My first thoughts about Jen’s passing were a rush of emotions that were kind of all over the map: guilt, sorrow, anger, and disbelief were what came first.
When I got the call that you never want to get, it was Sunday evening and Benny and I were at Target shopping for a sled so he and his brothers could do some sledding on their day off of school because of President’s Day. It just did not even register as a possibility when the phone rang. She was 43. We had just spoken three days ago on her birthday.
That is part of where the first emotion – guilt — comes in. Calling Jen was not something that I really looked forward to and most definitely not something I did often enough. Part of that was that I expected her to live by standards that WE considered, for want of a better term, appropriate. We would have nearly the same conversation every time we spoke. It would be about how she didn’t have a whole lot going on right now, but that she was on her way toward: getting a job, being more social, taking better care of herself and anything else that WE considered important for her. But what about her? What did SHE think was important? What did SHE want? What did SHE strive for? How did SHE define happiness?
I feel like we never took enough time to ask her – or even think about – things from her perspective. All we ever did was try to fit her into our world. But what about her world? My guesses about what made her tick come from the times where I saw here at her happiest. Some were recent, others were far in the past, and others may never have even happened. As far as I can tell, there were four things that made her truly happy:
- Being generous to others. She spent more time and care on getting people the perfect gift than anyone I have ever met. And the look on her face when you opened it was priceless.
- Feeling needed/wanted. When Jen and I were in High School, she used to wake up extra early and make me scrambled eggs with cheese every morning before school. Considering that she and I were never, ever morning people, this was an act of generosity that she did purely out of love. And, again, the pride she felt in doing it knew no bounds.
- Listening to John Denver or watching any movie with Robin Williams in it. Enough said.
- Being the center of anyone’s attention. Jake and I had asked her a few years ago when we met up in Philly to take her out for her 40thbirthday to reflect back on some of her happiest moments. Though we were not sure whether all of the moments she mentioned actually happened or not (which is just not important), the one commonality they had was they all involved her as the center of someone’s attention. Some of those moments were, empirically, not happy ones (like going to doctors), but what they all shared were people she loved — parents, siblings, friends — turning all of their focus toward her, for whatever the reason might have been.
In that way, I guess today would make her truly happy. Because this is about Jen and the life she lived and NOT our judgment of it. We have to remember her as someone who overcame dramatic odds to live the life she did. She was really given NO advantages in life, going through medical procedures starting at an age even younger than my own kids that left her legally blind as well as handicapped in ways way will never even know. On top of that she had to endure several rounds of radiation before she was even old enough to be in junior high.
As much as we looked at her as someone who did not live up to our ideal of a successful person, we cannot forget what she did accomplish: she graduated from college AND grad school. And this was in a time before schools were truly set up for someone with her needs. She had to fight for every scrap, often against systems that she felt were rigged against her. She dealt with the constant cruelty and ridicule of being different. She went through the sort of childhood and adolescence that could easily have left her broken and embittered, yet she came out of it with her huge heart intact. She was a stronger person than me; perhaps a stronger person than any of us.
And THAT is how I will remember Jen: as someone who never lost the genuine goodness of her heart and spirit, and not as someone who somehow failed to live up to anyone’s standards of what a life should be.
– Dr. Philip M. Goldfeder