Thursday, January 10, 2013

Coma, Part 3

Jennifer: A very fun girlfriend.
My dear friend Jennifer turns 44 years old this month. But I’m not sure this birthday truly counts. She hasn’t been fully engaged in the activities of living for some time now. Over two years ago Jennifer suffered an aneurism in her brain. She survived, but was in a coma for a long, long time. We who love Jennifer waited for days, weeks and months to know if she would come back to us. And nearly five months later, just around the time of her January birthday, she opened her eyes, eyes that had last viewed a warm September evening in Key West. She knew us. She came back to smile and wave and do something I call the Jenny Shrug. I know this because Jennifer and I have spent countless hours talking about our lives, the lives of our children, and the meaning of it all. I know the precise hue of resignation the Jenny Shrug implies. When she did it again after five months in a Sleeping Beauty-like coma, I cried with relief to see her personality unmistakably present.

     But Jennifer cannot walk, and she loved to walk. She cannot swim, and she loved to swim. She cannot cook and she loved to cook. She cannot talk and she loved to talk. She cannot write for hours each day in her tiny, precise print journaling the nuances of her days like a miner panning for nuggets of gold, hiding in plain sight. Jennifer cannot dress her beautiful sleek body or drive her children to school. She is hostage to bed and chair. And house. Outside of her house there are germs and cars and curious eyes to be protected from. In the lovely, light-filled house she shares with her husband Joe and her daughters Sophie and Tessa there is comfort and safety.  There is shelter, too, for their big dog, and their books and their piano, their computers, their hopes and dreams. There is a perfect garden, too, where Jennifer toiled happily and often, nurturing her plants just as she so carefully nurtured her family and her work.
Jennifer: A wonderful mother.
     The last thing I heard from Jennifer, before IT happened, was an email in which she asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her grad school application. I was in Nova Scotia when I read it. Two days later, Jennifer was in Miami, in a trauma center, far from her safe place, entranced in the most awful kind of way.

     How in the world does this happen? How does a beautiful and stately and thoughtful woman, indeed a fine specimen of our species, suffer such a thing as a brain bleed? How does God let this horror befall a good Catholic woman, so deeply devout, when an ambulance approaches she pulls off the road to say a prayer for the suffering?  We were told there had been a malformation in her brain, and that it had been there, stealthy, like a ticking time bomb for all those years of her life. This is fantastically rare. This makes no sense at all. The weight of it, if you think about it long enough, can suffocate you. The injustice of it can make you angry as hell, and vengeful. But upon whom do you wreak your revenge? Who is to blame?
Jen & Fam:  Trick-or-Treating with Stella, the Dog
     I remember a time when we were in a motel in Ft. Lauderdale where we’d gone to escape a hurricane bearing down on Key West. For Jennifer’s little girls it was an adventure. One morning, before the sun was up, I heard the girls stirring. Jennifer was asleep. Tessa gently shook her mother’s shoulders, and asked her to read to them. And so Jennifer read the book as the two little girls snuggled against her, one on each side. I remember thinking at the time how extrodinarily patient she was, how giving, how kind, to immediately respond to her babies. In the same situation, I know I would have said to my own little one: “I will read later. When I wake up. When I pee. When I am ready.”

A favorite picture: Tessa and Michael Keith
     When I was very ill Jennifer often took me to the hospital for my treatments. Afterwards, woozy with shock and pain, I would climb back into the car, and immediately begin to chat, as if I didn’t have cancer, as if my life was not upside down. I'd try to say something funny, to make Jennifer laugh. And she would say: “June, you don’t have to talk.”  I remember the time that finally sank in, the cool, clean feeling of deflating, of surrendering that heavy burden of responsibility for keeping the world on its axis. And soon, I understood that with Jennifer, it was OK to be quiet with my suffering. And in the quiet we shared, there was a wordless and loving peace. I healed.

     The shock of witnessing a loved one dealing with brain injury is in many ways worse than losing a loved one to death. Jennifer is here, but not fully here. She is here in spirit, in intellect, but locked in a strangely abeyant state, like a broken doll. That I cannot wake her from this half-sleep, that we can’t talk deeply the way we used to, makes me crazy with anger and grief. And fear. And guilt. I should be there by Jenny’s side more often, I think. I should learn to better endure my pain, as she has learned to endure hers.
Jennifer calls her daughters "The Bunnies."

     Lately, I’ve been trying hard to work through my anguish and my grief over what has happened to Jennifer. When I imagine how it is for her daughters, for her husband, for her parents – for all the people who so love Jennifer – I am breathless with the agony.  The other day I recalled that long ago time when I was sick and she was well. I remembered what she said: “You don’t have to say anything.” And now I get it. Sometimes there is nothing to say. Or do. But be here now. Not waiting, but knowing, that healing will come.


  1. a beautiful and difficult tribute, June. thank you for your words. xo cricket

  2. Excruciating and also comforting, in the way you fathom the depth of who Jennifer is, her grace, her core of being, that even now, any who know, or knew her, can only surrender to this pain, that we feel, and yet, as I have realized before about her, she is teaching us something about who WE are and in our feeble and yet oblivious self, can only embrace. You have given voice to what I feel, and so many of her friends also feel, and have felt inadequate to express. Very eloquent, and also a beacon to help lead us to a greater comprehension of how precious life is. Thank you, June. -Michael Shields

    1. From the depths of my heart I thank you Michael. Jennifer's amazing grace graces us still. You said the same a long time ago and I kept that statement and turned it upside down and inside out to understand it since then. Thank you for loving Jennifer the way you do.

    2. Thank you, June, for sharing your perspective as someone who is so close to the real essence of who Jennifer is. Both Jennifer and you have given me another opportunity to pause and just be in the Mystery rather than demanding to know why...just be in that open heart space that Jennifer was always in when I was in her presence.
      "Another" June Babineau

  3. Jennifer is a gift to us all. Thank you for sharing this -- that is your gift to us and I'm so glad to be receiving it. I think Jennifer's gift is still being unwrapped... Maybe the Pollyanna in me but I feel that.