The Cancer Diaries: Eulogy for a Friend
Welcome guests, friends, relatives, to this memorial for Jennette, or Jan, or Jen.
She went by many names over the years, and a lot of us knew her as a different Jennette or Jan or Jen. She was like a rainbow in many ways. We all saw different colours but we all felt the same way when we were with her. Warm and loved and cared for.
She lived her life as if she were in a Maya Angelou poem.
She tried to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.
Her mission in life was not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.
And as Gessie will tell you later, she embraced that style with gusto.
Jennette or Jan or Jen, didn’t talk much. She surrounded herself with extroverts who sucked up all the air in the room. Fun people, smart people. She once told me she was first attracted to Roger because he introduced her to so many interesting people, at the press club, in bars and bistros. That’s what she missed about him after he died, she told me, that and the fact he made her laugh and smile.
I knew only Jennette, though I did see Jan and Jen when she was around the friends from her younger days, like Lu and Nancy and Colleen. If you asked them, they would say she was a loyal friend, who would come over and stay the night, and babysit the kids.
It’s amazing in this day and age, that people are still friends with people they met in high school, and not just because of Facebook. Jan remained friends with her high school chums for more than 50 years, and got together with them for pizza, until everybody got too busy.
And let’s face it, most of us are far too busy. We often let people slip away in our lives as we grapple with our own challenges, our own illnesses, our own families.
So it’s understandable that most of you were surprised when you read on Facebook, or in the Citizen, that Jennette, or Jan or Jen passed away on January 9.
We didn’t even know she was sick.
I heard that a lot from people.
It’s not your fault, if you are one of those people. Jennette or Jan or Jen kept her illness between herself and the medical professionals. She didn’t even tell her brother until she got the terminal diagnosis.
The Jennette I knew was a private person, and she wanted to die on her own terms. That’s what she told me.
“I make my own decisions,” she said whenever I got close to smothering her.
How I got involved with her is a story for another time and another place. I am no hero. I was just around, really, with enough spare time to take her to her appointments with doctors, dentists, and the like. In exchange, she let me write about her in my blog, called the Cancer Diaries. She let me tell her story, warts and all, and that is why I am here today, to tell that story one last time, even though we all know how the story ended.
So here we go.
The cancer started as a small lozenge-sized tumour, which was nestled in the bottom of her mouth. I think she had had it awhile, and was misdiagnosed by her family doctor, whose medical philosophy was “there’s a pill for that.”
In her case, she was told to suck on hard candies, but eventually, it became clear that she wasn’t suffering from a canker or dry mouth but real life scary oral cancer.
The specialist took one look, and she jumped back. I’ve worked with many doctors over the years, and jump back means not good.
Within weeks, Jennette was scheduled for surgery. She asked me to take her, and we sat in the waiting room at the usual six a.m. witching hour, waiting for an eight-hour surgery in which, basically, the surgeon would take a backhoe to the bottom of her mouth. I waited for a few minutes, and I was about to go home when the nurse came charging toward me, and beckoned me down the hall.
There was Jennette, small and disoriented, lying on a gurney. She had gone to the bathroom, and fallen, hit her head, and the nurse thought she had had a concussion. So instead of getting her surgery, she spent the next eight hours in the ER, getting tested. They found she had very low levels of potassium and magnesium, hence the fall. She would later learn that all the pills her doctors had prescribed her had put her life in peril, depleting her of so many nutrients that she nearly had a heart attack.
In fact, as a side story let me tell you about the time she went to buy a computer at Staples, only to faint when the bill arrived. That time, she spent a week at the Montfort.
Jennette spent a lot of time in the hospital, mostly for broken bones. I remember a time when she fell and broke her hip, and lay on the floor for hours until Roger got up. In a terrific example of mindfulness, he picked her up and dropped her causing her to have not just a broken hip, but a broken femur.
Or the time she broke five bones on the top of her foot upon learning that her beloved Cockatiel, Digger, had died. We never did get a straight story about how that happened. The doctor had never seen anything like it.
Ah, it takes me back.
Anyway, the falls and the breaks and the fainting were no match for the cancer which ultimately took her life two years to the day she walked out of her first surgery. She thought she had beaten it. Unfortunately, the doctor’s pronouncement she was cancer-free turned out to be cruel, cruel joke.
The cancer was still there. It had simply burrowed inside her jaw in a place the doctors couldn’t see. This spring, it came back with a vengeance.
In typical Jennette or Jan or Jen fashion, she didn’t want to bother anybody. So she waited for a follow up appointment with a yet another doctor who had warmed his hands in her mouth, this time to cut back some of the debris left by the first doctor.
When the plastic surgeon opened her mouth, he jumped back. You see, there they go again.
“I didn’t do that,” he squirmed, which to me meant he damned well did. I’m not blaming him for the cancer coming back. But I often wondered if he’d left well enough alone, whether the cancer might have sat there dormant, even for a little while.
With cancer, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, isn’t it?
