Have you ever met a person who was a gift?
Last week, I had to deal with the loss a walking buddy. Brain cancer stole her from life. Her name was Janet.
We began as acquaintances in the neighborhood a decade of years ago, occasionally bumping into each other while walking our dogs in the park. It was instantly comfortable. We walked and talked with a flow and rhythm that even the dogs seemed to enjoy.
Finding conversational common ground as dog owners, we humorously analyzed the latest episodes of a popular canine psychology show – “the dog whisperer.” We began to devise silly ways to get the star of the show – Cesar Milan – to come to our homes and help us work out the troublesome kinks in the behaviors of our canine kids. I met my match when it came to imagining the absurd and silly. Janet could follow a pretend trail with her sense of humor like a mountain sherpa. Navigating twists and turns of a made up story with sure footed hilarity, we spent lots of time laughing and dreaming up the chaos poor Cesar would encounter – if ever he did show up.
As the years went on, I saw Janet less and less with her dog. Sometimes I would catch her taking out the garbage or weeding in her back garden. After a quick hello, she would stop what she was doing and come out to share a short, cheerful story about a zany situation in her life. Her vignettes always made me laugh! She crafted them in just the right way and her eyes would twinkle with satisfaction when I pealed with an uncontrollable outburst of laughter.
Janet was always in good spirits. She was forever grateful for the nice day. Always. Even on the days when the weather was less than perfect. In one particular afternoon chat, about three years ago, she took me by surprise, informing me she was living with a brain tumor. What?!!! I was speechless. She was my same age, looked incredibly healthy, and was amazingly… mentally agile. She hadn’t been walking her dog as much because she was saving all her strength to fight the tumor. So far, therapy had exiled it into remission.
Last fall, Janet became part of my little neighborhood walking group. She decided regular walking would be a good way for her to relieve some stress. I was so happy because she was always fun to talk to, never a complaint in her speech, just a wacky outlook on the challenges of life. One day she let it slip that she was having some tingling on the side of her face. After a nail biting doctor visit, the diagnosis revealed a new tumor had taken up residence in her head. Crap.
Janet continued to walk in spite of the news. On most days she walked four (laughter infused) miles with us. She shared her experiences in a ‘comedy of cancer’ sort of way; giving out the humorous side of what she was going through – the experimental proton therapy, the chemo treatment, and how it was now the new unavoidable regimen in her life. I was humbled by her peaceful acceptance of all. Steeling herself up for another round of treatments she unwaveringly maintained a laser sharp focus on the shortest path to a good laugh, no matter how trying the situation. She kept us comfortable with stories about eating so many pumpkin pancakes that one day she thought she broke the proton machine. She never wanted us to feel sorry for her, she only wanted us to understand she was at peace with all of this, and she needed to keep moving, continually replenishing the laughter in her spirit.
When they found the first tumor, they said she had about a year to live. She was very proud because she had survived almost six years past the original prediction by participating in an experimental study. She let us know – it’s hard work fighting a tumor. A battle that requires superhuman feats of strength and dedication. But now, this new tumor felt different. As we loped and looped around the park, she seemed pretty sure her time had run out. We only listened and tried to stay hopeful. Within a couple of weeks, her energy stores were getting more and more limited. With the thought of a harsh Chicago winter around the corner, she chose to stop walking. She needed to conserve her strength. By the time the snow had melted and people were outside again, there was talk that Janet was in hospice.
Last week, news made it to my door that Janet was done fighting. As I searched the internet for an obituary, I somehow landed on the meaning of the name Janet – “Gracious gift.” Wow! She was, she really was. She was the gift of a happy, fun, humorous, caring, positive, loving person and I will miss her. She taught me to be grateful always for the day, no matter what the weather. With her gracious presence, her good humor and those twinkling eyes she never allowed anxiety or fear to get the best of her! What a special gift to share.
Sandwiched in between all of the beautiful pictures displayed at her memorial, I found a favorite quote of hers…
Don’t cry because it’s over – smile because it happened. Dr. Seuss
I had to suppress a tiny chuckle. Of course it was a quote from Dr. Seuss! Of course it was! How appropriate – in typical Janet fashion she made me smile, she made me comfortable during a difficult time. Even as she departs this physical realm – she finds a way to continue to be gracious and always giving! That is sooo Janet!
Her spirit will forever be in every walk I take. She is my walktalk gift!