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November 26, 2015 / Brittany Hendrick

Jenni, Part III: ‘Strangers,’ fundraisers and other media

It is Thanksgiving Eve as I type this, sitting at one of the three Buford Starbucks Jenni and I frequented (Don’t hate. Buford doesn’t have any indie coffee shops except the one Jenni once owned). At this time last year, we were on a Caribbean “cruise to nowhere.” The trip got its nickname because, in true “only in Jenni’s life” fashion, the fog was too thick for the ship to depart Port Tampa Bay on time. Apparently, the only time in history this had ever occurred. Consequently, the captain was forced to skip Grand Cayman and instead dock an extra day in Cozumel. It didn’t matter to Jenni and me where the vessel went — as long as we were away and not in Georgia. As usual, we experienced hilarious, unique adventures, because, Jenni’s life.

Tomorrow will mark one year ago when Jenni and I dined on a comically inedible Thanksgiving dinner on the cruise ship. Needless to say, this holiday time will be hard.

This final installment about Jenni includes all media that surrounded her, from podcasts to videos to fundraisers, to demonstrate the outpouring of goodwill that came her way the last year-and-a-half of her life. It was jaw-dropping to see people from around the world (no exaggeration) — literal strangers — take a genuine interest and care about Jenni’s well-being.

It all started when Jenni contacted Lea Thau, producer of the Strangers podcast. Jenni’s pitch: she stared a stranger in the face every day — herself.

April 8, 2013. The day that changed Jenni’s life. Cliched but true. It probably trumped the day Jenni found out she had cancer.

It feels longer than two-and-a-half years ago.

On April 8, 2013, Jenni underwent a major surgery to cut out tumors in her neck/salivary glands. In order for the surgery to be a success, her facial nerve had to be severed as well.

At that time, the surgery saved her life. It also stole part of her life: the ability to move the right side of her face. Jenni discusses her struggles with this and more, on her first Strangers installment, Jenni Rowell: Life, Interrupted.

The listeners’ reactions to Jenni’s story were staggering. Lea received hundreds of messages inquiring about Jenni: how is she doing? what is she up to now? was her cancer treatment successful? The audience response led to a follow-up piece a year later, Jenni, Now.

What people don’t know is that the Strangers sessions are mere snippets; they tell only 1/100th of Jenni’s life story.

Jenni’s history, from childhood through adulthood, is a story. If there was one thing I [gently] pushed Jenni to do, it was for her to write her memoirs. Several people encouraged her to do it. But she had reservations.

She didn’t want to hurt her family members’ feelings.

“Who cares what they think!” I told her. “They won’t be mad when you have a book deal, movie deal, TV series, talk show, spoken word album, tour, and a phone app!”

She didn’t have enough to say.

“All you need is 10 pages to send to a publisher!”

She didn’t know how to say it.

“That’s the editor’s job! Your job is to get the story out!”

She didn’t think anyone would read it.

“You have a built-in audience — the Strangers listeners is your audience!”

For an extra nudge, I bought Jenni a book on memoir writing to show how serious I was in my conviction of her story and ability.

Jenni told me she “started writing something,” and Gianluca confirmed it. But, ultimately, I don’t think she had the mental or physical energy for a literary undertaking. Instead, she aspired to fit in as much living as possible, occupying herself with anything that took her mind off her illness. Writing would only chain her to it.

Still, I wished she at least achieved something productive in her downtime rather than fritter it away on Facebook, indiscriminately “liking” and engaging with friends and non-friends alike. It was irksome to witness her waste time in that manner.

“Facebook is just something for her to do, something to fill her time; it doesn’t mean anything,” my mom reminded me.

I knew that. I know. Besides, Jenni already had plenty of accomplishments: College, culinary school in Scottsdale, Ariz., coffee shop owner, personal chef for professional athletes, corporate and celebrity event caterer, music writer, fashion plate (“fashioner”), and the ability to overcome obstacles with finesse. Jenni even taught a hospitality course at Georgia State University; and she once deejayed for Janelle Monae — so well that her manager wanted Jenni’s services every time Monae was in town to perform.

And everything listed below. I just wanted even more for Jenni, for her to take her story to the next level, for posterity.

While I’m on the subject of storytelling: I’m fully aware I’m not doing this “right,” that I’m not writing about Jenni in the best way stylistically. The format isn’t right. The diction, descriptive language, and details aren’t what they could be. And the medium/platform is wrong. I know I’m not giving “enough” to the reader (a common criticism of my prose — a correct and true analysis.). Subconsciously, the poetry writer in me requires readers to extrapolate independently. I guess. *shrug*

Also, a part of me is being selfish, hoarding details for my head only — I don’t want *ahem* people purloining my annals and weaving them into their own narrative to appear “in-the-know” with information they wouldn’t have been privy to otherwise. Another part of me is being protective of Jenni’s privacy altogether. If I ever were to do it “right,” it wouldn’t be on WordPress. So I’ve been winging it and, believe it or not, exercising brevity here.

And now I’ll let Jenni speak for herself:

Strangers podcasts
Jenni Rowell: Life, Interrupted

Jenni, Now

Jenni, Remembered” (I still have not listened to it)

 

Videos
A highlight of Brew Awakenings, Jenni’s coffee shop.

Jenni Rowell: Let’s Beat Cancer! (It’s so weird to see/hear her when she still had energy! It’s a version of Jenni I forgot I knew, because I adjusted to “the new normal” with each passing year.)

Jenni’s “thank you” for the Europe fundraiser.

 

Blogs and other websites
Jenni’s personal blog

Ms. Nix in the Mix

Music reviews Jenni wrote for DeadJournalist (The name is a coincidence. By the way, this is how you pay tribute to someone you don’t know very well)

 

Fundraisers
Let’s Send Jenni to Croatia and Italy! (closed) This was incredible. Sadly, Jenni didn’t make it to Europe. The money has been put into a fund for her niece. Fun fact: Jens Lekman made a donation. Yes, I read every single comment people wrote, with heart swelled. 🙂

Costs for Cancer Treatment (closed)

Help Pay Jenni’s Medical Expenses (closed)

 

Three missing pieces unable to be archived
1.) Fundraiser for Jenni’s COBRA insurance
2.) Fundraiser to help pay for Jenni’s memorial service
3.) ‘Beat Cancer With Jenni’ Facebook page. It yielded over 1,000 fans (maybe even 1,500). And that was without Jenni advertising herself. The fans came to her! Unfortunately, the page is no longer.

Thank you to the Rowell family (local and long-distance — more family to visit in Buffalo, yay!), Gianluca, Ashleigh, Angela, Holly, Amanda, Roberto, Lea, and all of Jenni’s true friends I’ve met (or not met, but heard about) over the years. And thank you to my family for making Jenni one of us — especially my sister, Danielle, who fatefully walked into Brew Awakenings, struck up a conversation with Jenni, and then told me how cool she was and that I had to meet her.

Jenni and I loved this song, one of many we played on our car ride to Tampa. Before visiting Jenni in the hospital that final Friday, I stopped by Publix to buy a potted orchid for her room — something with permanence. This song played while I was in the store.

 

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