by Henry Briggs
I am writing this story on Jenna’s 73rd birthday, but it’s not about the gifts she received. It’s about the gifts she gave to two very lucky people.
The story starts last August, at a sprawling house on the Hudson River. A woman with a high-pressure job is visiting her mother and step-father. She sees him wandering the house, sighing.
He has just learned that his ex-wife, Jenna, has cancer. Incurable cancer. Because he is a retired doctor, the woman doesn’t try to ease his anxiety by questioning the “incurable” part. Instead she asks about the path cancer takes when it takes someone down. He describes “Loop Ileostomy Surgery” and colostomy bags, unpredictable medical costs, pain and hospice services.
She knows of Jenna, who had once acted on and off Broadway, but like most in that career, was not wealthy. So after the divorce, she tried other careers; she even started a doll-making company, but that failed, too. Now, like many older people with few means, she lives, without complaint, in a rented room, supported by Social Security and food stamps.
Jenna is in a short-term post-surgery rehab but can’t go back to her room because there is no one to nurse her, much less help her with the stairs.
“What am I doing?” he says to no one. “I don’t know where she’ll live, how she’ll survive.”
There is a brother, a Vietnam vet, but he and his wife work full time while caring for his dementia-ridden mother-in-law. There is a son, who is married with three children in a 5,000-square-foot house, but he has been silent about helping.
Pretty grim story, huh?
The woman walks outside to her mother.
“I’m taking care of Jenna,” she says. “She’s moving to my house.”
Her mother and stepfather point out the obvious: she’s never even seen a colostomy bag, much less emptied one; she travels extensively for her job, and she’s volunteering to see and feel a lot of pain. The stepfather and brother thank her profusely. They and the son insist on paying for any medical or hospice services.
She picks up Jenna on Sept. 3. Instead of just being grim, the next three months are also fun. They play Cole Porter CDs, and Jenna sings. They talk. They watch movies, like “Showboat” and “All About Eve.”
“Adam Sandler’s ‘You Don’t Mess With the Zohan’ made her laugh so hard!” she says, also laughing.
They dance – sort of.
“Walkers aren’t called walkers for nothing.”
She and Jenna “YouTube” how to change a “colostomy apparatus.” She laughs at the memory.
“You should have seen us!”
She asks her son, who is at college 45 minutes away, if he’ll help when she travels.
And he, too, masters the 30-minute colostomy procedure.
“Jenna had never had a dog,” she says. “From that first day, my Huskie never left her side.”
Over the next three months, the 72-year-old and 49-year-old talk about everything from religion to politics to dogs and kids to acting and singing. There is caretaking and mentoring. There is pain but also a unique connection. The brother calls every day.
As Jenna fades, the woman lifts her in and out of bed, spoon feeds her, carries her to and from the bathroom. But cancer’s path is unaffected.
“When I asked to give her morphine she said ‘I’m not going to spend my last days on drugs,’” says the woman. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“Eventually I got tougher and convinced her, which made those last days easier.”
Where were the promised hospice nurses and services?
“Medicare only provides five hours a week for the last few weeks,” she says. “My son and I did the rest.”
“He paid for medical costs and a nurse for part of the last few days.”
The stepfather, the son?
“I don’t want any hard feelings.”
Jenna leaves her cancer the Monday before Thanksgiving. And the gifts?
“I knew there would be pain, but I didn’t expect so much laughter, her life stories, her wisdom. I learned so much about her, about me, about friendship, about the man my son will be.”
She stops for a moment.
“About what elders have to give us if we’d just let them. About what family should be – but isn’t – in this country.”
Yesterday, over 60 people attended a celebration of Jenna’s life, then went back to their lives. Today, Jenna’s 73rd birthday, the woman and her son celebrate their own lives, too, forever changed because of Jenna’s gifts.
Henry Briggs, a Malvern resident and former TV producer in Philadelphia, writes freelance articles for local publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org