and now I'm talking about it in therapy. I don't want to do that to my kids. And Jessie, I told her this, and she goes, "You have my sisters." She's like, "Do not be afraid to call them for anything."
On Jessie’s first night in hospice care, Jose sleeps on the floor next to his wife. She wakes up to receive some medicine, and she tells Jose that she loves him. He’s there by Jessie’s side when she starts coughing up blood. He calls the nurse.
Jose: And I'm begging her not to leave me. Right around 5:15, 5:20 … I tell Michelle and Janae to go get our girls. And we wake up our girls, and they sit on my lap, both of them. And we just hold mommy's hand. A week before we told them, like, “Mommy's medicine didn't work, so she's going to die.” I thought we had a few more months. It's me, Luna and Mazzy are just holding mommy's hand all at once. And we just watch her die. And at 5:23 a.m. is when Jessie passed away. We're sitting beside her while she's laying there, and I'm trying to ask them again, like, “Do you guys understand what's happening?” And they both go, "Yeah. Mommy's gone." And it was so hard for them. And it was so hard for me to watch them in pain. But what killed me was Luna, just looking at me and holding her hand, Mommy's hand, and saying, "We're supposed to be four, Dad. Not three. We're supposed to be four." I don't know what to say. I don't know what to say to her. All I can do is just hold her. And that's all she kept saying. And Mazzy is just like her mom. Because, yes, Mazzy was crying, but you could tell that she was like, "OK, all right. Let's get through this." I mean, still to this day, Mazzy is like that. My little 8-year-old puts her hand on my cheek and tells me everything is going to be all right. And says, "Daddy, I'm worried about you being lonely." Like, what? Do I need to pay you instead of my therapist? What is happening?"
Nora: You can't afford Mazzy, actually. [laughs] Her rate would be … ugh. Yeah.
Jose: There is nothing I could give or just whatever to bring her back. I've asked myself, “Would I go through this all over again?” Honestly. Yeah. Just so I can be with her again. Do I wish for a different outcome? Of course. But in some weird way, the pandemic helped, because we spent so much time with her. Jessie did not cry to me during that whole time until the end. You know, we had our talks before she passed away. She told me that she wished she could have been a better wife. And I'm like, “No, you were perfect.”
We’re going to take a quick break.
That’s the story of Jessie’s death. And her death is a part of their love story, but any love story is so much more than how it ends.
When I lost my husband Aaron in 2014, it felt like the only real thing was how he died. Everything else about him, about us, felt like it had disappeared from my memory. I wanted so badly to remember that we were not just a sad story.
So when I meet a person who shares a loss with me, who tells me that their mom or their sibling or their child or their spouse or their best friend is dead, I don’t ask, “How did they die?” I say “Tell me about them.”
I say their name, and I ask about THEM. About how they lived, how you met, what you WANT to remember. About what WAS real, and will stay with you forever.
So on the airplane, I asked Jose to tell me about Jessie. And once we landed and were texting, I knew I wanted him to tell you about her, too.
When Jessie meditated, she saw things. She saw a thing. A brown and white owl, wings extended, swooping … circling.
Jose: Actually, Jessie and her whole family have just been very spiritual. Into crystal healing and just being in tune with what they know — spirits surrounding Earth, all that good stuff. And Jessie was very great at meditating and just grounding herself. And when she would meditate, she would get to her safe space and be with an owl. People make fun of it, but that's actually what she did. And she would just be safe there and just ground herself. She explained to us how she would get to her safe space and her owl, you know, she described it to us like, brown and white, would just swoop out around her and just hang out with her.
For years, that owl came to Jessie as she sat on the floor with her legs crossed, slipping out of her thoughts and out of her surroundings.
She meditated when she was young and living in a crowded apartment, when she moved in with her future husband. When she became a mother to two girls. And always, the owl appeared.
Jose: And it was something that I would just, you know, leave her alone, let her be. And she would always get on me, like, “Let me show you how to do this. Let me show you that.” I'm like, “Oh no, no, it's fine. I'm good, I'm good.”
Jessie and Jose met when they were both young — just 21 years old, living in Phoenix. And before they knew each other, they were living parallel lives. Each of them had moved to the city for a new start.
Jose: Fascinating story, actually moved to Arizona on a whim, honestly. Packed my car and moved. Called my brother, told him like, “I want to live there.” And I stayed in his dining room. And I worked for a company that Jessie's sister, Janae, was working at. And she was my boss.
