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Naomi Fiss (Childhood)

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Jane asked me a few days before Jen's memorial service if I'd like to say a few words in honor of Jen. I declined. Was I afraid of becoming beyond emotional in front of a group of strangers?  Perhaps, but as I sit here and write, I think I had merely not gotten my mind around the fact that Jen truly was no longer with us - proven in the fact that the past few weeks have been more or less of a dream, an unimaginable dream, that in between keeping company with the Perlmans and the Hortons, I was merely going through the motions. Even going through the motions failed, as I missed appointments, forgot to call friends back, ate very little, slept sporadically, etc. The rapidity of Jen's final stages of her illness, and then untimely death, left us all whip-lashed.

However, something happened today, something came together: the event of grief, which I expect to last a long time, juxtaposed against treasured memories of Jen, which were continuously shared throughout her memorial day. What happened is profound: through Jen, I, and I imagine most of us on this day, were awakened and reminded of how vivid and painful and exquisite it is to be alive.

I think I have the distinct position and honor of knowing Jen as children, since the age of 5 - growing up together during idyllic summers at Westover, a summer community on Bantam Lake, CT. And then, when Jen moved to California over four years ago to start her post doctorate work, we became close to each other as adults. At this time in our lives, I had already lived in the Bay Area for 4 years. Jen had successfully finished her "physical" time at Temple University and greatly desired to live in a different part of the country, a place with a special closeness to nature and the outdoors.

Memories of Childhood

As most of us remember Jen as a young girl, I, too, instantly think of her dedication to and success as a ballerina. I remember being in awe of her passion, her beautiful legs, pigeon-toed feet -- and wanting to adopt the fashions that she brought up with her during the summers - the leg warmers in particular. I remember her countless times propping herself on Pointe, without her shoes on, and taking my hand to help her slowly spin in a circle, one leg outstretched behind her. Everything for Jen as a girl was about dance. It was in her soul; it was her make up.

I remember sleepovers - and falling in love with the Perlmans' kitties - sweet and mellow Daisy, and cross-eyed and crazy Kitty - of which bore the birth of a true love affair with cats for me. I'll always remember Daisy, the more mature Siamese, snuggled quietly with Jennie underneath layers of blankets. Kitty was left to me, who all night long would bite my feet, play with the moving blanket, want to go in and then out of the room, again and again and again. And then the morning would come, I'd wonder: when in hell is she going to wake up? Bobby and I would watch cartoons at the crack of dawn together and every so often, I'd go upstairs to see if Jennie was awake, sometimes hovering over her, sometimes trying to nudge her to move. I stopped waiting when 11, 12pm, 1pm came around. The sleepovers were just as much morning time with her younger brother, as were the actual bedtime chitchats.

I remember being at my family's cottage and Jennie and Bobby barreling into our house calling "Mommy! Daddy!" in search of my own parents.... and feeling just as accepted and taken care of by theirs. I remember long and peaceful rowboat rides with Jennie and Henrietta; I remember sun tanning on the beach and noticing how awfully white Jennie's skin was -- from being indoors practicing ballet.

And other Westover memories I'll always remember and treasure which she was always a part of: ice cream trips to Poppy's; the chocolate ice-cream, chocolate brownies or chocolate chip cookies that could always be found at the Perlmans' (notice the theme here); lazy evenings on the Perlmans' porch or on my family's porch overlooking the lake, of course my mom's snack food close at hand; school shopping in Naugatuck on rainy afternoons and seeing what great clothes Jennie got for the new school year; movies in Torrington; singing contests on the picnic table outside the Perlmans' house; the Westover Olympics; tennis tournaments; Aunt Bettie's; international dinners and clam bakes; bonfires; inner-tubes; baby-sitters; riding in the "well" of the Perlmans' Volkswagen Bug.

California Days

I have thought over and over again after the trials of the past 7 months that in my life Jen was a given. Like having a sibling, they are always a part of you, you love them regardless, and you expect them to always be there. Jen was a huge part of my history, the most important and delicious chunk of my childhood. In between those idyllic summers we didn't talk much.  During college years, we didn't talk much, but LOVED to look forward to seeing each other on Memorial or Labor Day Weekends.

When Jen moved to California, things changed. She became a large part of my adult life.

Jen first lived in the Palo Alto/Menlo Park area. I saw her sporadically, when she came up to the city, about an hour from her home. She would arrive at my door, and outstretch her arms for a great, big, breasty hug. We'd sit and instantly dive into our psyches.

For her - work, building a social network, her emotional state. Me - new career, bad relationships, sick mother. The times we didn't actually see each other were interluded with long, endless conversations on the phone. Of course, usually about boys. And she was a good listener, calm and understanding.

I was amazed how Jen took control of her life -- in between starting a rigorous professional program, in a completely new environment; she had energy left over to start her own social circle. And meet people. It took me three years of living in California to have the friends Jen made in a mere few months. It was a struggle for her at first I remember, she often felt alone and disconnected. That seemed to be offset by new encounters. New friends.

And then she met Karl. And they moved in together 6 weeks after they met. They starting nesting and made their apartment instantly cozy, taking such joy and pride in decoration and furnishings. I remember meeting Karl for the first time at a neighborhood café鬠La Mediterranean, soon after they moved. They lived close by to my studio. Karl was wearing this God-awful colored Indian-print looking baseball cap and a tie-dye T-shirt, and those now notorious Birkenstocks.

And with her new close proximity to me, we saw more of each other. I got to know Karl and grew fond of this *strange* boy and more so, how happy he made Jen. They became friends with my friends. We made dinners together. We went hiking together. Jen became my cat Oliver's other mother, taking him in as if he were her own when I'd go traveling for weeks, and putting my neurotic mind at ease. In Jen's singsong fashion, he, Oliver, was given the nickname "Liver the Lover". He sits on my lap as I write.

I spin this thumb ring around and wear it with me every day, reminding me of Jen. In some California New-Age-ish way, the ring's circle symbolizes our cycles in life. Jen's cycle was too soon concluded. She was unbelievably brave over the past 7 months. She bulldozed through a 16-hour invasive surgery and miraculously spoke to us in short words not even a week after the operation. She continued to persevere through months of radiation and chemo treatments. I was an active participant in what Karl termed her "wellness team" which included Bay Area friends and greatly earmarked by the presence of Jane and Larry, Robert, Paige and Jen Litterick. To lesson the burden on Karl, we created a schedule of who would be willing and/or able to help out: i.e., drive Jen to appointments, sit with her during days when she felt fragile and Karl was back to work, or as she felt more independent again, people to merely be on call.

I mention Jen's illness because it was a terrible and unexplainable thing to happen, and very painful for all involved, including the hundreds of you on email. Those amazing emails from Karl.  We never imagined the cancer would beat her, it wasn't in our vocabulary. But I don't want to remember Jen sick, nor would she. And once the pain of loss lessens over time and our spirits somehow continue to persevere, I want to remember ONLY Jen's feistiness, her uninhibited nature, her goofy girlie language, that coy shit-eating grin, her love for me and her telling me so, her passion for life, talk, food, her "aching womb", her dare-devil nature, her concern for and love of Karl, her family and friends.

I love you Japes, thank you for loving me.

The Ponds by Mary Oliver

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them -

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided -
and that one wears an orange blight -
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away -
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled -
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing -
that the light is everything - that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

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Page last updated: Monday, 05 March 2001 06:22:44 Eastern Time.