As we texted during the afternoon to make arrangements, she sent me a note that made me laugh.
“6pm my ravishing self will be walking through these doors, darling love.”
Not that she’s not ravishing, but that this kind of ballsy self-confidence was nowhere to be seen when I first met her almost four years ago.
And it turns out she wasn’t overdoing it on the “ravishing” front either.
I hadn’t seen her since last August, and when she really did walk through these doors at six, I had to look twice. She was glowing.
“Oh my God, Jilli!” I said to her as we hugged. “How are you, my friend? You look amazing.”
“I feel amazing,” she said. “After some really hard times, I feel like I’ve finally arrived at a wonderful place. Things are terrific. It’s my time to be happy and enjoy life and I’m just relishing it.”
“Tell me everything,” I said. “I want to know.”
And so she began.
“Can you believe,” she said, ‘that it’s a year since I arrived here?”
I couldn’t. I’d remembered having supper with her in a pub off Marylebone High Street days before she left. Her nose was taped with sticking plaster following the removal of a suspicious mole, the second or third such surgery she’d had. And my heart was in my mouth at the thought of the experience she was about to put herself through.
Putting all she could carry about work and life in a suitcase and getting on a transatlantic plane; leaving behind her things that would not, and could not make the trip.
She had had a dream for some time of coming to America, and when she dared to talk it out loud to her firm, they supported her in finding an internal job and in making the transfer work.
Such a wow thing on the one hand. It’s a fast-paced, glamorous city where you can do just about anything you want. On the other hand, if you’ve spent fourteen successful career years London, it’s tough to uproot yourself and rebuild.
She’s a shit-hot investment banker. In London Jilli was known for her business nouse, can-do attitude and strong interpersonal skills, and would be asked for by name on deals.
Here, in the beginning, she was nobody and had no-one.
Tough first days
An immediate shock was that her job was far from guaranteed. She was going to have to go through a seven-hour exam to get US Securities qualified. When I’d seen her last year during a similar trip, she was just a couple of weeks away from sitting the exam and was spending every waking moment swotting up on facts and practicing past papers. A ton of new laws, regulations and calculations to get into her muscle.
No pass, no job. No job, no working visa and no right to stay in the US.
The pass bar was high and first time around she failed by like two points. Still, she picked herself up, tried again and this time aced it.
“That must have been such a relief,” I said to her.
“I cannot tell you,” she said. “It felt like everything began to fall into place after that. Things are going really well in the firm and they’re saying I’m now in line for a promotion. And of course, right after the exam, I had Peru.”
The trip she’d swung with a journalist and photographer whose attention she’d captured with some pictures she’d taken from her “little pastime”. In Peru she swapped her pinstripe shift dress for a more boho wardrobe, and hung out with her camera for a couple of weeks. For the first time in ages, she let her hair down.
(Literally, as it turns out. Because from having worn it in a smart, short bob for years, she began to grow it and wear it longer, looser, wilder.)
Then, after Peru she tells me, she goes to some social event in New York, gets chatting to a South African bloke who’s also there, and has been dating him ever since.
“It’s ironic” she says. “I’d tried dating websites since arriving here. It’s tough. There are so many more single women than men. I didn’t go to the party imagining I’d meet someone. And yet, there he was.”
“Is it love?” I ask her.
“It’s early days,” she says. “And yet…”
Her blue eyes sparkle as she tells me about how easy it has been to get to know this guy. How he’s been married before, yet how she has already been accepted by his children and ex. How natural it all feels. How comfortable.
“Life is indeed good,” I say. She nods.
Making work fit life
She goes on to explain how, in coming here, she’d decided that she must make the most of the city. Life in London had been a lot of work. Here she wanted more. In the past months, she has done bootcamp classes in the park, and Sunday cycle rides across the Brooklyn Bridge.
She has got fit and hard bodied like never before. And it hasn’t all been just for her own benefit. She raised over $3,000 for Bike MS, becoming one of the top 200 fundraisers.
And then when Hurricane Sandy hit, her heart went out to the folks whose homes were destroyed and she volunteered herself many times over as part of the clean up operation, being one of the people who help shovel pails full of sand out of people’s houses.
“You have such a big heart,” I tell her.
“You know what?” she says. “I am very happy with the woman I have become.”
Rounded, whole, complete are words I might add.
And this brings us full circle to how she and I got together in the first place. A bad romance with a dude that had broken her heart caused her to put her whole life under a microscope. I don’t exaggerate much when I say her life at that point had been pretty much the dude and work; work and the dude. Work was never of itself broken. Let’s be clear on that. But life was. Even her dreams were really the dude’s dreams. She woke up to the horrible realisation that she had not allowed herself to dream. Not allowed herself to own what she really needed and wanted.
Like some of the other gorgeous, capable, ambitious women I work with, her emotional intelligence in a work context was high. But in terms of her romantic relationships it was poor. She had to learn to allow that part of her to fully exist.
“I used to be quite two dimensional,” she says. “You helped me change that. You were there for me when I struggled to be there for myself. You could see the best in me even though I couldn’t see it. You never judged me, you always believed in me, even though you didn’t know me. You lit my dark journey so that I could see. You gave me faith that life could be better. In your presence, I grew.”
“Thank you,” I say. At a level, it’s true. But there’s a part that she missed and that I want to make sure she, and you, really understand.
How transformation really works
Transforming a life is possible. And I acknowledge that, with the right people, I can enable profound change.
But what made the difference with Jilli is that she cared about herself and her life. She didn’t just want things to be different. She was ready to make them different, no matter what it took.
Last night, we didn’t talk about the really, really dark places she went through on her journey. We didn’t have to and I’m not bringing them up now. But I do want to highlight the courage she had to face her monsters, embrace them, and let them strengthen rather than weaken her.
She went there when others will not.
And in her heart there was always love. Love for herself and love for others. When I met her it may have been burned out, or lying dormant.
I only blew air on the embers, Jilli. That was my job. The fire was always yours.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.