Jessie, his boss’s younger sister, is Jose’s future wife … but he doesn’t know this yet. Really, there’s a LOT he doesn’t know. He’s young! He’s trying to establish his independence. He doesn’t have a five-year plan. He doesn’t even know when he’ll move out of his brother’s dining room!
And he definitely doesn’t know that just a few buildings away is the love of his life … also living with an older sibling … also trying to figure out life.
Jose: One day my brother, who I was living with, and my sister-in-law, his wife, said, “Hey, can you help move Jessie into her apartment?” And I was like, “Yeah, it's fine. I don't know who Jessie is, but whatever.”
Nora: This is something that you only do in your 20s, by the way. You’re like, “Someone needs help moving? Yeah, I got ‘em.”
Jose: I got it. [laughs]
Nora: In your 30s, you're like, “I would rather fall down a flight of stairs than help you move.” [laughs] But in your 20s you’re like, “Yeah. I got two free hours.”
Jose: We walked two, three buildings over. And I helped move a couch in her one-bedroom apartment. And I saw her, and it sounds totally cheesy, but honestly, it really is like what I felt. I saw her and it was like, ahhhhh, like this little glowing light around her. And like, wow, she is, she's pretty hot. And that was that. And then the next day, I go to work, and I was like, “Hey, Janae, I met your sister.” And she's like, “Oh, cool. How?” And I was like, “Oh, I helped her move in.” And she's like, “Oh great. Yeah, yeah, that's cool.” And I told Janae, I was like, “By the way, she's really, really hot.” Thinking like oh, ya know … and Janae goes, “I know.” And that's it. And just goes about her day. [both laugh] And I'm like, “All right, well I'm ... just going to go over here and work.”
Jose has seen his dream girl literally glowing at the top of a staircase. He knows two people who would love to set them up. It’s a no brainer.
But ... it doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t happen because … of Jose, honestly! He moved out of his brother’s house and has his own apartment, but it’s a big stretch to make rent every month. His furniture is as follows: one folding chair, one mattress, one Playstation console. If you were not this man in your 20s, you either knew him or dated him. He’s just broke! So when his boss Janae says, “Hey, come hang out with me and my sister,” he finds a way to avoid it. He’s “busy,” he has “plans,” but really … he just doesn’t have any money.
This means almost an entire year passes before he finally accepts an invite to a local hip hop club.
Nora: Are you nervous because you know she's going to be there? How are you feeling? What do you wear? How do you prepare?
Jose: Actually, I wasn't nervous, because it was some more on that friend level. And the other thing is … Jessie was dating someone else. And, you know, I'm not that kind of guy. I would never interfere, whatever. So it was totally like … we're friends. And I just took it as/is, just hung out with them. They're so great to hang out with. Like, Janae’s always the life of the party. And Jessie just tags along and is just like, you know, “This is, this is cool. This is chill.” And for that first time, Jessie's boyfriend at the time wasn't into the same music that we were, and so he didn't go.
Jessie and Jose enjoy each other’s company. They click. The conversation is easy. And Jose’s new apartment is right across the parking lot from Jessie’s apartment.
Jose: My balcony, you can see her balcony, and vice versa, so-
Nora: This is a beautiful rom com.
Jose: Oh, for sure! Like, oh my god.
Nora: It really is. So when you're out on the balcony, do you go out on the balcony just to be, “What if she saw me? I better go out here and stand looking thoughtful.” [laughs]
Jose: All the time. [laughs] All the time. At the time I was a smoker. Right? I'd go outside and smoke my cigarette.
Nora: As many as possible. [laughs]
Jose: Yeah, exactly right? I’m over here like a chainsmoker just to get a glimpse. And I would see her every now and then. At first it was awkwardly, like, “Hey. How ya doin?”
Nora: “Hey.” Yeah. [laughs]
It’s here — smoking a cigarette and waiting to catch a glimpse of Jessie — that Jose sees something else.
We’ll be right back.
Jose: I'm outside smoking a cigarette, talking to my best friend on the phone who lives in El Paso. And I'm just talking to him, telling him about what I've been up to. And I look over to Jessie's apartment, and I see the boyfriend carrying bags out of the apartment. He goes back upstairs and starts getting more stuff, and I'm watching the breakup happen.
Nora: And you're like, “Yes!”
