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Memory Eternal Jennifer (11-12-1966 – 3-29-2011) Part I/II

Posted on: December 11, 2011

Before 3-29-2011, I thought I understood grief. I have longed for and missed those who have passed on before me. I have grieved situations and opportunities. But I have never faced grief the way I have since losing my dear friend. I walked “through the valley of the shadow of death” with Jennifer. It’s a bond I’ve never experienced. I am so blessed that I was her friend and I am honored I was the one who did go into the dark valley with her.

In the late Summer, Jennifer and I met at our children’s dance studio. Jennifer and her husband and girls had moved recently from the Chicago Suburbs. We quickly engaged. We were both friendly, outgoing and enjoyed totally random conversation. Jennifer’s daughter, Zoe, was fourteen days older than Ethan. They quickly bonded at the age of 2 1/2.  Ethan and I then saw Zoe and Jennifer a few weeks later at gymnastics during the class of our youngest children. It was a beginning of a unique friendship and a journey that has both blessed and grieved me.

Jennifer started bringing me coffee on the mornings of early gymnastics. It was the beginning of many coffee hours. It was the beginning of a forever friendship.

Our youngest children quickly became soul mates.

Ethan and Zoe

The soul mate deal was sealed when they both arrived to gymnastics class on Halloween 2004 dressed as Thomas the Tank Engine. I have to dig to find those pictures but the image of them laughing and giggling and hugging each other is forever imprinted in my memory and heart.

Jennifer’s oldest daughter (six months older than my oldest daughter, Katyana)  befriended both of  my two daughters and we all became like family; Jennifer being the older sister I never had and I being the younger sister she never had. Our kids treated each other like cousins excepting Ethan and Zoe. The connection between those two is something I’ve never seen. It’s beautiful. It’s intense. It’s unique.

Zoe made this for Ethan the summer I started taking Jennifer to Nashville for the clinical trials.

Zoe wrote this for Ethan on that summer of 2010; the happiest summer of my life.

Ethan and Zoe January 2011

River Rampage with Jennifer and Girls

Because Jennifer’s husband worked long hours, Jennifer was often a solo parent like me. We realized we had similar parenting styles, micro-managed much too often, and both enjoyed our children immensely. We spent summer days in activities involved with our children. We’d build sandcastles and play in the water at the Cove. I endlessly and unsuccessfully tried to teach Jennifer to dive off the diving board (although I was more successful with her daughters) at Crestwood Pool or at her pool, Fox Den. We’d spend long summer days at Splash Country enjoying the thrill of the water rides and the relaxation of the lazy river. We loved Mexican food and would often end our days at a local, hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant enjoying the food, the beer, and the children’s laughter. As our children grew older and didn’t require our supervision at their activities, we’d use that time to meet for “coffee.”  We spent some special holidays and vacation time together.

In March of 2008, Jennifer found a lump while she was away on vacation with her family.She had it checked and it was breast cancer. She immediately began the chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Her hair fell out according to schedule. She underwent a mastectomy five months later. She had a fighting spirit and was back to work one week later. Until she was forced to resign at the end of 2009, she had only missed less than two weeks of work while fighting cancer.

Even though activities and school (Ethan homeschools; Zoe attends a private Catholic school) sent Ethan and Zoe in different directions through the years, their relationship continued to grow. They spoke their own language, passed words without speaking. Each knew when to be serious or when to be humorous. I still marvel at their relationship. It’s intense but so innocent. I will never forget sitting on my back porch while Jennifer and the girls were over. Ethan and Zoe came to us very seriously and asked if they could get married in middle school. After we both said no, they plead their case for high school. We still said no. Neither child was very happy with their mothers. This became an ongoing discussion through the years. I’ll never forget when Zoe and Ethan planned where they would live (Hawaii), how many children they would have (many – adopted and birth children) and who would be their children’s nannies (Jennifer and me).

Our families continued to connect and make fun memories spending time together like the pictures you can see here of Dollywood January of 2009.

Jennifer was deemed cancer-free by her oncologist fifteen months after her diagnosis. That summer in 2009, my kids and I spent the summer in New Mexico for my 20th High School Reunion. My cell phone didn’t receive calls well and I missed several from Jennifer. I called her back one Friday night on the way to meet a childhood friend for a “Ladies Night Out.” Mark, Jennifer’s husband, answered and told me some very life changing news. The cancer was back and had spread into Jennifer’s lymph nodes and was spreading to other organs. Jennifer’s oncologist at that time gave Jennifer six months to live. Her doctor advised her to quit work and to spend as much time with her daughters and family.  Her new diagnosis was Stage IV Metastatic Triple Negative Chemo-Resistant Breast Cancer.

I pulled my car over in the dirt next to the tiny Los Alamos airport and I started crying. I couldn’t stop. It was the worst news I had ever received. I became so angry I was in New Mexico and couldn’t be in Tennessee with her and her girls. But I pushed myself to meet my friends and it was great therapy. When I arrived and tried to back out, they convinced me to stay. We went to a movie and I laughed so hard. I went back to my parents home and cried myself to sleep.

My mom, the kids, and I arrived back in Knoxville in August. I don’t remember the first time I saw Jennifer upon my return. I remember many phone calls and being so cautious about what to say. I didn’t want to bring up anything that Jennifer didn’t want to discuss. Mutual friends advised not talking to Jennifer about her illness, but told me to keep discussions light and to  re-focus the conversation when she began talking about the possibility of not winning the fight.

