Our guest author this week is Lisa Reynolds-Jones. Lisa writes about her friend Jenny, who died in 2007. When she first wrote to me to outline Jenny’s story she said that she wanted to die on her own terms: “Dying with dignity was what Jenny wanted – no fuss, no drama, no pain.”
by Lisa Reynolds-Jones
“I don’t know if I can do this again.”
The dreaded “C” word was back in Jenny’s life.
“Brain cancer,” she shook her head. “I still can’t believe it.”
Jenny stopped pacing and sat down beside me on her hospital bed. “I start radiation soon.” She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and handed me a folded piece of paper. “They gave me this.”
It was a list of side effects. Fatigue, skin reactions, hair loss, bone marrow suppression…
When I finished reading it, she tossed it on the bed behind us.
“I’m having my head shaved tomorrow.”
My eyes skimmed over the thick mass of dark curls that fell below her shoulders.
She ran her hand through it. “I don’t want to find clumps of hair on my pillow.”
I was at a loss for words.
Jenny pointed to a hospital gown folded on a side table. “It’s like wearing their pajamas. I’ll feel sicker if I do.”
I tried to understand her logic. Clothing had always had an impact on her moods, but would wearing the hospital gown be such an issue when her symptoms escalated?
Receiving radiation therapy took its toll on Jenny as did her seizure medication. She lay in bed, cranky, lightheaded, and weak. Yet, despite her condition, friends and relatives continued to trickle in; their motives questionable.
They don’t fool me,” Jenny said as she picked fluff off her robe, her street clothes long packed away.
She gave me a pained look. “Would you believe Mary asked me how long I have to live?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “What about Frank?” Her ex-husband’s presence put me on edge.
“He says he’s left me everything.”
I frowned. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, he wants me to change my will.”
Jenny broke eye contact. “After the radiation is done I’ll be starting chemo.”
I knew chemotherapy was not going to save her life but I would never say it.
The next day, Jenny’s sister Stacy took me aside before I had a chance to visit.
“I need to talk to you.” She grabbed my arm, pulling me towards a quiet corner. She stopped abruptly and looked at me with sad eyes. “Jenny’s afraid she’ll catch something from you.”
My mouth gaped open. Jenny had three brain tumours and a mass on her lungs. What on earth could she catch from me?
“She said you’re around children all day; children and their germs.”
I wanted to argue but couldn’t. My suggestion to wear a mask had already been shot down. It didn’t seem fair that Frank and the others could visit her but not me. Jenny was my friend. I wanted to be with her.
Two weeks later, I received the call from Stacy.
“She wants to see you.”
I clung to the phone. “I’m still teaching.”
“She said for you to come. The cancer has spread. It’s now in her spine.”
I knew what that meant.
Hours later, I stood outside Jenny’s room with her ex-boyfriend, Shawn.
I nodded, too upset to speak.
When I walked into Jenny’s room, she was lying on her back. Her yellow complexion and sunken cheeks had transformed her beautiful face into a hollow shell. She looked at me through narrow slits.
“I’m sorry. I was afraid – children and their germs – runny noses…” her voice trailed off.
“No worries, I’m here now.” I adjusted her pillows and covered her cold arms with a blanket.
Once her eyes were closed, I choked back a sob. Guilt ate at me. I thought of the times I could have taken her calls but didn’t. I had been too caught up in my own world with my own issues. I was ashamed for wasting precious time, time I could have spent with her.
Oh how I hated the “C” word. It had already taken two close friends and it had almost taken my mother’s life. I didn’t want cancer to touch one more person I loved; not one more person period.
Over the next few days, I rarely left Jenny’s side, sleeping in a chair by her hospital bed. She was fading fast but chose not to vocalize her fears. Instead, she fought quietly in her own way; while her doctors watched on, never giving false hope.
On the morning Jenny took her last breath, I stood beside her, my rosary clutched in my hand. I had said my goodbyes to her several times before, always when we were alone. There was no need for me to fawn over her now, especially not in the presence of others. It wasn’t my way and it wasn’t what she would have wanted.
Shawn leaned over her, positioning one arm above her pillow, the other holding her in a gentle embrace. Despite his nearness, Jenny called out his name over and over again, “Shawn, Shawn.”
“I’m here.” He stroked her face, her arms, anywhere he could reach.
Jenny held on, her breathing shallow.
“It’s ok to let go,” he said.
She laid back, her eyes wide. Seconds later, she was gone.
I sat there, staring at her for some time. Jenny had chosen to be optimistic despite her fears. She did not simply surrender to cancer but fought it despite her doctors’ suggestions that she yield and accept her fate. And when she was ready, she died in the arms of a man who loved her.
There is no doubt that cancer has the ability to take lives but Jenny’s experience has taught me that dying with dignity is still possible.
About the author:
Lisa Reynolds-Jones is a proud member of the Writing Community of Durham Region. She is an active member of the Upwords Writing Circle and the AKA Online Writing Critique Group. She regularly attends WCDR events and Writescape Retreats.
Lisa often writes about love, loss and survival. In 2015, she won a WCDR grant for her story, Family Ties.