The Woman I Carried

For 22 days in the summer of 2009, a West Chester interior designer took to the road on her Harley in the wake of the sudden death of her husband and the unspeakable grief that followed. As told by her only traveling companion, the remarkable story of her cross-country odyssey is one of self-discovery and, ultimately, renewal.

Janis Irwin and her rides.I am a Harley Davidson, a 2005 Screamin’ Eagle Springer. The people who made me did so with the precision of a diamond cutter, to the point where I am almost aerodynamically perfect. For more than 100 years, Harley Davidsons have been traversing the landscape of America, from wagon-wheel ruts to dirt trails to six-lane highways. And aboard each of us, there is a person with a story. Last summer, I transported a 59-year-old woman from West Chester across the country, on her journey to find her inner voice.

The story of my owner, Janis Irwin, begins, appropriately enough, sheltered against the teeming rain beneath an overpass outside Harrisburg on the afternoon of June 19, 2009. It was the first day of a trip that would take us from Pennsylvania to the Big Sky Country of the Northwest.

You should know that this was all preordained. It was a dream of hers. From the first time she first rode a motorcycle nine years earlier, Janis had told everyone—motorcycle owners, friends, co-workers, neighbors—that she’d someday get to the open road, fire all of her guns at once and explode into space. It all seemed to have been born in her.

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As a teenager growing up in North Wilmington, Del., she’d aggravated her parents by sneaking off to race her car at a track in Maryland. She learned to ski on her own and, to this day, makes regular trips to Aspen and Beaver Creek in Colorado. Rather than attending college, Janis plunged from high school into the corporate world, first working in marketing for DuPont, then as a personal assistant for former Texas state Sen. Michael McKinnon, and then as a successful interior decorator on the Main Line. She’s also skydived, whitewater-rafted and traveled to several countries. She’s Barbie on safari—Earhart in high heels.

But this time, it would be different. In the weeks leading to the day she was to leave, her friend and fellow motorcyclist Joe Corsi charted a course that would take her to South Dakota, Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole and Cheyenne, Wyo., Idaho Falls and Boise, Idaho, and Iowa City. Two-lane highways, views that never end. As he diagrammed the route, Corsi would occasionally lift his head from the map and tell her, “Don’t go. You won’t be safe. You’re a striking blonde woman, and you don’t know who’s out there. Women your age just don’t do this. Why do you need to do this?”

Janis had no answer for him. But she knew it didn’t have as much to do with feeling the wind in her hair and ticking off states by the day. It had more to do with the murmurs growing in her chest. They were increasingly deeper, more resounding. And in the most horrible of fates—in a life she’d filled with pleasantries—these feelings had no words.

Corsi accompanied Janis on his motorcycle to the entrance of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Passing trucks splashed her as they rode by. He asked her again not to go. She said goodbye to him and donned a rain suit. Moments later, we were on the highway, headed west toward Ohio.

“What if I fail?” she thought. “I’ll have to face all of those people and tell them I didn’t live out my dream.”

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The rain was coming hard now. For the first time in her life, Janis had no answers, no words. We were completely alone.

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The Harley she saw in the parking lot was beautiful. Its passenger seat was made from black-and-white cowhide, and it gleamed like jewelry when the sun hit its chrome. Janis came close to not even seeing it there, in the parking lot of the Four Dogs Tavern in Marshallton on a Sunday morning in the fall of 1999.

Despite her friends’ pleading, she didn’t want to go to brunch. She wasn’t ready to be seen yet. The pain of losing her boyfriend to a heart attack couldn’t be erased with frivolous chitchat. He literally died in her arms the year before while she was attempting to revive him. Just the thought of laughter around a table was too much for her to bear. She was content to live out her life as an interior designer, burying her life in fabrics and appointments. She was convinced there would never be another man with whom she could share her life.

Once inside Four Dogs, Janis surveyed the busy restaurant for motorcycle helmets. She spotted a man and a woman in the corner. He looked to be in his late 40s. He was tall, thin and handsome, carrying himself with the outward demeanor of calmness and slight amusement at everything he saw. “Who is the owner of that cute bike outside?” she asked him.

James Irwin stood up. “The bike is mine,” he said.

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The other woman—a friend of his—soon left, leaving them to talk at the restaurant for the next several hours. When they reached the parking lot, he told Janis, “By the way, everyone calls me ‘Jay,’ and I would love to see you again.”

