Jessica Harris

Making Mom Proud

Oh I’m in pieces it’s tearing me up 

But I know a heart that’s broke is a heart that’s been loved

So I’ll sing Hallelujah, you were an angel in the shape of my mum

When I fell down you’d be there holding me up

Spread your wings as you go

And when God takes you back

He’ll say Hallelujah you’re home

—from “Supermarket Flowers” by Ed Sheeran

The smile on Jessica Harris’ face traversed from one high cheekbone to the other.

The junior University of Notre Dame distance specialist from Cockeysville, Maryland, had just nosed out Clemson’s Grace Barnett to win the mile in February 2017 in the Atlantic Coast Conference Indoor Track and Field Championship in South Bend.

The victory certainly qualified as a signature moment of Harris’ running career. The cheering and applause that wafted over her from the pro-Notre Dame Loftus Center crowd suggested she’d effectively given birth to her own fan club.

Yet, as Harris says, “I felt so distinctly alone.”

That’s because her mother, Sylvia “Cookie” Harris, wasn’t there to share it.

I took the supermarket 

flowers from the window

Threw the day old tea 

from the cup

Packed up the photo album 

Matthew had made

Memories of a life 

that’s been loved

Her older brother Joe graduated from Notre Dame, but Harris had been headed for an appointment at the U.S. Naval Academy. The night before Harris was slated to send in her signed commitment papers, Cookie sat with her daughter and explained that her dream was for Harris to attend a Catholic university, in particular Notre Dame.

Harris had a few reservations, but her mother asked her to commit to Notre Dame for a year and assured her she could transfer if it wasn’t the right fit. So Harris (her dad, Andy, is Maryland’s 1st District representative in Congress as well as a practicing anesthesiologist) honored her mother’s wish and trekked to South Bend, ultimately to major in theology and public policy with nursing in her future plans.

After the first two days of classes, Harris was in her Pasquerilla East dormitory room when her rectress came in holding a cell phone. On the other end was Harris’ brother Joe with the news that their mother had been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack. 

Joe assured Harris that her mother would be okay, and she headed to the residence hall chapel, only to have her rectress return with the cell phone. 

This time the news was different.

Took the get well soon cards and stuffed animals

Poured the old ginger beer down the sink

Dad always told me don’t you cry when you’re down

But mum there’s a tear every time I blink

“Five minutes before the start of our cross country practice she called me after learning that her mother had died,” Irish assistant coach Sean Carlson recalls. “She was in her dorm, and by the time I got there she was packing for a flight home.” 

The entire Irish men’s and women’s track team—including some team members that didn’t even know Harris yet—went to the Grotto that same night and prayed. 

“They all hurt,” says Carlson.

Harris spent four complicated days at home for her mother’s services with her two older sisters and two brothers. When she returned to campus, her roommate and others did their best, but as Harris says, “No one teaches you how to deal with a grieving friend.”

Carlson attempted to help Harris sort out her future.

“We had a couple of talks because she was thinking abut transferring somewhere back home. I talked to her about, ‘Would your mother want you to go back home and help your family or would she want you to continue working toward what your goal has been, running at one of the best universities in the country?’

“She saw that just because something major like this happened in her life, it didn’t mean she had to give up on her goals.”

Harris over time learned what Notre Dame came to mean for her.

“I wasn’t going to come here. This wasn’t meant to be. And yet now, as important as my family is to me, I’ve never been more confident that this is my family here at Notre Dame, too.”

I fluffed the pillows, made the beds, stacked the chairs up

Folded your nightgowns 

neatly in a case

John said he’d drive, then 

put his hand on my cheek

And wiped a tear from the 

side of my face

Three months later during the 2015 indoor season Harris broke three school records in her first three meets—first in the 1,000 meters, then the 600, then the 800. 

“That’s pretty impressive for a freshman,” says Carlson.

At the 2015 NCAA indoor championship Harris earned first-team All-America honors by helping the Irish distance medley relay squad to an eighth-place finish.

“She is very good at not showing when maybe she’s hurting emotionally,” continued Carlson. “After she broke the 600 record, she broke down and cried. She said, ‘Is that what I’m supposed to be doing or am I supposed to be going home?’ She was hurt and did not run at all outdoors that freshman year. I sensed that was one of the hardest times because she had a lot of time for things to sink in.

“She’s a pretty tough kid. She has a great level of maturity for such a young age. But she went home that summer after her freshman year and you expect it to be like it always was. Now it was completely different.”

Harris wished she could wake up to some form of normality. Eventually she found solace in the comfort of practice at 3:30 every weekday afternoon. Slowly but surely she came to grips with her loss.

“The absence is what you have to carry forever,” she says.

I hope that I see the world as you did cause I know

A life with love is a life that’s been lived

So I’ll sing Hallelujah, you were an angel in the shape of my mum

When I fell down you’d be there holding me up

Spread your wings as you go

And when God takes you back

He’ll say Hallelujah you’re home

Harris likens grieving to carrying around a backpack full of bricks. Some days the burden is particularly heavy. Other days the load is lightened and the bricks dissolve into pebbles.

“Some days it’s still really, really heavy, but I think I’ve gotten stronger,” she says.

Harris and her mother had volunteered together, attended Mass, combined on household chores.

“She was a really selfless person,” says Harris. “Watching the way she lived her life gave us the sense that we should invest ourselves and be passionate about something.

“She was always happy, always laughing, always loud. She was vibrant and vivacious. I’ve found myself the last couple of years emulating a lot of things about her.”

Cookie attended many of her daughter’s races, despite understanding little about the sport.

“She called it the track and the field,” says Jessica. “She had no idea. She just loved coming to see me race. She didn’t care if I finished last.”

Harris’ passion for running blossomed magnificently in 2017. She won a pair of gold medals at the ACC indoor meet, also helping the Irish distance medley relay to a victory. She finished 13th in the mile at the NCAA indoor championships and helped the Notre Dame distance medley team to eighth place and All-America honors. Her 10th-place finish in the 1,500 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships made her a second-team All-American.

Yet, as she crosses the finish line she’s still prone to look in the stands for her mom.

“I want to tell her this is what I’ve been working for,” says Harris.

Yet that seemingly ever-present grin suggests that Harris somehow has found peace.

“She’s gone through this heartache, but when you see her run she’s smiling,” says Irish associate head coach and distance specialist Matt Sparks. 

“She comes to practice every day and she’s got that same smile. 

“She’s driven by her faith and she finds a lot of comfort in that.

“She stuck it out and we’re all happy she did.” 

In the words of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s mournful ballad, Cookie has seen the person—and the quality runner—daughter Jessica has become.

And it’s likely that somewhere Cookie is smiling, too.

Hallelujah, you were an angel in the shape of my mum

You got to see the person that I have become

Spread your wings and I know

That when God took you back

He said Hallelujah you’re home