Over the course of a lifetime, we come in contact with a great number of people. Some people just pass right on thru without us even noticing, others make a brief yet still significant mark, and others impact our entire being. They transform us. Maybe for you the person who made the most difference was a spouse or a child. Maybe it was a teacher or colleague. For me, it was a friend, one so close I consider her more of a sister. There is simply no aspect of my life that she did not influence.
I met Jen when I was only two or three years old and she was just a newborn. We grew up living just two houses apart in a quiet suburban neighborhood. As a kid, my family remembers me being an outgoing chatterbox, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I talked their ears off, yes, because they were my safe zone. In reality, when they weren’t around, I was quite shy . . . except when I was with Jen. She and her parents introduced me to things I never would have had access to or attempted to do without them. I have no doubt that without the three of them I would have turned out very differently.
I got my sense of imagination from Jen and her mom, Becky. Becky could be silly and would use words that even now I associate strictly with her. She encouraged us to play dress up, have picnics on the porch, and hide away in Jen’s cardboard version of the Mickey Mouse Playhouse. Jen had a lot of toys, but she didn’t really want to play with most of them. Instead, she preferred for us to make up our own games and stories, and she was endlessly creative.
Though I may have helped Jen learn to ride a bike, she helped me learn to go off and explore, and that push to explore got more necessary the older I got. I can be reclusive and set in my ways. I don’t go out of my way to meet new people or try new things. Jen, however, never seemed to meet a stranger. She would introduce me to her other friends and try to put me at ease. Then again, she would embarrass me too! Many a time, she would be driving us around town with the music blaring, and at stoplights, she would dance and make the car shake violently. People would stare and I would slide down in the passenger seat not wanting to be noticed. That was the difference. Jen didn’t care who stared. She made it her mission to get me to lighten up and live a little. She would take me to Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion and get me on every single ride. She would even make me raise my hands over my head, laughing and screaming. I’ve probably never felt so free as in those moments.
In our twenties, Jen regularly took me clubbing and tried desperately to teach me to dance. Eventually, she declared it hopeless, saying I just had no rhythm, but she still made me go with her. She was determined that I not spend my evenings at home alone. She got me to laugh at myself and she taught me that if you look hard enough you can find humor in most anything. Afterall, sometimes life gets so shitty the only way to stay sane is to laugh it off. She taught me that it’s all about perspective. She could look at a problem and explain it in a way I never would have thought of. She could calmly explain alternative viewpoints in a way that made you accept them even if you started out staunchly opposed. She had a sense of logic and persuasion this world desperately needs.
Sadly, a year ago today Jen died, a mere three months after being diagnosed with cancer. She was 43 years old. No matter how afraid she might have been, she was still so brave. The last message she sent me was “my family (and extended family) is the shit! I have the most awesome support system imaginable. Everyone has been so very kind. I plan to win this fight, the problem is that everyone plans to win and most don’t. Scary stuff! This is why we have valium.” A few weeks before her death, I went back to Virginia to say my goodbyes, and the only fear I saw was that she didn’t want to be left alone. I spent the few nights I was there sporadically sleeping in a chair beside her hospital bed. Even then, she was much more worried about everyone else. Southern girl that she was, she wanted to make sure every visitor was comfortable and fed. I don’t know how many times she offered me her Jello or her soup. She was suffering, yet still had a smile for every friend or family member who entered. Late at night, she told me how much she appreciated her parents being there with her every day, but she was concerned about the toll it was taking on them. I know she worried about me too. We reminisced about all the good times we had shared and she agreed wholeheartedly that my life certainly would have been dull without her in it. We planned out all the things we would do and trips we would take when she recovered. I think that was her parting gift to me. She knew that she wouldn’t leave the hospital, but she left me a “To Do” list. She knew that I would feel obligated to do all the things we had talked about. Even now, she is teaching me to face my fears and live courageously and every step I take I know that she is with me.