|June and Jen. Before cancer. Before coma. Spring, 2006.|
“Something terrible has happened to Jenny,” Michael said, plopping down on the bed beside me and opening his computer. My heart slowed in that horrible thudding way it does when you hear terrible news. My mind darted desperately about, imaging what might have happened to Jennifer. I’d received an email from her a day earlier. She’d written happily, and funnily, about applying to a graduate program in creative writing. Her health was sterling, from regular swims and walks with her dog, Stella. A car wreck? No. I remembered that her husband Joe had insisted on Jennifer driving an industrial strength SUV. I thought of Jenny’s daughters, Sophie and Tessa, “the bunnies” she calls them. But it was Jenny. He said Jenny. And then he read aloud from an email from Key West in which we learned that Jennifer had collapsed at her home as a result of what appeared to be a brain bleed. She’d been flown to Miami. She was in a coma.
It’s a silly term, best friend. But Jen and I are each others' best friend. Her daughters call us “BFFs”, best friends forever, I think that means. Recently someone asked us, “how are you two related?” Jennifer thought for a minute and answered, “We’re related . . . but not by blood.” When Jennifer took me to my chemo and radiation treatments, people thought she was my daughter. And she could be, as she is nearly twenty years younger than I. I love her as if she were my daughter. She calls me “Mama” and I often sign off my emails to her as “your fairy godmother.” She’d even promised to take care of me when I am old.
“That old woman there?” she’d say, laughingly imaging a time in the future. “That used to be June Keith.”
And we’d laugh, because we always laugh. We share a sense of the absurd, of the sweet insanity of life on this earth. Jennifer knows my weaknesses and my strengths; I like to think I know hers, too. True friendship, they say, is loving another in spite of what you know about them. It’s a true friendship.
One day I introduced Jennifer, a uniquely intelligent person, to Joe, a man I sensed to be of the same beautiful brilliance. They fell in love. They married. They moved to a house in new town. Things changed.
“I’m glad you two are so happy,” I teased them, “but I’ve lost my best friend!”
It is unclear just what happened to Jennifer’s brain on that day, just as the brain’s myriad functions are largely a mystery. She was preparing dinner when she announced that she was having the worst headache of her life. She collapsed. Fortunately Joe was at home—what if he hadn’t been there when she lost consciousness? But he was there. Against all odds, Jennifer made it to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami. She survived two surgeries that night. And then, a coma.
A person in a coma appears to be dead, but for the gentle in and out of the breath. Nothing moves. It is a state of suspended animation, a profoundly disturbing thing to witness. As she lay there, her serene beauty utterly still, I thought of a thousand conversations we’d had, the many what-if’s we’d explored together. One thing we’d never considered was this. Never anything like this.
As the months went by, and Jennifer’s coma continued, friends urged me to come to terms with the idea of her being gone.
“But she moves her eyes,” I said.
“Only reflex,” people said.
“She yawns,” I said.
“Reflex,” I was told.
Joe never gave up, and being a physician, a psychiatrist, he knew as well or better than any of us the gravity of the situation. But Joe believed in Jennifer’s power to recover. If she’d given up, he said, she would have died at the beginning. She wanted to live, he told us. She was fighting to live. It might take a very long time, he said, but she would heal. She would be back, he promised.
For months I cried at the thought of her. People wanted to know how she was. I had nothing to tell them, but that we hoped she’d regain consciousness soon. Michael and I cried together, and he always said “she was such a great mother,” and I’d admonish him to rephrase that to “she IS such a great mother.”
We ached for Jenny’s daughters, beautiful babies we’d known since the days of their births. The bunnies.
“They must know something we don’t,” the bunnies’ father told me one day. “They are confident she’ll get better and come home.”
I read everything I could about comas. Everything. I learned that when a coma lasts for longer than four months, it is most likely to be permanent. Doctors and nurses I know well gently urged me to face the fact that Jennifer was gone. And so, as Jennifer’s birthday approached, I began the process of grieving the loss of her.
And then, she woke up.