Brighter Than The Sun
In honor of my friend Jennifer, who died from breast cancer this past May, I did not participate in this weekend’s Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure.
My choice had nothing to do with the Komen event—pro or con—but had everything to do with Jennifer’s spirit.
When I first met Jennifer, she was cancer free after being diagnosed shortly after the birth of her son three years earlier—but she didn’t tell me about that until much later. It wasn’t that she was trying to hide her experience for any reason, it was that she simply had too much life to focus on now.
The neon words on the marquee of her life flashed “Mother, Wife, Daughter, Friend.” Yes, “Cancer ” played a role, but she gave it very few speaking parts. She refused to let it steal the show.
I’d recently moved to Knoxville, and met Jennifer through a mutual friend. A few weeks later, we took our toddlers to a local splash pad for play and a picnic. As the kids got thoroughly soaked, we set up our picnic on the grass. I’d thought to bring a towel, a fresh swim diaper, and a mishmash of crumbled snacks.
Then Jennifer opened her basket to an enviable Martha Stuart cornucopia of organized tupperware, towels, and dry clothes in ziplock baggies. Just as Nina and Jennifer’s son ran over and draped their dripping wet bodies all over us, I stared at her baggie of dry clothes she’d packed for herself and said, “I didn’t even think to bring clothes for myself!” She looked at me with her brighter-than-the-sun smile and with a tilt of her head said, “Way to go, Brainiac.” I knew right then we’d be great friends.
Jennifer was a connoisseur of life—she adored her family, good soulful-southern food, and hosting creatively decked-out parties (think picnic basket on steroids.) She taught me how to cut a mango like I was “in control and not a wild spaz.” She loved to garden and brought me seeds from her mother’s okra crop that she said were “pure gold,” and asked for seed pods from my massive hibiscus plant.
She taught me southern phrases like “Shut the front door!” which she exclaimed whenever I told her about something ridiculous that had happened in my life. She tried her hardest to teach me some of her favorite board games, and to instill in me at least a drop of her competitive spirit. She taught me to play Quirkle on her iPad during a chemo treatment, and joked that she had to hijack me with treatment to try to beat her. Even then, she won.
She introduced me and Nina to local oddities like the Ponderosa Zoo (boasting a zonkey bred from a donkey and a zebra), and to the Circle-G ranch where we fed “exotic” animals from our car with our children squealing in the backseat. With a straight-game face, she told me we would liltingly toss food out the window to animals in the distance, and then she laughed hysterically at my reaction when the animals swarmed the car and even shoved their heads in the windows to get to the feed buckets.
She adored her husband, son, parents, close-knit high school friends, and extended family, and filled weekends with their gatherings. When the Susan G. Komen walk rolled around the first time after I’d met her, I assumed she would be there, with her posse of family and friends.
“Oh no,” she said, “I think it’s great for the people who want to take part, but I’d rather go camping.” It was then, I believe, that she told me she tried to not say the words “breast cancer,” because in naming it she would reinforce its power in her life. Meanwhile, she had an RV to stock with camping supplies and board games.
When the same strain of her breast cancer reappeared in her lungs a couple years later, we once again sat with a picnic, this time in her front yard on a beautiful spring day. Before launching into the diagnosis, she said, “Let’s enjoy this food first. You can’t digest if you start with bad news.” And so we ate, and talked about what the kids were learning and where she planned to go that summer. Then we swallowed her new reality—and the hardest lumps for her were imagining what her husband, son, and parents would have to endure if the doctor’s worst prognosis of six-to-twelve months were to come true.
I’m convinced that she defied that prognosis by a long shot because of her fierce spirit, and her refusal to be a poster girl for cancer. Over the next four years, she endured more than 20 combinations of chemo treatments and pre-trial experiments that often left her incredibly sick, weak, and scared. But still, she never introduced herself by saying she was a cancer survivor, or that it had recurred. After she died, I heard that many parents at her son’s school didn’t even know she was sick. She had rarely failed to show up, with that 1000-wattage smile and flaming red hair, which no one ever suspected was a wig.
The summer after she had been re-diagnosed, she invited me and Nina to her family’s condo in Florida for a week, along with her son and her beloved cousin. She brought along several intricate coloring books and an impressive collection of gel pens. Her treatment regimen at that time was giving her insomnia, and one night Nina and I both woke up sometime after midnight. I noticed the light was on in the living room, and found Jennifer coloring because she couldn’t sleep. Nina and I joined her, coloring mostly in silence, every now and then murmuring praise over how our pages were turning out.
