Cookie, Danny and Jessica Harris

Jessica Harris: Making Mom Proud

March 8, 2017

By John Heisler

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, 2017

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 late last month in the Atlantic Coast Conference Indoor Track and Field Championship in South Bend.

The victory certainly qualified as the 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 Cookie 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

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

Jessica 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 a match. So Jessica honored her mother’s wish and trekked to South Bend, ultimately to major in theology and public policy with nursing in her future plans.

Mother, father (her dad Andy is Maryland’s 1st District representative in Congress as well as a practicing anesthesiologist) and daughter spent three emotional and yet fulfilling days on campus for Freshman Orientation in 2014.

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

Joe assured Jessica that her mother would be okay, and Jessica 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

“It was about five minutes before the start of our cross country practice when she called me after learning that her mother had died,” says Irish assistant coach Sean Carlson. “I said, `Where are you?’ 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.

“It was difficult there,” she says. “Being at home just wasn’t the same when it was a house of grieving family and friends, everyone dealing differently with the loss of my mom.”

So Harris returned to campus, in hopes a more normal routine would help. Her roommate and others did their best, but as Harris says, “No one teaches you how to deal with a grieving friend. It was hard to meet new people, new friends, and say, `Hi, I’m Jessica, and my mom just died.'”

It fell to Carlson to attempt to help Harris sort out her future.

“We had a couple of talks because she was thinking abut transferring somewhere back home. I did not try to convince her not to transfer. I talked to her about, `What would your mom want? 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?’

“I think 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.”

And Harris over time has learned what Notre Dame has come 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.

Later, at the 2015 NCAA indoor championships, 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?’ That was a battle in her head her freshman year.

“Then after her indoor season freshman year she was hurt and did not run at all outdoors. So now you don’t have something that gave you hope, that you looked forward to, something to pick you up where you see success. 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 to come home and have it be like it always was. Now it was completely different.”

For a while, 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.

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.

“It was hard because I was 18 when she died and I was just getting to know her. It was a 45-minute commute to my high school and my mom would drive me, so we had an hour and a half every day in the car. What a privilege.”

They 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.”

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’ passion for running blossomed magnificently this winter. She won a pair of gold medals at the ACC indoor meet, also helping the Irish distance medley relay to a victory. Her 4:33.80 effort in the mile at the conference meet ranks as one of the best in the country this year.

Yet, as she crosses the finish line she’s still prone to look in the stands for a mother who is not there to be found.

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

That’s likely to be the case again Friday when she competes in the mile at the NCAA Championships in College Station, Texas.

“That’s every kid in every sport after every game. That comes with any big event in your athletic career,” says Irish associate head coach and distance specialist Matt Sparks.

“Her dad can’t come this week because he’s got a vote in the House. Every other (Notre Dame) kid at the meet will have at least one parent there. That’s when she misses mom the most.”

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 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 Ed Sheeran’s current mournful ballad that memorializes his own grandmother, 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

— ND —

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on