Saturday, January 9, 2010

Thinking About Jen

When Jen was a baby, each time she cried, something cut off her oxygen supply until she choked. Nobody knew what was happening. It was her grandmother that figured it out, and so she had surgery to move the main blood vessel that was wrapped a-typically around her larynx. This experience was telling, really, as to the challenged life my friend, Jen McGrorey, would lead.

I’ve known Jen since the mid-90’s. I interviewed her at PwC before she was hired. We were all still in the Bank of America Building then, and I had that office in the back of Word Processing. It was before Leslie’s Mom passed away in 1995. Back then, Jen was a short little 4x4, as chubby as she was tall. She smoked like a chimney, always had her face in a book, surrounded herself with cool comic book toys, and wielded that acerbic sense of humor like a weapon. She always seemed to be in my orbit, and I in hers.

In 1996, when I was pregnant with Elizabeth, Jen and her husband were trying to get pregnant, too. Oddly, it wasn’t easy for either of us. I went through a year of fertility treatment, as did she. The day Leslie and I went for our ultrasound to hear we had a girl on the way, I didn’t know it, but Jenny was in the other room at the very same time in the very same department of the very same hospital in San Francisco. It was an experience she described to me on more than one occasion. She said she was so happy for us. Jen was not pregnant, and in fact, later on had an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured and ruined her chances of having another baby. She cherished her first son, Anthony. Jen was always in pain even then, but you’d never know it. She had a plate in her neck, was severely asthmatic, diabetic, and at one point walking down the street in San Francisco, fell through a grate in the sidewalk and did severe damage to her right leg.

It was one thing after another for what seemed like her entire life.

When Jen was initially diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and treated, she fell off the map at work into 6 months of leave. The intense chemotherapy at it’s worst almost killed her and then forced her into early onset menopause. She emerged from that experience with severe depression. She used to visit me in my office a few times a week to share her feelings. One day she told me she and her husband drove by a cemetery and she found herself wishing she were in it. She and I navigated our way through that predicament together and she got the help she needed to keep on keeping on. The good news is that her lymphoma went into remission and, over time, she felt better.
Shining Jen
When my family and I decided to leave California and move to Connecticut, the hardest part was telling Jen. At that point, she had visited Ammachi in San Ramon once, and discovered her love of the Divine Mother. For those of you who don’t know, Ammachi is a living Hindu saint, also called The Hugging Saint, and is considered a living incarnation of the divine mother by her “children”. I’ve been to see Ammachi many times, and have experienced her hug, and can testify that it is a profound spiritual experience. As Jen struggled with her recovery, however, she projected much of her need for the goddess on to me. This was something I was acutely aware and very respectful of. In fact, it was something I’d done years ago to another friend with disastrous results. It was an immense responsibility true, but I understood the delicacy of it. Telling Jen we were leaving was difficult, but we kept in very close contact over the phone and through email.

I was in close contact with Jen when she made the decision to have gastric by-pass surgery. We spent hours on the phone talking about her difficulties at work. In fact, it was shortly after I left PwC that I understood the firm announced a(nother) series of layoffs in administration, specifically the department Jen worked in, and then ironically, only let Jen go.

Just when her insurance costs reached an all time high.

Thereafter, Jen discovered she needed a full hysterectomy. At least I think that’s how the timeline went. It is hard to tell what happened when. The economy was descending into the toilet at the same time the real estate market was crashing, and my family and I were miserable in Connecticut, but Jen had bigger problems. She’d been layed off from work, was a huge insurance risk, and had endured a series of major surgeries in a short time period.

In 2008, Jen’s lymphoma re-emerged and she made the decision to undergo bone marrow and stem cell transplantation (read more at this link). It was a high risk procedure at UCSF that would take almost a year, eradicate her immune system, and hopefully jump start it again. It wasn’t the needles that worried Jen the most, almost she despised them, and it wasn’t the pain. She hated the thought of being isolated. At one point, she would have no immunities and would be unable to interact with other people. They talked about keeping her in the hospital, but through the process, she was able to go home, where her dogs waited mournfully for her. She lost all her hair, again, was sick and weak, again, but in the end, the non-Hodgkin’s went back into remission.
Self-Portrait by Jen
About a year ago, Elizabeth, Leslie and I met Jen at The Olive Garden. Parking was easy, which meant Jen didn’t have to walk far, and there was a room in the back where we could eat without being part of a crowd. I hadn’t seen Jen in over a year, and she looked like a different person. She was so tiny, and with no facial hair, she looked new born. She seemed chilly the whole time, too. She only ate a tiny bit, which was all she could ever eat. Less than twenty minutes into lunch, she had Leslie laughing so hard I thought she would pee right there in the chair. And she and Elizabeth were deeply into analyzing her iPhone, which Elizabeth drooled over with no inhibition.

Jen is dying.

