The Cancer Diaries: The Love Monster

Over the years when I looked after Jennette, there were times I wanted to walk out of her life.

It was hard watching her self-destruct, difficult to walk into an apartment that was full of paper and ashes and soot. Her friend Lu couldn't believe it when I told her about the hoarding years, the decades Jennette made neat pathways to the bathroom and the bedroom in-between the untouched moving boxes, and the couches overflowing with her dead mother's clothes.

"The Jan I knew had an apartment that was neat as a pin," Lu told me. "I just can't believe she lived that way."

I knew Jennette for 25 years, and every place she rented looked the same. They were always full of clutter, neat in places, especially the bathroom. The rest of her apartment looked like a bombed out place in Aleppo.

The first time it was a problem was when the paramedics came to get Roger who had collapsed on the bed. It took them nearly an hour to get him out of the apartment because the pathways simply were not wide enough for a stretcher. Finally, they helped him shuffle out of the apartment on his own steam. He quickly took a deep dive into a coma, where he existed for nearly two months. His constant smoking bore a hole in his lung, and he had begun to aspirate food into the hole. His liver was badly cirrhotic, and undiagnosed diabetes had rendered his feet nearly useless.

Still, he survived.

While Roger lay in the hospital, Scott and I saw an opening. While Roger was in a coma, we would go into the apartment, clean up his bedroom, and get him a new bed so he could recover at home watching the Jays, and continue to kill himself, and his wife, with his second hand smoke.

Scott bravely entered the room like a firefighter, leaving nothing behind. When he came home, he had developed a horrible cough, and bled out of his nostrils. The soot was two inches thick on the unopened windows, television and computer. It still makes me cringe, when I think about it.

There was only so much we could do, so the rest of the apartment stayed the same, with its pathways, and mounds of newspapers, until the day Roger died. It was only then, after the police actually refused to enter the apartment, that we made a pact that we would start a process to save Jennette's life.

And so began our complicated dance, one step forward, one step back, as we pleaded with social workers and doctors to help her, only to discover that because she was not yet a senior, there was nothing they could do for her.

It was only after she received a large cheque from the government to settle a 30-year employment equity suit, that she had the money to hire professionals to move her. We did that, and our hope was that she would right her ship.

That's when she got cancer the first time.

In between, there were the falls, and the broken bones. Roger's death had taken its toll, and she also faced the ultimate demise of her beloved father. During this time, her mental state began to deteriorate. She was depending more and more on her nightly dose of vodka to ease her pain.

Then, ultimately, she began a relationship with the scammer Richard Birdsong, who took $25,000 out of her pocket.

I was so mad when I found out. I felt so betrayed that she thought so little of her own life while I was desperately trying to save her. The anger simmered in my stomach, and made my face blistering hot.
It was the same feeling I had yesterday when I found out the extent of her folly.

But I stood by a promise I made on my mother's death bed. I wasn't able to be around when she was dying. I had been too busy with my own life, and my perfect little family, that I could not be there when she needed me.

I swore on that day that I would do for one other person what I couldn't do for my mother.

And Jennette was that person. Lucky her, and lucky me.

She was grateful for the help in ways, but mostly she was secretive. Her mental illness hid in the shadows, while she presented a brave front to doctors. They shrugged off my pleas, and she shunned me when I tried to get her the real help she needed.

She finally fell off the precipice after her father died and after the cancer took hold in her right cheek. Instead of getting radiation, she sought out expensive dentists to build her a new smile on top of an absent gum line. She was hoping to find a man, that was her aim, that would solve everything, and the new choppers were key to fulfilling that goal, even though they didn't sit well, even when they pained her when she ate.

In her own fragile mental state, she was getting help she needed.

It was magical thinking of the first order.

Instead of seeking the radiation that could save her life, she sought treatment for loneliness and despair. Those of us who have sought that comfort know there's no pill for that.

The Love Monster consumed her, and left an opening for the cancer which ultimately won out.

Sitting here with my tea, surrounded by her things, I don't lay blame on this poor, sweet soul.

I have lived my entire life among people, my mother, my husbands, my children and now my grandchildren. I have a small life, but an important one. I'm loved, I'm wanted, I'm needed.

I can only imagine what it was like for her to be the good soldier left behind on the battle field, wandering around, in the land of the dead. After the men went away, she hoped for another, but the cancer took her hope and crushed it. Who would want a woman with half her face eaten by cancer, while her newly minted teeth sat beside her in a fancy case? Teeth she couldn't wear?

Every night, Jennette would sit around and talk to her ghosts. Ultimately, just months before she got sick the final time, she asked God to take her.

And in his own twisted way, God granted her that final wish.

I'm proud to say that I didn't walk away.

But it's cold comfort on days like this when I sit around talking to my own ghosts.


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