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Loving a Dying Friend

I started a journey in June 2010.  If I had been given any foreknowledge of the outcome, I may have chosen differently. However, hindsight is golden. I wouldn't trade the months between June 2010 and March 2011. If I had, I would have missed one amazing journey with one of the people I loved most in the world. I met my friend, Jennifer, through the activities of our children in the fall of 2004. Her youngest daughter and my youngest son were both two-year-old gymnastic buddies and then saw each other again while their big sisters took dance at the same studio. As the children grew older, many of their activities overlapped and Jennifer and I would be able to leave for our coffee meetings, where we would escape for an hour or two discussing adult issues. She would say she was my hero in that I was raising three children as a single parent as my children were mine through adoption. I told her she had it wrong. Jennifer was the most loving, faithful, and tactful friend I had ever met. She never knew a stranger and saw the good in everyone. She challenged my children and me to look beyond the surfaces of those we encountered. We played together during the summer as we both loved involving our children in our fun. We’d swim all day and eat Mexican food at night. We celebrated some holidays together. I knew her extended family; she knew mine. She met my lifelong desire to have a sister and I loved her like she was one. In March 2008, she found a lump in her breast while on a cruise over spring break with her husband and daughters. She came back and was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I tried cheering her on as she went through the chemotherapy, the hair loss, the intense pain. So many times, I wished I could carry her burdens, even for a day, just so she could sleep peacefully. But, that was not mine to carry. Jennifer thought she went in remission in the summer of 2009 but a few months later she underwent a body scan that had shown the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. At this time, the race was on to find a clinical trial because her new diagnosis was “stage IV metastatic breast cancer, chemo resistant, Triple Negative.” The cancer had also spread to her lymph nodes. I will never forget the phone call I had with her husband who told me that the doctor was giving her “six months” to live. I truly felt that a part of me had died that day. Because our friendship started before cancer, cancer didn't define our friendship; although during the cancer days, I did encounter friends who were not supportive or understanding of the severity of her diagnosis. However, much blessed, other friends stepped forward and asked how they could help me so I could help Jennifer. So, twice a week, my kids were farmed out to friends’ homes where they could continue their school projects and I could focus on Jennifer. The kids said repeatedly to me that they loved Jennifer and were willing and wanting to help her by having me drive her back and forth to Nashville (177 miles one way) for a clinical trial. I loved my kids more at that moment for putting themselves in the shoes of someone else and demonstrating to me what amazing and loyal children I have with whom I am so blessed. We started our weekly sojourns to Nashville twice a week; sometimes necessity caused us to spend the night. My support in finding childcare for my children was overwhelmingly positive. My kids were happy in each place they stayed and we only had one major incident while Jennifer and I were in Nashville. My son, age 8 at the time, had a run in with a radio controlled car at my friend’s house. The antennae pushed into his skin and through some nerves. I received the emergency phone call just as we were entering the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center; three hours away from Knoxville. I called a few numbers but no one was answering so I called my priest, who lives in another town, and asked if he knew anyone who could help meet my son at the Emergency Room as my friend who was caring for my son had five children. Thankfully, my priest arrived and was able to take over Ethan’s care. Ethan’s anxiety left when Father Stephen jokingly responded to Ethan, “Well, Ethan, you certainly give new meaning to the word “Toe Truck”.” Thank goodness for humor. Ethan had the adventure of a lifetime comparing “war wounds” with his priest. To this day, Ethan only saw that day as adventure; not as tragedy. After the first crisis, I felt that there was a “village” that was left behind to care for my kids and that I was reassured and had a Divine Confirmation that I was the one to continue walking this journey with Jennifer. By fall, Jennifer was noticeably getting sicker and she failed the first trial. She qualified for a new trial and trust me, those were some of the loudest cheers of thanks that hospital had ever heard. We felt it was a sign; she had never