This Saturday is the race for the cure here in Utah. In light of that fact I wanted to write about my dear, sweet friend Jennifer who lost her 5 year battle with breast cancer last fall. I’ve known Jennifer since moving into her neighborhood in December of 2004. We were newly married and anxiously preparing for Sean’s adoption. Jennifer came to visit one evening and we hit it off immediately.
A few things you need to know about Jennifer. She loved babies, she loved everything about them, but most especially she loved to hold them. And babies loved her! After Sean was born she was one of our first visitors. I remember her tenderly holding my sweet baby boy and wondering at the feeling that their love for each other was immediate and mutual. In fact, Jennifer and Sean have always had a very special bond and relationship. When Sean was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Jennifer was one of his biggest supporters and sources of comfort and love.
Jennifer was one of the most loving and wonderful mothers I have ever known. Many times I remember asking for her advice, sharing with her my joys and sorrows, and marveling at her innate motherly wisdom. Often our conversations were centered on our children because that is what was most important to us. Sure, we spoke of other things and our topics of conversation would range from the deeply emotional and spiritual to the inane and silly. However, most often we would circle back around to our children and the struggles and joys of motherhood. I knew that she held me in high regard when she would ask me for my opinion on topics of motherhood. Nothing was more important to her than her family and so to be trusted enough to impart some little bit of wisdom was the highest compliment she could pay you.
Jennifer played the piano. She could play anything you put in front of her… anything. She was so very talented. When we first met and I found out that she played and she discovered that I sing and play the flute we figured we were a friendship “match made in Heaven.” Not only did we bond over our mutual family ideals we connected through our love of music. At one time I was asked to direct our church choir and she was the pianist. We had a wonderful time together. I relied heavily on her musical abilities and sensitivities. I loved looking to her for guidance and direction and she could do anything I asked with that piano. When she sat at her piano it was poetry in motion. Her talent always brought tears to my eyes.
When we went through our second failed adoption she called or visited me everyday for several months afterward, and when I say everyday I mean EVERY DAY. She was so faithful in her friendship that I came to rely heavily on these phone calls and her words of comfort. She let me cry on her shoulder more times than I can count in those months. Then when we got the call about Alex she was just as nervous, scared, and excited as we were. I could tell that she wanted nothing more for us than to be successful in expanding our family. You can read Alex’s adoption story here. While in California sitting in a hotel room holding my brand new baby I got a phone call I will never forget.
I was surprised when I didn’t here from her at all the day that he was born. I figured she was respectfully keeping her distance, knowing that the first few days of the adoption process can be very stressful. Alex was two days old when she called early in the morning. I knew right away that something was wrong. When you are as close with someone as I was with Jennifer, you begin to read the little nuances in the tone of their voice. Even over the phone and across the distance from Utah to California I could tell that she was hurting. She let me know that on the day that Alex had been born she had been officially diagnosed with breast cancer. I could hardly breathe as I listened to her tears. She was scheduled for a mastectomy followed by radiation and chemotherapy. We cried together over the phone and talked about the strange dichotomy of emotions we were feeling. She was happy and excited for my new baby and I was devastated at her sad news. I remember telling her how much I loved and admired her because her attitude was immediately positive. “I’m going to beat this, I’m at peace with it,” she said. I was humbled by her willingness to face it head on with such strength and optimism.
After exchanging heart-felt expressions of love, we hung up the phone. I could hardly hold back the sobs as I absorbed the gravity of the news. All the while I was cuddling my new, sweet baby. What a way to mark the day of his birth. I wished that I could have been home to do something to help my sweet friend, my heart was breaking. I held Alex closer as I cried. I sent a silent and fervent prayer to heaven asking that my friend have the strength and guidance she would need on the difficult road ahead.
After we were cleared to take Alex home to Utah, Jennifer was one of the first visits we made. She has four lovely daughters and one son. Most of her family was there that night and I remember them all lovingly passing Alex around, holding him in turn. This visit is engrained in my memory because it is the last time I saw Jennifer looking truly healthy. In the weeks, months, and years that followed she would suffer one health trial after another as she bravely fought her battle. I still think of that night, she still had all of her hair, she looked strong and vital and most of all she was smiling. I will never forget this precious memory I have of her. There are other memories in the five years that followed that I hold close to my heart, but they were always shadowed by the cancer that was eating away at her health. I hate cancer… HATE IT!
