Jenni, Part I: “It just wouldn’t be a day…”
Friday, August 14, 2015
Me: By the way, I’m sorry, this lady is batshit and is stressful. I’m just going to be polite.
This text exchange demonstrates Jenni’s and my friendship perfectly.
Jenni had a knack for attracting all kinds of characters spanning the Crazy spectrum. It didn’t matter if it was family, acquaintance, or a stranger on the sidewalk — the universe was sure to launch a lunatic into Jenni Rowell’s world. The situations in her life were like Curb Your Enthusiasm… only less funny. Or, perhaps, more funny. I’m not sure which.
A spellbinding storyteller, every time Jenni regaled me with a tale about a madcap thing that happened or a mean thing a person did or said to her, I cycled through my go-to, incredulous responses:
“WHO DOES THAT?!”
“WHO SAYS THAT?!”
“WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?!”
“Ugh, I don’t know,” Jenni would say, throwing her head back and rolling her eyes. And then, waving her hand, head erect, eyes widened, her final analysis: “She’s. Crazy.”
“It just wouldn’t be a day in your life if something crazy didn’t happen to you,” I’d sigh, shaking my head. Over time, the catchphrase got shortened to, “It just wouldn’t be a day…” but with my same motion of disbelief.
Jenni also had a knack for tolerating the crazy people. I’m not good at it, not at all. Emotionally and/or mentally unstable people make me bristle. If you’re schizophrenic or admit to being bipolar, depressed, anxious, I can work with that. But if you knowingly spread your deranged conflagrations in order to be dishonest and hurtful, and you don’t do anything to improve yourself, I take umbrage.
“You’re a much better person than I am,” I often told Jenni, complimenting her patience.
Though our temperaments regarding screwballs were dissimilar, our yearning to comprehend screwball behavior was equal. One time, when I was giving Jenni a rundown of my most recent book purchases — one of which was Assholes: A Theory — she exclaimed, “I’ve read that!”
Normally, Jenni and I had dialogue dissecting why people do what they do: what motivates them to act unacceptably and carelessly; why they feel they can just do or say whatever they please without respect for other people and their boundaries; how could they be so unaware, unconscious… and often unconscionable.
But on August 14, our conversation was different. Same, but different.
First, I was sitting right next to her when I sent the text. Usually, we did not secret-text about people in the same room with us. We never had to, because we both knew what the other was thinking — and we could communicate with just a look.
Second, despite our close proximity, it took Jenni three hours to respond to my text. The reason? Jenni wasn’t concerned about her phone. She was too weak to keep up with it, she had more important things on her mind… because she was dying.
Jenni and I frankly discussed her fate the year before, in 2014. She didn’t want to do any more chemo or radiation therapy. Her quality of life had been compromised quite enough, and it would only get worse with continued treatments. The third, and final, rounds were to begin in January 2015.
“If this doesn’t work, you’re going to die…” I responded, tears welling up in our eyes, but never falling, to preserve our strength in the way we demonstrated it to each other.
Jenni knew I wasn’t the person to feed her canned affectations. I wasn’t the person to say, “Noooo, you’ve got to keep going! Keep fighting! Don’t give up! Be strong! You can’t stop treatments!” Blahblahblah. And so on. Of course, people want to be positive, say the “right” things, say what they think Jenni wanted to hear. And that’s OK, I guess. Those people exist, and they serve their purpose in the way they think it to be served. But Jenni understood her cancer, her own body, better than even her oncologists did. She wanted someone to understand her in return. This is just one reason why we were best friends.
Besides, I comprehended the grave reality of Jenni’s condition: mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a rare cancer of the salivary glands. I wonder how many people actually researched it, read about it, grasped its prognosis? If they had done this, perhaps their attitude would have been different. Not better or worse or more right or wrong than my approach… just different.
Or maybe people “had to be there,” had to witness Jenni’s worsening well-being before they could have a holistic opinion on her outlook. Jenni was growing more tired and frustrated with each passing month. Having seen her health deteriorate from “one-off crisis” to “annoying recurrence” to “metastatic” over the last five years, it was my job to support, not deter, her decisions. It would have been selfish of me to insinuate, “Even though your life would continue to suck and be painful, stick around or else I’LL be sad!”
Still, no amount of reality or readiness could subdue the sorrow I was about to experience.