About six months ago, Jen’s immune system failed. The transplanted marrow stopped working. Shortly thereafter, she developed a fungal infection in the lungs, part of chronic lung damage caused by intensive chemo. She was in and out of the hospital once per month from July 2009 forward. Each time she was admitted, she stayed a little longer and got a little weaker. The last time she went in, after contracting H1N1, they kept her in pulmonary ICU. That was over a month ago.

About a week and a half ago, her son called me. It was Wednesday. Jen suddenly had to be intubated. The inside of her lungs had become like broken glass, and only the tiniest portion of one lung was working. She wasn’t oxygenating. The doctor’s sought a last ditch effort at healing, and to do it she needed to be fully sedated. The last thing Jen wanted to see before she went under was the ultrasound picture of her grandbaby, Anthony’s unborn child, which was taken just the day before.

Leslie, Elizabeth and I went to see Jen that evening. Her family was there, all of them. Her husband, tired and sad, never left her bedside and kept stroking her forehead. Her mother seemed heartbroken. It was so poignant knowing that her mother watched her beloved child fade from this world; yet at the same time, there was a brand new baby being created in the womb of Anthony’s wife. The circle of life was right there, right in my face, and it was dizzying.

My relationship with Jen was much like a mentorship, but through it she was ever a good friend. She supported my art, even when I was squeamish about launching it. She always asked how my family was, and never forgot birthdays. You would think that after all she had suffered, she would have every excuse to be bitter, yet she never was. She and I are both daughters of the Goddess, and share a deep love of the Divine Mother. When Jen went to see Ammachi, however, I don’t think she got the answer she needed. She asked why? Why the cancer? Why me? I don’t know that Jen had a chance to come to terms with having a chronic illness before she was sedated, either.

Jen and Gregor

Watching Jen there in the hospital bed, on the precipice of eternity, disturbs me. I know she signed up for the treatment she endured, and I know she was afraid to die, but I have a hard time seeing the humanity in sedation and intubation for what seems like experimental purposes. Her family has been on an emotional roller coaster, a death watch, for over a week. I can only imagine how exhausted they must feel, even though Leslie and I went through a bit of it ourselves when her mother died in 1995, and even though I know it’s the right thing to do. Then again, if I ever have cancer, wouldn’t I be thankful for that kind of courage should it benefit my circumstances?

I am a daughter of the Goddess. That is where the heart of my spirituality lies. I believe in reincarnation, as well. There are some that believe we actually pick our lives to learn certain karmic lessons. That rings true to me, but I can’t help but wonder what soul would willingly pick a lifetime of suffering, the kind of life that Jen lives with courage and determination. Indeed, where there is faith in our lives, suffering brings us closer to God. But still … no matter what the reason, or what the faith, it is difficult to watch Jen laying there in the hospital bed with the inevitable end of her suffering drawn out for any reason.

Today Jen’s family met with the doctors. They tried their last ditch treatments this week and have nothing left to do. Jen remains intubated and sedated, but her blood pressure is falling. She has perhaps days to live before crossing over.

So much of this leaves me with unanswered questions, but I do know this: When Jen dies, she will pass into the warmest embrace ever. The embrace of the Divine Mother who loves her unconditionally, unfailingly, and forever and who will bear her aloft to the next adventure whatever and wherever that is.

Perhaps she will watch over us all …

… an angel, at long last.

Go with the Goddess, my dear friend.

I will miss you when you’re gone.


lambsios said...

Dear Donna,
Your post on your friend Jen moved me immensely - so full of wisdom & compassion. It made me sad but also uplifted at the same time. I'll be thinking of you & your friend during this difficult time.
Lambi xxx

Norn Cutson said...

oh Donna.
Thank you for sharing Jen & this experience with us.
You have been a wonderful friend & support for Jen; it sounds like you made each other's lives brighter & funnier.
all blessings to Jen's family & the Fabers as well.

Donna L. Faber said...

Thanks, you guys ... I'm still processing this experience and thinking about all the things Jen taught me.


Anonymous said...

Donna, thank you very much for sharing your relationship with Jen. She has been a part of my life since the first day we started working together. She's been much in my thoughts, and I miss her. My thoughts are also with you and all the people who love her.

With love,


Donna L. Faber said...

Hi, Marina ...

Thanks for stopping by. Jen had nothing but wonderful things to say about you always. You were always a part of her good work experience.


Sandy Smith said...

I have known and worked with Jenny for many years. I was just thinking yesterday, January 10, 2010, that I had not heard from her for a long time, which is not like Jenny. I sent her an email from work and then received this beautifully written essay from you the next day. We were all blessed to know Jenny even if it was only through PwC. She is always in my thoughts.

Donna L. Faber said...

Hi Sandy ... when I was in Connecticut, Jenny always helped me keep tabs on how you were doing. She spoke always highly of you, and appreciated your friendship.

Take care.


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