Jose: Yeah, secretly in hindsight, I'm like, “Yes.” At the time, I'm like, “Oh man, that sucks, man. I hope she's OK. Should I reach out to her?” Yada, yada, yada. Right?
Nora: “I mean, I could go over now? Like, thirty minutes?” I don’t know. [laughs]
Jose: [laughs] “What's the timeline? How much longer?” But oddly enough, a couple days after that, she texted me and was like, “Hey, I need to go buy a new TV. Can you help me?” What? Okay.
Nora: [laughs] “Can you help me financially, actually? I just, would you, would you mind buying it for me?”
Jose: She's like, “Well, you're all into this tech stuff, so you can help me buy a TV.” And I was like, “Yeah, totally!” And that was the first time we had hung out alone. And I remember exactly what she was wearing: a brown, like, spaghetti strap tank top thing. A jean skirt. Never seen her wear a skirt up until this point. She had an anklet on. And then she had, like, brown plaid-type flip flops. And Jessie had this walk that every time I saw her walk, I was like (sighs) you know, the knuckle bite. That's yeah, that's what I would do.
A classic 2009 outfit. Very period appropriate, belongs in a time capsule, absolutely perfect.
So Jose helps Jessie bring her new TV upstairs, and she asks if he would like to grab some lunch. But again, he has zero dollars to his name. So even though yes, he wants to eat lunch with this girl — every day, forever — he says no … and goes back to his apartment and his sad little folding chair.
Thankfully, they’re in the same friend circle, so they see each other the very next day. And again shortly after that.
Jose: It starts this trend of like, yeah, we're hanging out with all of our friends, but they're not there, if that makes sense. It’s just Jessie and I. And the casual friend conversation starts turning into flirting. And we start texting more. We start hanging out more.
Nora: And flirting via text at this point is much more difficult. It's T9. [Jose: T9. Oh my god.] You have to press a button three times to get to the letter you need, okay? Predictive text is not good. You're like, what? Why would I say that?
Theirs is that kind of relationship that has a quick spark but a very slow burn. There’s an obvious, crackling energy between them. They hang out a lot -- but always kind of as friends? But also, everyone knows they’re into each other?
Jessie’s nephew, Isaiah, lives in her sister’s building nearby, so Jose gets to know him, too. And the three of them hang out together, the three of them, like a little family.
Jose: So we're watching TV, and then all of a sudden, Jessie gets a phone call. And she answers it on speaker, and it's Jessie’s mom. And she's like, “Hey, honey, how are you doing?” She’s like, “Oh, nothing, Just hanging out with Jose and Isaiah.” And her mom says something along the lines of like, “Jose! Have you told him that you like him?” And Jessie jumps up and runs out of the room. And, you know, I have to kind of pretend like I didn't hear it, but I kind of, you know, was so happy that I heard it. And then the movie “Speed Racer,” the live action one, came out. I was a huge Speed Racer guy growing up, and so I was super excited about the live action. And then myself, Isaiah and Jessie went to the movies, and I try to sit down next to Jessie and Isaiah goes, “Nope. I want to sit next to my Auntie Jessie.” So he's in the middle of us. And Jessie is laughing because she knew. Like, I tried to sit next to her, but now I'm stuck with this snotty nose kid while they're enjoying popcorn that I can't because this kid’s all coughing on me. So then we, you know, go home, and I stop the car. I walk her and Isaiah to the door, even though we're a building away from each other. And we had this awkward, like, stare … and I’m like, “All right, thanks for the fun night.” And I gave her a hug, and I walked away, like all sad and weird and, you know. And so I get in my house, I sit there and then I T9 text her and say, “I really wanted to kiss you.” And she's like, “I wanted you to.” And then I still didn't walk out there to go do it. I mean, that would have been the perfect rom com moment, right? [laughs]
Nora: Truly. She was probably on the balcony like ahem. She’s looking out the window like, “What the fuck, dude?”
Jose: Yeah. So then we schedule it. [laughs]
Nora: [laughs] Sexual. I like this. This is hot. OK. Do you send, like, an Outlook invite?
Jessie and Jose are coupled up officially Within just a few months, Jose is moving out of his sad, empty apartment and into Jessie’s place across the parking lot, where he can save money and get on his feet financially.
And when they’ve been together for two years, he asks her sisters’ permission for her hand in marriage, and he proposes, and it’s all just so beautiful.