In the weeks that followed, she learned about the motorcycle, which he called “Moo Cow,” in tribute to its black-and-white markings and its formal name, Moo-Glide. She learned that he had three boys from a previous marriage—and that, when he was 7 years old, his father had left him. “Daddy doesn’t like little children,” he was told. Rather than letting it destroy him, he used the words he’d heard as fuel. He worked hard in school and put himself through college. After he was married and became a father, he made sure he was a loving, attentive one. He was also a success in business, becoming the chief executive officer of USI Mid Atlantic, a Plymouth Meeting-based insurance and financial firm.

There was something about Jay that bespoke permanence to Janis. He ran a company of more than 250 employees, but still managed to see his sons, get to the gym four days a week and golf in charity events. In 2000, they purchased a 250-year-old log cabin in Marshallton and, with the help of an 18th-century home renovator, gutted and restored it to near perfection. They moved in together.

Jay taught her to ride motorcycles on a Harley Night Train he’d purchased for her. On weekends, they’d ride side-by-side on the winding country roads of Chester County. He seemed invincible. He’d survived prostate cancer through sheer grit and positive thoughts. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in the financial district of New York City at the time the Twin Towers fell and somehow managed to get back to Chester County that evening.

“I’ve never met anyone like you in my entire life,” she’d tell him.

“You take my breath away,” he’d say.

They were married on Sept. 21, 2002, in Sedona, Ariz., at Cathedral Rock. In 2004, in celebration of their second anniversary and as a gift to her husband, Janis bought me for Jay. We would all someday ride cross-country together.

On the morning of Friday, May 13, 2005, Jay had gone off with some of his colleagues to attend a charity golf tournament at the White Manor Country Club in Malvern. It was a tournament Jay himself had helped create—one that raised thousands of dollars to establish college funds for inner-city children.

At around noon, Janis stood in the kitchen of a townhome that she and Jay had recently purchased. Corsi, owner of Classic Kitchens in West Chester, was there to supervise the installation of a new floor. The phone rang. It was Mary, Jay’s secretary. “Janis, I don’t want to frighten you, but there’s been an accident,” she told her. “Jay’s been taken to Paoli Hospital. I don’t think it’s anything bad, but you need to get there immediately.”

When she arrived, the doctors told her that her husband had suffered a massive heart attack. He was in surgery. The doctors told Janis that any recovery would happen only if Jay regained consciousness within four hours of the heart attack. It was now going on two hours, and there were no signs. Nothing.

She met the men he’d been playing with, who’d all followed the ambulance to the hospital. They told her that Jay had just sunk a putt and was winning the tournament. They’d all high-fived and climbed aboard their carts for the next tee. Jay was a passenger in his friend’s cart, and as they were driving, he collapsed onto his friend’s right shoulder. The club pro defibrillated Jay twice before the EMT arrived, who defibrillated Jay 12 more times between the golf course and the hospital.

Janis slept in a chair beside Jay’s bed. She talked to him. She stroked his blond hair. By the 12th hour, when there were still no signs of consciousness, she climbed into the bed with him and wrapped herself around his body to give him warmth. The doctors told her that because her husband was otherwise a very healthy man, that he would not die quietly, that his brain would take over and make every effort to pull oxygen into his lungs. “Give him the morphine,” she told the doctors. “Please give him more morphine.”

The injections went on for three minutes. Four minutes. No brain activity. No response to pain stimuli. There was never going to be any tubes. He and Janis had made an agreement. They shook hands on it. He was pulled off life support. On May 15, 2005, Jay Irwin died. He was 55.

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There were three sides of Jay’s life represented at his funeral. The corporate executives in the thousand-dollar suits sat near the front. The civic and charitable Jay was seen in the many people who attended from the community. Then there were the weekend warriors—the bikers who mingled in their full Harley regalia. A few of them served as pallbearers. After the church service, they rode their bikes in unison to the cemetery. One climbed on Moo Cow and rode behind the hearse.

At the cemetery, the sky formed a deep blue halo around the sun and shone in a series of light prisms, an atmospheric phenomenon known as a sun dog. People left the overhang of the large white tent to see it. “When I first saw the sky, I was holding on to the pastor, and he was doing his best to support me,” Janis said. “I knew that it was a sign from the Maker of peace and love. It was heaven telling me and everyone else that it had just taken him in.”

