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, 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