The last time I saw her, a couple weeks before she died, she had just returned home from a hospital stay to treat a bout of pneumonia. She showed me the most recent design she’d vibrantly colored, and shared her plans for a 10-day RV trip to the Keys with her husband and son. Although I could see evidence of the recent hardships her body had gone through, I honestly thought she was recovering. I believed her belief.
Yet even after death, cancer hasn’t laid claim to Jennifer’s vibrancy. That word is not the story that those who love her tell one another. Instead, we talk about her radiant smile, maybe the one time we beat her at a board game, or her belief that her clever son would someday invent something that will change the world.
And so, instead of joining the Komen race this year, I spread a few of my hibiscus pod seeds, and I colored with gel pens.
It felt good to walk with her.
— Amy Rawe
A beautiful tribute.
So beautifully written & moving. What a great tribute to your friend’s spirit.
Thank you, Kristi. I appreciate your loving view of my dear friend.
Beautiful an inspiring
Sent from my iPad
You made me cry as I remember her also. You forgot to mention her bucket list trip to Maine the summer before she died when she had just a great time soaking up all the Maine charm of people and place. Mom
Good observation. I started that bit, and couldn’t continue because it made me cry so hard I didn’t think I’d finish. That may come in the form of a letter to her family — like Cody, about how much she loved seeing him captain the schooner and jump off the “brave rock,” and how often she commented about how much she wished Ray and her parents were there and the ways she made sure they shared the experience with her vicariously. The way she savored Maine was the way she lived every day of her life that I knew her. Amazingly grateful.
You made me cry as I remember her also. You forgot to mention her bucket list trip to Maine the summer before she died where she soaked up the wonderful Maine people and place.
What an amazing and JOYFUL tribute to someone you loved. She would love what you wrote. Keep writing Amy because we love to read what you write.
Thank you for the encouragement, Aunt Suze. I am twisted between sharing and hiding, and you nudge me towards the sharing. I love you.
Amy, I loved your story and made a comment but do not know to post it anyway it was a beautiful tribute.
Sent from my iPad
Thank you, Aunt Shirley!
Very well written. She is missed dearly and thought of often. Thanks for writing this.
Thanks, Ray. This barely scratches the surface of how incredible her spirit was/is. I miss her deeply, and I think of you and Cody often…hope you are both doing alright.
Yes, indeed… A wonderful tribute. You are totally keeping her spirit alive and I loved reading this beautiful piece.
I love the photo you posted. Great writing as always. Sorry for your loss of a special friend. It’s hard enough to read about.
I know you feel blessed, Bella, for having known Jennifer and experiencing her vibrancy and love of life. I’m also sure she treasured you, your incredible capacity for giving and your wonderful friendship. Xoxo
Thank you, Bella, and I treasure you just the same.
I’m so sorry for your loss but what an incredible friend she had in you and you in her.
Thank you for sharing Jennifer’s spirit. I can feel her energy through your writing. I can tell she was a contagious positive force. Love you Amy!
Thank you for getting her, Libby. She sure was a positive force. Love you too!
Jen was one of the most brightly shinning people I have known. Your blog captured a glimpse into someone who was beautiful inside and out. Thank you for posting something to remind me of her wonderful, quirky spirit. I caught myself saying, “yep…that’s Jen” repeatedly. We were truly blessed to have her as a friend, and to experience her love of others and life.
Thank you, and I couldn’t agree more…to be blessed with her friendship for nearly 8 years was, and will continue to be, an incredible gift.
Simply lovely. You honored your friend with seeds and pens in a way that I’m sure made her happy – so much more so than participating in the walk.
It was dark when I woke. This is a ray of sunseinh.
What a wonderful acknowledgment and write from you my dear friend. As always your words have touched my heart. Sorry you have lost such a dear friend. And what a wonderful way to celebrate her spirit. Perfect!
I hope you don’t mind, I didn’t know Jennifer but I’ve known Ray since he was a little boy and he has kept her spirit alive through FB. I kept up with her through family as she fought the battle. And I seen this and after reading it I felt like I knew her not just her illness. Thank you for letting me feel her spirit through you. She must have been an amazing person! Wish I could have known her.
Thank you, Deborah!
Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful Tribute! Jennifer sounds like she was an amazing person, her Strength, her Focus on Life.
Beautiful post. Sorry for your loss of such a remarkable strong person. Writing about someone like that keeps them alive and allows others in on something very remarkable