Jennette faced this setback with her usual stoicism, and a few tears, but I know she was terrified. I suggested that we go to the cottage for a week, before meeting with the oncologist again. She embraced the idea, and packed her little bag with all the essentials: a blender, Carnation Instant Breakfast and enough vodka to light up a Viking funeral.
Scott bought her a Vape for the trip and our landlady supplied some nice homegrown which helped with the pain. That, and the vodka, kept her on keel.
When we got back to town, the verdict was clear. Jennette had weeks to live. I took her out for coffee, which was about all I could do to calm her nerves.
“Okay,” I said. “What’s on your bucket list?”
“What bucket list?” she asked. And then she had a thought.
“I want to see Ron James,” she said.
And so I set off to find Ron James tickets. As luck would have it, Ron was playing a senior’s lifestyle show in town a week later.
So I bundled her up, with her walker, and beetled out to the convention centre. By this time, Jennette was wearing a bandage full time, because her jaw had started to bleed. She looked like something out of an episode of M*A*S*H*.
I got us seated right in front. I mean, who would resist giving a seat to a 4 foot nothing casualty of the cancer wars?
Ron was his usual Leprechaun self.
“I betcha there’s a few folks here who are happy about marijuana being legalized,” he twinkled.
With that, I pointed to Jennette, who then became Ron’s target for the next hour.
“Better watch yerself, darling,” said Ron, pointing to her walker. “Don’t be driving that thing under the influence.”
After the show, Jennette and I met up with Ron who began throwing DVDs at her. The two of them posed for the camera, and she was absolutely tickled. When we stopped at the bathroom on the way out, she looked in the mirror and realized she had laughed so hard, the blood had soaked through the bandage.
Later, when she was in the General for radiation, I suggested we put on a Ron James DVD to cheer her up.
She shook her head.
“No, I can’t watch them. I’m going to start to bleed again.”
Over the next few weeks, Jennette declined rapidly. She had to move into an assisted living facility. At first, she was depressed, but rallied. Soon she was hopping the Revera bus to go to Walmart or Billings for a shopping spree.
A lifelong packrat, Jennette began to clutter up her new space.
She bought herself a boat load of electronics, new clothes, about a hundred boxes of Kleenex, and buckets of Instant Breakfast and peach Jello.
“Why are you buying all this stuff?” I asked her one day. “The manor is supplying it.”
“They ran out of peach Jello,” she sniffed. “And it’s the only kind I like.”
It was absolutely heartbreaking watching people watch her motoring through the mall, but she seemed undeterred. People can be so nasty. I still can’t believe it.
But our J, she was undaunted. She kept busy by going to the daycare hospice program, and painting by the numbers, or Facetiming her brother in Mexico.
You had to admire her.
I realize now that Jennette wasn’t trying to die, she was trying to live.
She was still going strong until Christmas. In spite of a gaggle of friends bringing her presents, and decorations, she was down. Way down.
She couldn’t talk anymore, and could barely chug down the Ensure. She weighed less than ninety pounds, and her face was swollen up like a pumpkin. The cancer burst through her jaw, leaving a gaping hole.
But ultimately, it wasn’t the cancer that stopped her in her tracks.
It happened on wintry day, on one of her shopping sprees.
She tripped going up the stairs of the bus, with everyone staring at her. She was hot with embarrassment, and soon realized she had lost the strength in her legs.
It was only a week after when we wheeled her into the Bruyere.
She had finally given up. The thief in the night had taken her last bit of independence, and it was poised to strike her in one last deft blow.
By this time, it was as if she was wrapped in a cocoon of cancer, and we could only recognize the odd rainbow she shot out into the room. We could only see tiny glimpses of Jennette or Jan or Jen.
I rallied the troops to make sure she was surrounded by people she loved. We would take turns holding her tiny paws or dabbing her mouth with a sponge.
One day, Gessie called me and said the end was near.
Scott and I rushed to the hospital, and she was sitting there with a little grin on her face. Her eyes were glassy, and she kept reaching for the ceiling.
“I can see it,” she said. “I can’t see it.”
About an hour later, it seemed as if the rain had stopped, and the rainbow emerged from her tiny little body. She began chatting away, complaining that the clock wasn’t right.
Then she looked at me.
“Rose,” she said. “Come over here.”
“What can I do, Jennette?” I asked her, and took her tiny paw.
“Bring me my purse,” she said.
I reached in the cupboard and took out her over-stuffed purse and handed it to her. She dug through it and pulled out her wallet. She took out a few bills and handed them to me.
“Here’s money for parking,” she said.
That was our Jennette, or Jan or Jen.
Thinking about others before she thought about herself.
As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget about what you said, people will forget about what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And no matter who you knew, Jennette or Jan, or Jen.
She always made you feel like you were the most important person in the room.
I’m not sad she’s gone. I’m glad that the pain finally left the room.
I will miss her, as she said I would when we sat at Starbucks that fateful day over coffee.
I will miss her, as she said I would when we sat at Starbucks that fateful day over coffee.
But I won’t miss the cancer.