qualified for a trial so quickly. We celebrated that night, just enjoying being in the moment. So much of the journey taught me to make the most of every moment because I certainly did not want to miss one. Well, I did miss one. And if I let it, I would still beat myself up for missing it. It was her last treatment in December 2010. It was an overnight Nashville trip. I didn't know then but it was our last Nashville trip. Jennifer had an early body and brain scan and we had stayed up way too late playing a random host of games like Uno, Battleship, and Sorry. If you knew us, you would know that we never went to any doctor appointments or infusions without games and entertainment magazines (IE: People, Inside Edition, etc.). It was both of our escape from reality. I was worn out but Jennifer wanted to keep playing. I could tell she was really worried about the next day and I wanted to keep playing games to keep her distracted. Well, to the moment I missed. I had to get Jennifer to the hospital for her Body Scan by 630 a.m and I was exhausted from so little sleep. I had to go back to the hotel and sign out and pack up our things but while doing all, I laid on the bed for a ten minute quick nap and woke up 90 minutes later. The guilt cut like a knife through the core of my existence. I frantically packed all of our bags, loaded the car, and found Jennifer sitting by herself waiting in anxious anticipation for the results. The guilt I felt for letting down this friend I loved so deeply hurt me profoundly. And I wouldn't understand how profound the hurt was until after her death. Jennifer, being Jennifer, told me not to worry about it; that she was fine. I tried to act fine but I had to leave the infusion room in tears. I think it was all catching up to me. I could not realistically always be there. She was going to die and I could not stop it. It was a quiet trip home that night. She was really tired and I was afraid to speak for fear tears would accompany my speech. This was her last time in Nashville for treatment. She subsequently failed the new trial and before she began any other new trial, she needed radiation treatments for the lung that was affecting her breathing. She came over to my home, which was her last time to visit my home, that January of 2011. I served her favorite meal, my original taco salad that she loved so much. The kids played and we talked and watched the kids be silly. That visit culminated years of visits.  On the second of February, Jennifer called me and told me (taking a long time as she would cry from time to time in her message) that there wasn't much hope and all that could be done could be completed in Knoxville. I visited her once in February. We made tentative plans to finish scrapbooks for the girls. But those plans never went any further. She began growing sicker by the day. The next time I saw my dear friend, my adopted sister friend, was on her death bed, on 29 March 2011, a few hours before she passed from this life. A friend had driven me to the hospital so I could stay safe (I was too emotional to drive). I just sat with Jennifer in the hospital, holding her hand. She was unconscious but I talked and talked about her dreams for her children and what she meant to my family and me. My priest had come to be at the hospital and he made the comment, “How could someone who was dying look so healthy?” It was so true. She was beautiful in life and in death. I finally said my goodbye. I didn't want to leave but it was time. I was driven back home by a friend. I told the kids. My kids surpassed any expectation I had. They allowed me a place to cry and cry. They rubbed my back as I lay in the fetal position on the bed. I eventually fell asleep. At 6:09 p.m., I received the call from Jennifer’s husband that Jennifer had passed peacefully with each of her children by her side. An entire new bucket of tears just fell from my eyes. I felt that the depths of my soul was crying out. It was so emotionally and physically painful. The kids stayed around me and cried with me. The following days, it seemed as Jennifer spoke in many different ways. At her graveside service, which was on a warm day, right as the Priest was finishing his prayer, the wind out of nowhere suddenly came around each of us and swirled; giving each person in attendance a symbolic memory of how lively Jennifer was before death and even in eternity. I grieved so much. After so many nights of crying myself to sleep and crying while I was sleeping, I suddenly woke up one morning with a new vision. The story of Jesus and his Disciples came to my mind when they fell asleep on the night that Christ needed them most; while He was in the Garden of Gethsemane. I was carrying such guilt for not being there for Jennifer on that final day we were together in Nashville. But I heard Jennifer’s voice remind me that it was Christ that never left her alone. That only HE could be with her for now and for all Eternity and that Eternity was all she needed.