When Jen called seven months ago to tell me about her diagnosis, it was a gorgeous summer day. I was outside under a blue sky, planting flowers and herbs on my deck; when I picked up the phone my hands were covered in soil all the way to my wrists. What Jen should have been telling me was something wonderful about life: about her upcoming trip to Italy with Karl, or her wedding dress, or some amazing thing she had just seen or done. If you had asked me then or even a month ago if I envisioned standing up here today, the answer would have been no. Jen was so alive: irreverent, funny, willful, curious, excited, not always perfect, but marvelous in her imperfections. She was also very much coming into her own in life, and that, especially hurts. There was so much she was ready to enjoy and embrace: her life with Karl, her career, her friends and family. A part of me always imagined Jen so hungry and willful in her desires and in her urgency to fulfill them that it was as if she was ready to devour the world - sometimes even before she was ready for it, or it for her. She needed to feel her life was moving forward, that it mattered, and that she was living it.
I find it hard to make any sense of Jen's death; and don't expect I ever really will. If anything, I am left with the unsettling feeling of how light our lives really are - that they can be here one moment, memorable and vibrant, and gone the next.
When Jen died on January 24th, the long conversation of our friendship - sixteen years worth from age 18 and 19 to age 34 and 35 - suddenly stopped. I feel stranded being left to hold only half of the threads of what we knew of each other; I can only imagine what Jane and Larry and Robert and Karl must feel. And what I want to say to that, because it's worth saying, is that you created a wonderful daughter who loved you very much, you shaped a willful sister who was extremely proud of you, and you opened up the heart, confidence and strength of a truly exceptional woman. Even in this very painful loss, these are gifts worth recognizing.
What I couldn't say or whisper to Jen in person before she died, but that I believe she knew, was that she made a difference in my life, made it richer, and so, I hope it's worth something if I say it to you.
Although I'm not Jen's oldest friend, she's definitely one of mine. We met at the beginning of our 2nd year at Brown. We were each trying to step a little outside what we knew and find something different in the world and in ourselves. I met her in a dance class, and can remember the moment exactly. She was such a beautifully trained dancer, a "real" dancer from New York City. I wanted more than anything to be that, but having grown up in the narrow suburbs outside New York I'd been subjected to nothing better than years of bad ballet lessons from overweight ex-Rockettes; and the city itself terrified me. I was so intimidated by the other "real" dancers in that class, and she was the only one to immediately reach out to me. She saw how badly I pointed my feet and said, the way Jen often said to me throughout our friendship, "You know, you should really just relax a little....when you grip your toes you lose all the freedom in your body." Just that small correction made movement feel entirely different - made it feel alive; I wasn't forcing it, but allowing something larger, more exciting and unpredictable to happen. Our friendship opened up, for me, from that moment. I admired her vibrancy, her bounding-about outgoing nature, her ability to capture the center of attention in a room; I also learned that what she admired in me was a quieter kind of "centeredness," focus and calm. Imagining I might have given some of that to her life, right now, feels oddly comforting.
Around the same time we met, my mother gave me a wonderful present. Knowing how much I wanted to get beyond the town in which I grew up, she gave me a plane ticket to anywhere as my 19th birthday present. I chose Italy. Soon after I met Jen, I mentioned this gift and off-handedly said, "Why don't you join me?" She surprised me by saying yes, almost immediately. (Having envisioned my first trip abroad alone, I suddenly had to readjust! Jen wasn't the type to hesitate at a good offer.) So there we were, that June, a month together wandering through Italy. For both of us, it was our first real impression of anything beyond the U.S. I hope you don't mind my saying, but she was extremely good at attracting the attention of young Italian men (good & bad) wherever we went; and while we both fell in love with the warmth and beauty of the Italian landscape, we also spent an enormous amount of time enjoying two of Jen's favorite pleasures - food and kissing. She was definitely the leader in the area of kissing, always catching the eye of some attractive dark-eyed man...and since young Italian men always seem to travel in twos, I spent a lot of time trying to entertain his acceptable, but often not too inspiring friend.
One of the moments I remember most was sitting in a rural train station around 2 or 3 in the morning: we'd miscalculated connections and were both tired & a little nervous waiting in the middle of nowhere. To stay awake, she asked if I would read to her; she always said she loved hearing me read, and so I read something from Faulkner until the train finally came. I've always loved books & the act of reading, silently or out loud; but the intensity of the way Jen would listen to me when I read gave me an incredible kind of confidence I didn't have. It was like being cherished.
Whatever passion I found in reading the world through books, Jen found in reading the world through people and through her skin, her lips, her tongue. She always said how much she loved talking, tasting, savoring & touching. I learned an enormous amount from her in this; the world can't be found just in books or words. It comes alive in pleasure and sensation.
I am so grateful for many of the long conversations we had throughout our friendship. In the past two years, in particular she had a way of reaching me at work and shaking me out of my routine by asking me how I was in such a way that I knew she really wanted to hear; and so we'd start talking about life, relationships, what we wanted to DO and BE in the world, who we were & all the stuff we didn't understand. And I'm going to miss that horribly. I can still hear Jen's voice from when we last spoke two weeks before she died; she was tired from all the treatments, from having her life up-ended and her body changed, but she could still outtalk me. I was amazed by that. I can still hear her old clear voice; I can hear her laughter, her swearing, her griping, and mostly, I can hear her firm dancer's step on the floor, putting the full force of her heel into each stride, every day.
I want to finish by reading part of a poem by Mary Oliver (from, The Summer Day) that has at its heart the kind of question Jen would ask - other than why did this happen - if she were here with us today.
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