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As 'Team Jill', Midlands Ladies Honor a Friend and Teammate

January 5, 2015 10:20 AM

By Jonathon Braden, USTA South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Jill Stevenson’s teammates hauled their racquets and luggage to their cars and prepared to again play without their longtime teammate and friend.

For the last 10 years, Stevenson had been the one leading the group of mostly Columbia ladies. Four or five times a week, she would organize practices and captain USTA team matches. Through tennis, Stevenson had become good friends with many of her teammates, making them laugh and helping them recover from serious health problems.

“Here comes joy, here comes Jill,” teammate Carolyn Kearse said friends remarked about Stevenson.

But now, in early November, with her fight against cancer in its 13th year, Stevenson lay bedridden in her family’s northwest Columbia home, her husband taking care of her.

Her teammates packed their “Team Jill” buttons and purple T-shirts – Jill’s favorite color – and drove to Hilton Head Island, the host of the USTA South Carolina 65 and Over and 70 and Over State League Championships.

They wanted to win the state championships and honor Stevenson. But they would come home with only one thing on their minds: how they should celebrate the life of Jill Stevenson.

"Team Jill" poses for a photo at Palmetto Dunes on Hilton Head Island in early November. The ladies wore purple because it was Jill Stevenson's favorite color. (Submitted photo.)

She should have been with her teammates. Three times already doctors had surgically removed cancer from her.

The first time, in 2002, she walked out of the South Carolina Oncology Associates building in Columbia feeling OK. Stevenson had sought help as soon as she noticed an irregularity, and doctors had performed a total hysterectomy. They thought all of the cancer had been removed from her body.

Stevenson was free to leave. No chemotherapy, no radiation; just an assignment to return every three months.

So every three months for several years, Ken and Jill went to the hospital – first the oncology center in Columbia and, after a year, the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston – and mostly heard good news. Stevenson was healthy.

She was then told to come back every six months, and several years later, things were going so well, doctors told her to come back only once a year.

In 2013, though, Stevenson was at MUSC for her first annual checkup when a doctor found something in her pelvis that wasn’t there a year earlier. Could be a cyst, he said, but a biopsy showed it was cancer.

They performed another surgery, again attempting to remove the cancer. And this time the doctors recommended chemotherapy. Stevenson underwent six hours of treatment every month for half a year, her husband by her side the entire time.

And in March 2014, tests showed the chemotherapy had worked, and she was free to leave, so long as she again came back every few months.

Ten years after cancer had invaded their lives, Ken and Jill now had a brief reprieve, for how long they didn’t know. They decided to seize the extra time with a trip that had long been on their list.

Traveling was a passion of theirs.

Ever since they married in 1967, just a few years after they met during their senior years of high school, Ken and Jill had been eager to experience new places.

They had coasted in riverboats by the San Antonio River Walk. They had admired evergreens in Vancouver. In Geneva, they had spent a week together. They also had been to New York, Venice, and Ireland, which Jill especially enjoyed, including how they celebrated their dead with parties known as Irish wakes.

Jill and Ken in Venice in May 2013. (Submitted photo.)

Trip after trip, Jill and Ken sipped local wines and talked with fellow travelers about where they should go next. Their trip list grew with every new experience.

Now, facing an unknown future, Ken and Jill flew to Amsterdam and floated down the Rhine River. They saw tulips in bloom at the world-famous Keukenhof in The Netherlands, and they lost track of how many castles and cathedrals they admired.

“She had this little block of time where she was as healthy and as happy and as vital as she could be,” Ken said. “It was just like this window. I’ll never forget it.”

Ken and Jill on the Rhine River in April 2014. (Submitted photo)

But a couple of months after their trip, a familiar experience took over: Stevenson felt pain in her stomach. She thought it might have been a digestive issue. Tests later showed it was cancer.

Surgeons again cut her open, and she underwent three more months of chemotherapy. This time, the treatments hadn’t worked; the cancer was still spreading.

Jill, rather than endure more chemotherapy, opted for hospice care. The hospice nurse would visit the home, and Ken would remain by her side. Some days her USTA teammates would give him a break so he could go play tennis.