Now, in the hospital, the imminent moment we dreaded was closing in. This wasn’t Jenni’s first ER visit in recent months, but I knew it would be her last. Jenni knew it, too. Usually, she kept the people at large in the loop via Facebook. This time, she informed only a select few. She was ready… even if the rest of us weren’t.
I wasn’t any nearer prepared than I thought I had been. Instead, I was an anxious mess: not eating; not sleeping; not concentrating; crying on the way to work, on the way to the hospital, on the way home. I did this, every day for four days.
On the second day, upon arriving at the hospital, I asked Jenni’s mother to fill me in on the afternoon’s findings. Jenni’s boyfriend Gianluca and her father sat in silence.
“We talked with the doctor about treatments and pallia–”
And that’s when I burst into tears. Jenni stared ahead at the TV on the wall in front of her bed, allowing me to have my moment.
“–tive care and hospice. The doctors said there isn’t anything they can do…”
Palliative care, hospice. Jenni wouldn’t be well enough to go about her life fully, as we knew it. It was the first time I cried in front of her.
I slumped in my chair, defeated and exhausted, as Jenni’s mother held my hand.
On the third day, I took off work to be with Jenni while she was still “with it,” before hospice would steal her wits. She was in bad shape. That’s all I can say. I won’t go into detail about the medical goings-on, to preserve her dignity.
That whole day, I wanted to talk with Jenni about everything and nothing at the same time. All the “remember when we…”s, “I wish we had the time to…”s and the “we’ll never get to…”s, and simultaneously sit in somber silence. Instead, we spoke of neither past nor future. It would have been too painful, and I didn’t want Jenni to feel guilty or regretful. Lamentation certainly would not have brought absolution.
Between an endless stream of hospital staff interruptions, Jenni and I talked about present things: whatever was on TV, what Gianluca was doing that day, music. “How’s work?” she’d ask.
There was a single outburst of feckless futurity while two of Jenni’s friends, Ashleigh and Angela, were visiting. Out of nowhere, Jenni turned to Ashleigh and me, and said, “I think I’m going to lease a car.” She had totaled her car some weeks prior.
“That’s good!” I exclaimed.
“What kind of car are you thinking about getting?” Ashleigh inquired.
Jenni didn’t respond, and quickly returned to staring at the TV. It was as if… as soon as she vocalized her idea, she realized it wasn’t going to be possible. Ashleigh and I didn’t press Jenni further, because we knew the answer…
A fleeting idea flashed across my mind, too, the night before. I wanted to share something I hadn’t revealed to Jenni: my poetry. It’s not private stuff — all have been workshopped — but I also don’t go around impressing (or imposing) my compositions upon everyone I know.
It had been years since I reviewed my work. Skimming the pages, I cringed. Not because the words are elementary or poorly written. In fact, I bemoan that I can’t write a poem like that anymore! HOW did I DO that? (Answer: practice) What had me wrinkling my nose was the subject matter — it isn’t very… ahh… uplifting. The poems aren’t death, doom and depression (not my style), but they are sneering and acerbic (totally my style): magnifying social injustices, shitty people and situations, and other topics not appropriate for someone in the throes of terminal, stage IV cancer.
I had brought my notebook of poems to the hospital, but, ultimately, I wimped out on sharing. After all, this wasn’t about me.
By day four, Jenni had spent her first night in hospice. The silver lining was that I could bring her dog Esben to visit. I’d been taking care of Esben all summer while Jenni underwent tests and procedures, a hospital stay, traveling to see if she qualified for clinical trials, and spending time with Gianluca.
Esben was welcome comic relief against the growing backdrop of family members, which now included Jenni’s brother, who flew in that morning from Indiana, and others. My mother was there, too. Esben sniffed everywhere for Jenni, covering the entire square footage of the room. We kept telling him where Jenni was — two feet above his head — but he was too excited to listen. Finally, he calmed down and sat nicely with Jenni. The rest of us sat solemnly.
It agonized me to leave, but we had to get Esben home — he wasn’t allowed to stay overnight. Jenni’s energy and alertness were waning, but she was able to express that she wanted me to bring back Esben the next day. This prospect delighted her. I was happy that Jenni’s wish to see Esben was fulfilled. Jenni hugged me with what little strength remained in her shrinking body, and we said our “I love you”s. It was the first night I didn’t cry during the drive home.
Two hours later, Jenni died.