It could have been awkward or weird when May Merrill took Jill to Jayna’s Well on JH Outback’s property in Huntsville. After all, the well was built in memory of May Merrill’s late mother, and Jill is now married to May Merrill’s father. It could have been a disaster—a combustable mix of teenage emotions, grief and all the issues that come when a first-time mother is thrust into caring for a teen—but it wasn’t. Jayna’s spirit was there, tucked in the little moments where Jill and May Merrill opened up to each other.

JH Outback isn’t new for either of them. Jill Gillespie and May Merrill Gillespie are JHOutback veterans, having volunteered at the Huntsville event since May’s uncle, Jesse May, was integral to bringing the event to the Tennessee Valley. They even had one of their first real bonding moments at the Outback America Huntsville location when May Merrill and Jill sat in rocking chairs, and May Merrill told Jill stories about her mother.

Step-mother. The word brings up thoughts of tear-jerking movies or resentful kids, but that’s not the case for Jill and May Merrill. Their relationship was fine before the retreat, but the three days spent at Outback America secured their relationship for years to come.

About half the state calls this area the “Promised Land” for vastly different reasons, and volunteering at the Huntsville site isn’t the same as attending the retreat. So, May Merrill and Jill decided to get away, get out of town, and head to the Tuscaloosa Outback America event for a change of scenery.

Without Her Mother

Jill and May Merrill went to Outback America a year after Jill married May Merrill’s father, Woody. Jill and Woody were married on the Outback America Huntsville location after meeting there in 2013. Jill remembers being nervous when she first met May Merrill.

“Getting to know the child of the man I loved was important to me,” Jill said. “I wanted to make sure we connected in the right time, in God’s time. Everything has felt so natural from the beginning, and it has been effortless to love Woody and May Merrill while also honoring Jayna. They needed someone who loved them and who they were as a result of their life with Jayna. I love them unconditionally, and it makes our bond that much more special.”

Still, this was a mother-daughter retreat. They were going to be surrounded by parents who had watched their children grow up. Parents who were there in the hospital when the teens were born. Parents and teens who shared the same eyes or nose or curly hair.

Jill and May Merrill didn’t share those things. They never would.

As they got ready for the event, both Jill and May Merrill worried the weekend would stir up emotions too strong for either of them to deal with. However, it was through talking about her mother that May Merrill got to fully experience Outback America.

“I feel like the weekend was so impactful because I got to talk about my mom while I was there,” May Merrill said. “Before going, I was thinking, Why am I going with Jill? I am supposed to go with my mom, but she’s not here. I was just very conflicted about it.”

But there was a surprise connection that weekend. A chance conversation led to a revelation that one of the Outback America patrons was Jayna’s high school sorority sister.

“The fact that she had just been looking at the pictures she had of my mom just before coming to Outback, that was really crazy to me—just insane,” May Merrill said. “She said she was cleaning out some stuff and stumbled across them.”

Moments like this have grown common in the years since Jayna died. In these times, May Merrill can feel her mother with her, sending her signs that everything will be OK.

An Answered Prayer

Gary Huckabee, one of the men who shared his testimony that weekend, painted a heartbreaking image—Woody and May Merrill standing over Jayna’s grave in 2010. It was in that moment Gary prayed for God to send someone to love Woody and May Merrill the way Jayna would want.

Gary was the first one to see Jill and May Merrill get out of the car in Tuscaloosa. He helped them with their luggage, knowing he was seeing that one prayer he spoke six years before being answered.

“It was special to me to know that our union was prayed for by others before it even came to fruition,” Jill said.

I Am Her Daughter

May Merrill is about to hit a crucial point in her life. She’s entering her senior year of high school, followed by college or finding a job. She will get married, find a house and start thinking about babies. She will have to learn about mortgages and insurance. She will navigate job interviews and understanding 401(k)s. While she will technically be an adult when she turns 18, she will always need a mother—someone to call at 2 a.m. after a break up. Someone to run to when she fails at something the first time, the second time and the third time. 

That’s why it’s so important that Jill treats her—sees her—like a daughter, not a step-daughter. When the time came for Jill to give her testimony, she knew it would be directed to May Merrill so she would know how much she is loved.

“I wanted May Merrill to know how much I love her, and how much it truly warmed my heart to spend a weekend dedicated solely to her—my daughter,” Jill said. “I let her know that I didn’t have to give birth to love her and treat her like my own. It was very important to me to let May Merrill know that her mother is always with us everywhere we go.”

Still, it was the voice of the teenager, May Merrill, that echoes how close they got on that weekend. She had been to Outback America before. She knew what to expect. It wasn’t until she stopped working and started experiencing the event that she could truly reap the benefits.

“No matter what mistake I’ve made, or what’s going on, she’s there for me,” May Merrill said. “And, when things are going right, she’s there to celebrate with me and be excited with me. It’s really comforting to know that she does see me like her own. She loves me like I am her daughter. She says it is not any different than if I were actually her daughter. That’s how she describes it. That’s just cool to me. The big steps in my life—graduating from high school and college and my wedding—she’ll be like a motherly figure during those times. I’ll have someone there for me. Someone I love and someone who loves me. Although it is sad my mom won’t be there, it’s comforting to know that I’ll have someone to hold my wedding dress up when I go to the bathroom.”