I think what I admired most about Jennifer’s battle with cancer was her optimistic outlook. She made it a point never to complain about the things that she was going through. She especially wanted to avoid placing the burdens of her ill-health at the feet of her children. To this day I’m not really sure they understand just how much she was suffering. She did this on purpose wanting them to be able to enjoy their own lives without having to worry about her. On the other hand, I think that her children knew more than she gave them credit for. I’m sure that, even if they didn’t understand the extent of her pain, they knew that she was constantly loving them and watching out for their best interests by keeping the worst of it to herself.
When the pain and anguish of her situation became too much she would call me and vent, or cry, or whatever she needed. During these years we moved away from that neighborhood and so she and I relied on our bi-weekly phone calls to catch up. Many of those calls were spent in fits of giggles over how we were both forgetful and had what we called “foggy brain.” Then there were the phone calls when I could tell that she was at the end of her rope. She would vent and cry relating to me all that she was going through and the emotions that were tearing her apart. Never once did she give in to a negative outlook though, even in the depths of her suffering and sorrow, she refused to give in. She was a tower of strength and I was in awe of her ability to endure and overcome her darkest fears.
One of the most important things you need to know about Jennifer? She was selfless and thoughtful of others right up to the end. The cancer continued to spread despite multiple rounds of chemo and radiation therapy. She lost her hair more times than I can count and yet she looked so beautiful to me. The varied rounds of chemo caused side effects that were enough to make me wonder how she kept going. And yet, when I started to suffer the effects of my own ill-health she was adamant that she wanted to hear about it. She always told me that it helped her to be able to be a shoulder I could cry on as well. I remember her specifically calling me to task for keeping things to myself saying that she didn’t want to be treated as if there was nothing she could give. And it is true, now that I’m in that same boat where my health holds me back, I appreciate those who ask me if I’d be willing to serve. Interestingly enough our shared experiences of illness brought us even closer together. There were many afternoons, while relating the updates of the week, we would end up in laughter and or tears over our sufferings. We’d share stories of how our bodies were letting us down and how the emotional roller coaster was difficult to ride.
In October of 2012, almost exactly five years later, she lost her battle with breast cancer. Her eldest daughter called to give me the news. I felt sick to my stomach. It wasn’t all that surprising considering the decline in her health that had been happening over the few weeks prior, but it still never feels good to hear that one of your dearest friends has left you behind on this earth. The most heart-breaking part? Her second oldest daughter was expecting her first baby, Jennifer’s first grand-baby. Knowing how very much Jennifer loved babies I knew that this would have been one of her greatest joys here on earth. Baby Eli was born quite late and we all joke that Jennifer was holding him back in her arms, enjoying the time she had with him all to herself before he came to earth. I also know that one of her goals was to live until her youngest two, twin daughters, were out of high school. She didn’t quite make that goal but she certainly left a legacy of strength in family behind.
I miss Jennifer everyday. I miss our phone calls and the times when we were able to get together for lunch. My boys miss her too, especially Sean. When he came home from school and I broke the news to him of her death, he fell into my arms and bawled. He was overcome with emotions that, for someone like Sean, were hard to understand and process. He was insistent that I pull him out of school for the funeral of his, “dear friend Jennifer” as he called her. I miss the times we laughed and cried together in our mutual sorrows as well as joys and triumphs. I miss the phone calls where she would say, “I got the results of my recent scans and the cancer hasn’t spread”… or when she would call saying that she had been thinking of me and wanted to know how I was doing. Most of all I miss her wisdom and strength in suffering. She taught me to have an eternal perspective and to turn to the Lord when I was hurting the most.
As I mentioned before, tomorrow is the race for the cure here in Utah… and it is killing me that I’m unable to participate. Her family has put together a team of family and close friends to walk and run in the race. Her favorite flower is the daisy and they are calling themselves “Jennifer’s Daisies.” In the past I would have been right there with them, able to give of myself in her name for a cause that is, now more than ever, very dear to my heart. It hurts me deeply that I cannot even walk to church down the street without feeling pain in every joint and muscle. I wish nothing more than to be there with them, celebrating Jennifer’s life and honoring her legacy. Instead I will be silently cheering them on and sending my thoughts and prayers to them from my couch.
So I’ve named myself an honorary “Daisy”. I have a feeling that she knows I would be there if I could. She was and will probably always be one of my most supportive champions as I fight through this tough season in my life. She, of all people, knows what it is like to suffer physically, emotionally, and spiritually through the disappointments of life. Always loved, but never forgotten, I know I will see her again for surely she has earned her place through the gates of Heaven and, following her profound example, I’m working to meet her there!