Jose: Oddly enough, we actually found out we were pregnant exactly on our one-year anniversary. We went to Disneyland for our one-year anniversary. And she was not drinking. She just was getting sick. We kind of suspected. But then we took the test on the 23rd of April and found out she was pregnant. And we were both excited. And Jessie was just one day like scrolling through baby names, she presented some to me and then she was like, “What about Mazzy?” And I was like, “Oooh, I like that.” And she's like, “Do you know, Mazzy Star?” And I was like, “No, I don't.” And then she played me the song and I was like, “Oh yeah. Yeah, I do. I do.” And basically, we named her after Mazzy Star, after that song “Fade Into You,” and it just stuck. And the great thing about that is we were scheduled to be induced. And we live like five minutes, ten, ten minutes away from the hospital and “Fade Into You” came on on the drive to the hospital.
[MAZZY STAR, “Fade Into You” — “Fade into you, strange you never knew.”]
Jose: We look at each other and all … yep.
Nora: She picked her name.
Jose: This is it.
Twenty-two months later, Mazzy gets a little sister. Luna.
Jose: I will never say she's an accident baby, because she's not. But we just were not expecting.
Nora: She was surprising! Yeah.
Jose: And she was actually born on Halloween, which was surprising as well. The foursome life was great, because whenever Jessie was overwhelmed with work or anything like that, she would take one of them out to go do errands and stuff. And in hindsight, it wasn't because she needed to do errands, it was because she wanted to spend time with them. And at that point, she spent a lot of time with Mazzy, and she wanted me to create that bond with Luna just in case, you know, she's stuck at work and all that good stuff. And we would go do fun activities like a butterfly wonderland and random aquariums, and we would go visit Janae and go visit Jessie's family in New Mexico. It was just fun. I mean, road trips were hard. But you know what? I don't remember the hard parts. I remember the funny parts of those road trips, so…”
Part of this is the shock, maybe. And part of it is that the magic of love, of death, is that it can diffuse the light of our memories, contextualize them. Because really, a screaming kid in the back of the car? Stressing out over what to eat for dinner, or whose mom said what or fuming over an email from a co-worker? Those little things feel so insignificant in the light of what was. A family. A partnership. The impossibility and inevitability that two people would move to the same place, would cross paths over and over, would find their way to one another. Would turn on the radio to hear the song they named their daughter after.
They were supposed to be four.
It’s been 10 months since Jessie’s death when Jose and I meet in line for a flight. When we sit together during that flight and just cry together. By the time this episode airs, it will have been more than a year.
A year is no time at all and all the time in the world. And in that time, Jose, Mazzy and Luna have had to learn how to become three.
Nora: Can you braid hair now?
Jose: Not the best. It's gotten to the point where Maz is like, “Dad, just stop.” But you know what? I'm trying. The world sucks with single dads. I'll tell you that much. Family restrooms need to be more of a thing.
When the person we love dies, some of us — if we’re lucky enough — still see and feel them in our lives long after they’re gone. We see them in our children, in the way our kids walk, or in the scrunched up face they make when they get mad. We feel them in the fall wind as the leaves crunch beneath our feet.
And for Jose and his girls …
Jose: Owls pop up now. You know, there are times when we're having just a rough day, you know, as grievers have. An owl will just show up in our backyard. And it's so welcoming when the girls walk out there quietly to not disturb it, and you just hear them ever so slightly, "Hi, Mommy." And, you know, a couple of months after Jessie passed away, our dog passed away that we've had for 12 years. And so the girls were very hurt about that. And there's two owls, you know? They're like, "That one's Mommy, that one's Wicket.” And I was having a hard time one night, and a nice, cool breeze comes by, and then there's the owl. Easter, we're all just hanging out. We have our close friends over, who absolutely love Jessie, and Jessie loved them. There's the owl. The first time I saw the owl show up randomly when I needed her, I laughed, because in my mind, I could hear Jessie saying, "I told you so."
This is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is Marcel Malekebu, Jordan Turgeon, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, and Megan Palmer.
Jose, you are such an angel, such a wonderful man, thank you so much for sharing Jessie and your love with us. I am so, so glad that I flew on that plane and that you tapped me on the shoulder and I didn’t snap at you. [laughs] Because I was ready to. I really was. I was ready to be like OH MY GOD, WHAT. WHAT. WHAT NOW? [laughs]
“Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is a production of APM Studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman. Executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert, Joanne Griffith.