In November, though, it was often just Ken and Jill, him transcribing what she eventually planned to share with her friends and teammates.

On Hilton Head Island, her teammates and friends were playing well.

The 70 and over team had won its first two matches and was now preparing for another match.

As Kearse and the teams waited for play to start, one of the women from the other team approached Kearse.

The woman had seen the “Team Jill” buttons and was familiar with Jill Stevenson’s story. She told Kearse, “I’m pulling for you guys, for Jill.”

Kearse thanked the woman and then thought about what that said about Jill Stevenson. But Kearse was already familiar with her teammate.

About 20 years ago, Stevenson was organizing informal practices out of St. Andrews Park, and Kearse participated in them. She later asked Stevenson if she’d join her and take a weekly lesson at the Murraywood Swim & Racquet Club.

The two played tennis for an hour and always grabbed lunch, usually at Bellacino’s Pizza & Grinders on Lake Murray Boulevard. Across from each other, Stevenson and Kearse would talk about their spouses, children, faith and politics.

“We’d solve the world’s problems if they’d just listen to us,” Kearse would later say.

And if Kearse had been skipping lessons, Stevenson would find out why.

About seven years ago, Kearse, who said she has bipolar and sometimes suffers from depression, had been depressed for about three months. She hadn’t left the house in two months.

One morning, about 11:30 a.m., Kearse remembers lying in bed with no desire to change plans, when she heard the doorbell.

“There’s no way I’m getting that,” Kearse thought, and she stayed in bed.

Knock, knock, knock.

Nope, still not moving, Kearse thought.

Knock, knock, knock.

Knock, knock, knock.

Finally, so angry, Kearse rose out of bed, stomped to the door and, still dressed in her flannel pajamas, opened the door.

Standing there was a smiling Jill Stevenson, who had just finished playing tennis. She stared at Kearse, and, without giving her a chance to talk, said, “I’m not leaving until you get dressed. We’re going to lunch.”

Kearse promptly walked back to her room and changed clothes, and they went to Bellacino’s.

“She wasn’t going to let me sink,” Kearse said recently.

Now at Palmetto Dunes, the 70 and over part of “Team Jill” wasn’t anywhere close to sinking. They had beaten their Midlands counterpart and won their next match as well. They were officially the 70 and Over State League Champions for the 3.0 Women division.

Kearse, however, was worried. On the first day of the championship, when she emailed match updates to Ken Stevenson, he said Jill was reacting by saying, “Oh, wow. Oh wow.”

But by Saturday, a couple days later, Ken said Jill was reacting only by smiling.

On Sunday, the teams’ final day at the championships, Kearse and her 65 and over teammates won all three courts of their final match. She was so excited that, walking around Palmetto Dunes, she called her husband to share the great news.

That’s when she found out.

Her husband had been scrolling through his Facebook news feed when a post from Jill Stevenson had stopped him. He told his wife to read the post as soon as she could.

At the house, Kearse sat at the dining room table with her laptop open. Her friends and teammates sat in silence in the living room.

“Dear Friends, this will be my last Facebook post,” it starts. “I have fought cancer for over a decade.”

Kearse remembered to breathe.

“It has finally won. I am in the last stages of hospice. Meds are keeping me out of pain for the most part and I am at peace,” it continued. “There are no regrets! I have lived a great life full of love and laughter. Have seen and done more things than I could ever imagine.”

Kearse kept reading, stopping and starting through tears, until she shared all 281 words that Ken Stevenson had transcribed.

The usually boisterous teams of ladies sat quietly. After a few minutes, they shuffled around the house and gathered their racquets and clothes. It was time to get back and see Jill.

Jill Stevenson died on Nov. 11, two days after her last Facebook post. She was 68. About a week later, her husband and friends hosted a visitation for her at Murraywood.

They all plan to officially honor her one more time as well.

This spring, Ken Stevenson said, he plans to host an Irish wake at Murraywood for his late wife. They will have everything you’d see at a typical Irish wake – drinks, laughs and friends.

But one thing will be different about Jill Stevenson’s wake: one extra activity as a way to remember the woman who brought so many together through a game she loved.