“The places you go in your mind when you’re alone … I mean, when you have three weeks of quiet time … You think about what you’ve done with your life … The introspection … Believe me, I visited places in my mind that I’d never been to before.”

The last few years had essentially been lived in a fetus-like cocoon of Janis’ own choosing, held in place by the false security that as long as she didn’t move, talk or be seen, things would remain as they were. No one would suffer. Nobody else would die. Everything from now on would be on her own terms.

The trip across the country—the one she’d told everyone she would someday take—began as a whisper. “What for?” she asked herself. “What good will it bring in doing this by myself?” Live your life in mourning long enough, and it will become either an impenetrable mass or a faint glimmer of hope.

Four years after her husband’s death, on the morning of June 19, 2009, Janis tucked Corsi’s directions into her riding jacket, and packed her dress stilettos, turtlenecks, good jeans and jewelry. Together, she and I rode to Jay’s grave before we departed. This was the trip Jay had always wanted to take, the dream he couldn’t get away from work to live. “Hop on,” she told him. “I’m taking you with me.”

We got to Elyria, Ohio, the first night, to West Dundee, Ill., the next—and we just kept going: South Dakota, Wyoming, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole. Each state seemed to have its own voice, made by the conversations she’d have with truckers and families and travelers. I must admit that we were a good-looking pair of road partners. Janis wore her tassle riding jacket and gloves, her blonde hair bursting out when she took off her riding helmet. As for me, well, I am a Harley. “Where ya from?” they’d ask. “You out here alone? Aren’t you afraid?”

Infinity rambled on. Wyoming, then Idaho, Oregon and Utah, and back again to Wyoming. As we drew closer to the Pacific, Janis kept sending things home. There truly was no need to pack four pairs of good jeans and several dressy tops and a skirt for nights of fine dining. By the end, all that remained was the requisite riding apparel, rain gear and two pairs of jeans.

As we rode farther away from our home in Pennsylvania, her thoughts were drawn purely inward. She questioned if she was doing all she could for others. “This is now my own life again,” she thought. “What can I do better? Can I help more people? Am I being a good friend?”

The deeper the introspection, the more focused she became on her desire to touch as many lives as possible. This was her inner voice, and she was hearing it for the first time.

We started back home on the 18th day, riding through the cornfields of Nebraska and Iowa, and eventually spending our last day in Cambridge, Ohio. We returned to Chester County on July 10.

Soon enough, the voice took over. She spearheaded community efforts to fulfill the Christmas wish lists of residents of the Pocopson Nursing Home in West Chester. They said they wanted teddy bears to cuddle. On Christmas morning, there they were beneath the tree, next to the hair bows and the books about cars she’d brought for the men.

Janis met a young mother with two small children. The mother had been abused by her husband, and she had no financial means to escape her situation. Janis rented a townhouse in West Chester for her, and moved the mother and her children there to provide a safe place to live with good schools nearby.

These days, she purchases sheets and towels, and donates them to homes that protect women who are the victims of domestic violence. She meets strangers in coffee shops and grocery stores. She walks up to older women and tells them, unsolicited, that they look beautiful.

Janis purchased a 2009 Chief Indian motorcycle—a machine far better looking than me. It’s painted red and white. It has leather tassles and chrome that’s nearly blinding. She’s decided to leave me home this time and make a late-summer journey to Alaska with the Indian.

There is more solitude in Alaska than anywhere else in the United States, so this time, she’ll pull off the road more and let her intuition guide the way. She’ll allow whatever happens in her mind to rise up within her. Happiness, she’s found, has little to do with her. “This time,” she told me. “I will lead with my inner voice.”

On Thursday nights last summer, Janis made it a ritual to dine with a posse of friends at Blue Pear Bistro in West Chester. On her way home one night, she rode the Indian to the cemetery, just down the road from the restaurant. She arrived there at the time of day when love and longing and tenderness are without filter—when the moon spreads its light so generously, it seems to give permission for us to do the honest thing. She lay down, stretching out on the dewy grass just above where the love of her life was buried. Her head was on the earth near the tombstone, on which both of their names are chiseled, and she spoke:

“I was blessed to have you in my life. Thank you for the happiness you gave me. I miss you.”

The moonlight fell on her face, and the Indian rested nearby, cooling.

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