Soar high and happily, Jessica Lishinski

Jessica Lishinski is shown with a photo of her beloved Lake Superior.

May 18, 1999, seemed like a wondrous day in Northeastern Minnesota.

The sunshine was warm and friendly. A spring breeze was light and carefree. And Mother Nature was telling the harshness of a nearly everlasting winter to get the heck out of here.

The last place people wanted to be on this sunny spring day was inside. It was a glorious time to be outside for walks, bike rides, or …. inline skating.

Yes, a beautiful day. Or so it seemed.

Then a phone call interrupted what had been such a pleasant afternoon. The caller said someone I knew well had a terrible accident while inline skating in Duluth.

Jessica Lishinski was fighting for her life at St. Luke’s Hospital. But I would soon learn it wasn’t a fair fight — Jessica was on life support until her organs could be taken for donation.

I felt like I had just been kicked and punched in the gut at the same time.

***

It was just the previous year that Jess had worked in the newsroom as a Mesabi Daily News summer intern.

Her dad and CEO of the former East Range Clinic in Virginia, Gary Lishinski, had told me his daughter Jessica was interested in an internship at the paper before going back to St. Cloud State University in the fall.

Soon after that conversation I met with Jess. Sometimes a hiring decision is an easy one without any concerns. So it was with Jess. She was a good one.

Jessica was a remarkable and vibrant young lady. She had a reporter’s curiosity and was gifted with the talent of a storyteller.

Jess was fascinated with life and thoroughly enjoyed writing about the lives of those on the Iron Range. She wrote with clarity and humanity and without any phony exaggeration. In other words, she was real — and that’s a most important trait for a writer.

Jessica wanted the summer of 1999 to be another step in her writing career. She had secured an internship with Lake Superior Magazine in Duluth, writing about the people and places along the body of water she so loved.

Jessica was adventurous — yet another quality of a good writer. She had traveled to Ghana a year after graduation. 

Jessica believed life was good and to be lived with joy and passion. She trained and got a pilot’s license while still in her teen-age years.

“The first time she took me up (in an airplane), I felt helpless as a dad. What was I supposed to say, ‘Slow down,’” Gary said with a laugh in a recent phone conversation.

And she told her dad that she wanted to get a float place license and fly  to remote places to do stories for National Geographic.

But now this marvelous young lady, who should have had so much promise of life’s goodness ahead of her at age 21, lay in a hospital bed hooked to a machine. 

It was all so terribly sad, heartbreaking, and unfair.

***

May 18, 1999, gave way to May 19, then May 20, and finally, and mercifully for the Lishinski family, to May 21.

It was that day, 72 hours after Jessica skated in Leif Erickson Park down a ragged pathway without any rail support and fell onto the rock-filled shoreline of Lake Superior, when I received a message from Gary.

He said the family would appreciate my visit to the hospital to say goodbye to Jessica. 

He said that would mean a lot to Jessica, too.

It was so meaningful to me then—and now — and will remain so for the rest of my life.

I spent about 10 minutes with Jess and her family. She was physically bruised; but her good and kindly spirit was very present and filled the room.

I said a final farewell to Jess; and drove back to Virginia with eyes watering and tears streaming.

***

Jessica’s organs were donated to five women living in the Midwest.

Gary and Ann Lishinski and their son Matt, a young man slowed by the effects of a form of Cerebral Palsy, but still highly functional, moved to Arizona in 2007 to be close to their younger daughter, Jaime, who was teaching there.

Work on the new clinic in Virginia had been completed, and they also “needed a change of scenery” to try to help with the forever loss of Jessica, Gary said. “We needed a fresh start.”

Prior to the move, Matt had worked at Waschke Auto Plaza. 

“Matt loved working at Waschke’s in Virginia. Kerry (Waschke) said when we left that Matt would have a job anytime should we move back. That meant a lot to him,” Gary said.

Gary, who was a high-level administrator with Essentia Health in Duluth, was again in health care administration while in Arizona.

The family enjoyed the Phoenix area.

But the tug of family is strong. 

Gary and Ann are now grandparents, and Jaime, her husband and young son, Franklin Paull, had moved to Michigan. Gary’s mother was also still living in Houghton, Mich., in the Upper Peninsula. 

“We just said, ‘Life’s too short. Let’s be with family,’” Gary recalls.

The Lishinskis relocated back to Eagle Harbor, Mich., last year where they had a residence.

Jaime had a “rough go” with the birth of Franklin, who was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth. There were many touch-and-go moments after his birth, but he made it, and will turn three years old on July 4. Gary and Ann now spend a lot of time with him.

“He’s a blessing,” Gary said.

Memories of Jessica are, of course, always with them.

“It’s not as raw as it used to be, I guess. But it’s still so hard, especially this time of year. 

“Everybody deals with grief differently. Ann lives with it each and every day. It seems harder on a mother,” Gary said.

It’s still too difficult for Ann to talk about Jessica, but she did send me a recent message.

“It’s been hard! For 20 years it’s been hard,” she said. “We are surviving, I think, because we have each other — Gary, Ann, Jaime and Matt. We are a strong unit.

“And there are joys in life. Family and friends have been key.

“We also have a new family member. Jaime and Tim have a son, Franklin Paull. Ironically, he was born in Duluth across the street from the site of Jessica’s accident,” Ann wrote.

Gary said Virginia and its people were very kind to the family during their time of loss.

“We think fondly of our time in Virginia. Great friends and colleagues. We appreciate the support to all of us,” Gary said.

Gary has gone down once to the site of Jessica’s fall.

“I forced myself to walk the steps. It was the hardest walk I ever took. But I will go again — when I’m ready,” he said. “It is a peaceful place.”

Gary said the “What ifs” still creep into his mind, but he tries to remember the special moments and positive things that keep the family going.

“She was a special gift to us for a short period of time,” Gary said.

Her memory is a gift that will last forever.

Soar high and happily, Jess.

Business North Contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a Reporter and Executive Editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards. He currently writes Sunday columns for the MDN Op/Ed section.