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You Can Call Me Al

Even though I was only twelve years old, I still remember the day I met her. I was in 7th grade and she was the brand spankin’ new 4th grade teacher at the end of the hall. I was by her classroom and feeling terribly hilarious and ingenious, so I called her “old.”

What I didn’t realize was that she was not only fresh out of college, but she was a collegiate athlete. She was a great basketball and volleyball player. She chased me out of the building and thank God, I must have had a head start, because I (barely) beat her out the door.

With such a great introduction, one wouldn’t think it would be the beginning of a lasting friendship, but it was.

Jackie, or “Miss Smith” as we called her in those days, became a teacher and coach I adored. The next fall, as I entered 8th grade, I moved up to play with the high school girls basketball team. I had a varsity uniform, but mostly played J.V. (I’m still not sure if this is a North Dakota thing, but that’s the way it went down in Bowman.) Jackie was my coach and I loved every second of it.

Amber, a varsity senior on the team, was a great three-point shooter and did this little “whoop” in the air with her right index finger when she nailed a shot. I shot a lot of three-pointers in my day. One game after I landed one, I did an imitation whoop. The varsity coach then pulled me aside, probably after an upperclassman ratted me out, and gave me some lame reason as to why I shouldn’t do that again. When we got into the locker room, Jackie basically said, I didn’t care that you did that. But listen to the head coach. And smiled.

(For the record, I probably shouldn’t have been whooping my threes in eighth grade, but I digress …)

The point of that story is Jackie always had my back. As a coach, teacher, and mentor. But most importantly, I knew she was my friend.

After a few short years, she just had to get married to a wonderful and handsome former Bowman guy, and up and left me. (I mean, Bowman, she left Bowman.) I don’t think those of us she coached were as sad to see her leave as we were to see where she landed: at Bowman’s (and about any Class B school in the state’s …) archrival, Trinity. (I kid. Mostly …)

I never really lost track of Jackie through my later years, because I’d see her every now and then in Bowman over the holidays. And like anyone since 2005, we’re friends on Facebook. But until today, I specifically remember the last time I saw her. It was at a Trinity/Bowman basketball game, my little kids’ first game, in February 2018. I was in the early stages of what we now know was going to turn into full-blooded hell, but surely didn’t know it then. I ran across the court and up a hefty dose of stairs to say hi to her as she watched her son play.

Since my illness, I haven’t talked to her much or seen her. I guess I’ve been occupied in a strange world … But that all changed a few months ago when a news story about her was flying through my Facebook feed. About how Jackie was fighting stage IV colon cancer.

There’s a certain feeling when you find out someone’s like 38 weeks pregnant and you had no idea. Even though you were unaware of that big news, you’re excited because you know it’s bringing about a happy ending. Finding out your old friend and coach has a scary ass diagnosis, with a husband, and two young adult children, feels like a punch in the face.

Not to be confused with the punch in the face both Jackie and I will give you if you try to call us by our true (too girlie) first names. We were tomboy jocks growing up, we are bitterly competitive, and we will not allow you to call us something that sounds so unlike a lady who whoops threes and spikes a ball in your face.

I’ve digressed.

I watched Jackie’s news story and was super impressed, but not surprised by her killer attitude. She was taking care of her kids in her library classroom and only missing school to do her chemo treatments. She wasn’t going to take any of cancer’s crap. And she reminded everyone to get their colonoscopies! She was super fit and healthy when she accidentally learned about what was brewing inside her.

For the JM Stebbins fans in the front row, you know I often run a similar thread: my life after AE is a lot of kismets and supernatural. And heaven sent. No coincidences here.

A few weeks ago, I looked at my custom-Unwillable shoes that Nike apparently sized with their eyes closed. I only wore them twice for my big speeches last fall and I knew I’d never wear them again. But they’re so cool.

My honest to God first thought was: I should give these to Jackie. So I messaged her and asked her a strange question considering I haven’t seen her in five years: What size of shoe do you wear? Turns out she was right in the area of what Nike made without a proper ruler.

She told me she’d be in Bismarck soon for a doctor’s appointment and that we should do lunch. As I walked out the door today with the shoe box to meet her, I thought about the JMS on the back of each sneaker. And then my memory was jogged that her maiden name was Smith and I was pretty sure we even shared the same middle name.

As we ate, I got to my second weird question for someone you haven’t seen in years: What’s your middle name? Yip. It’s mine too.

Today was Jackie’s 1-year-away-day from the day she learned her diagnosis. She’s since finished treatment and officially today, was declared cancer free!!

And guess what, the JMS Unwillable shoes fit her perfectly.

It’s a Cinderella story. But not like the princess one, because we’d hate that. It’s the underdog basketball team who stunk all season, eked into the Final 64, and then won the tournament. That kind of Cinderella story. Our kind.

Jackie’s a great reminder that we’re never fighting alone.

My fight’s been your fight.

Her fight is my fight.

Your fight is my fight, too.

And now that I’ve come full circle, I’ve decided to firmly contradict myself: Celebrate every victory, tiny or large, at any age. Life’s too short not to whoop your threes!

Here’s whooping at you, Jackie!


“The rest of my life is so hard I need a photo-opportunity I want a shot at redemption Don’t want to end up a cartoon In a cartoon graveyard

“If you’ll be my bodyguard I can be your long lost pal I can call you Betty And Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al” ~ You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon


/ / The JM Stebbins blog is an autoimmune encephalitis blog from former lawyer and autoimmune encephalitis survivor, Jackie M. Stebbins.

Jackie M. Stebbins is also the author of Unwillable: A Journey to Reclaim my Brain, a book about autoimmune encephalitis, resilience, hope, and survival. / /


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