My attitude towards Jennifer changed in September. I had a life crisis of my own and called out to Jennifer, my closest friend, for support. I was criticized by mutual friends for involving her. Jennifer, however, emphatically thanked me. She was so grateful to be concerned about the well-being of someone other than herself. Our relationship changed that week. We became real with each other. I was no longer scared to bring up a subject that I thought would cause her sorrow. She became real with me. She no longer kept secret her fears of dying and what it would be like for her daughters to lose their mom.

Jennifer applied for clinical trials during the Fall of 2009. She was told her cancer hadn’t progressed far enough to be considered for the PARP Inhibitor clinical trial in spite of being told she only had six months to live and having cancer throughout her lymph nodes and in her lungs. The mass wasn’t large enough. She continued in local treatments. I felt helpless. I made myself available for assistance with childcare, transportation, talking on the phone. But it felt like nothing. My friend was in the fight for her life and I felt like a paralyzed bystander.

During the winter and spring of 2010, we continued our weekly “coffee” meetings while our children danced. We talked about the hard subjects, subjects that were new to us both; subjects that felt surreal. I embraced the time we spent together. I knew the time was short even though we both remained positive that somehow she would overcome the odds. We drank our adult beverages at a Market Square Pub before going and being seated next to each other at the Tennessee Theatre where we watched our children perform. We took our families to the celebratory, traditional dinner at Calhouns on the River where our children wore their dance costumes. I was so thankful that God had given her more time that the doctor’s prediction. Jennifer was told she had six months in August 2009. It was now May 2010. We celebrated and happily. My children and I didn’t take it for granted that we spent that night together with her family keeping tradition. We were all very aware it could be the last.

Jennifer’s cancer continued to spread and her mass in her lungs had grown to the size appropriate for the clinical trial in Georgia. Jennifer re-applied to the initial PARP Inhibitor clinical trial, which she was informed had closed. Her husband researched other trials and found another clinical trial through the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center in Nashville, TN (six hours round trip driving time providing that there were no accidents or construction). She applied in May and was accepted finally in the later part of June. Her clinical trial consisted of receiving the Parp Inhibitor trial drug on one day and then another round of chemo three days following. Initially, it was planned that she was going to stay at an extended stay hotel between the days of treatment. But that never resonated well with me. She didn’t know how much time she had left with her family. I talked with my kids and with other friends who became my lifeline, my family’s village. My friends volunteered to  take turns watching my children so I could take Jennifer to and from Nashville on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Fox Den Country Club allowed my children to swim for the Fox Den swim team so my children and Jennifer’s children could be together that summer so I could watch all five children on the days Jennifer felt ill and for the ease of finding a sitter for all five children when needed.

A new journey began. Jennifer and I traveled to and from Nashville, TN, more than twenty-two times, staying overnight on five occasions. Jennifer’s sister (who lived out-of-state) and other friends took her a few times to relieve me. My kids were so supportive. It was the first time I was able to leave my children and not suffer repercussions due to their issues of abandonment that continued from their early childhood before they came to live with me. My awesome village took such great care of my kids, helping them with homeschooling projects and providing for them.

On the second trip to Nashville, I received a phone call just as Jennifer and I had arrived at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center. It was from one of my good friends with whom Ethan was staying. She told me that somehow Ethan’s foot and the antennae of a radio control car had collided and that the metal was pushed deep into Ethan’s skin. He needed to go to the Emergency Room. It would have been very difficult for my friend, Carrie, to take her five children and attend to Ethan at the Emergency Room. I called around hoping another friend would be available but to no avail. I then called our beloved Priest, Father Stephen, in hopes that he would know of someone who could help. I never imagined he would be the one to assist but he said he was available. Father Stephen met my son at the Emergency Room and my other friend was able to take her five children back home.

My fear was that Ethan would be severely traumatized by this incident and would never again allow me to leave. God took the bad situation and turned it into an adventure for Ethan. As reported to me by Father Stephen and Ethan, Father Stephen saw Ethan in the waiting room and immediately made a joke, telling him that Ethan’s toe was truly a TOE Truck (play on word, tow). Ethan, master of puns, started laughing. It broke the ice. The two started sharing “wound stories” the entire afternoon during x-rays, minor surgery, and stitches. Ethan and Father Stephen enjoyed each other’s company. Another member from our Parish was actually at the ER and Ethan enjoyed being a part of that random reunion.

All stitched up and happy, Father Stephen dropped off Ethan back at my friend’s home. All was good. When I picked up Ethan, he was very eager and excited to tell me about his adventure. God had the entire situation under control and Ethan was not traumatized in the least. Jennifer bought Ethan a real tow truck the following week and thanked him so much for allowing his mommy to help her get to and from Nashville.

My village continued helping, never complaining, and asked nothing in return. They all felt they were doing something to help Jennifer. I’ve learned how important it is to let people help. I’d felt so helpless watching Jennifer fight cancer but I finally felt useful. I know my other friends did as well. I still thank God for them.

Jennifer, waiting for labs to be drawn before infusions. Mobile phone pictures stink.

Jennifer and I had many of our own adventures in the Nashville hotels and at the Sarah Cannon Center’s waiting room, patient rooms, and the infusion room. We found that the trashy magazines re-focused our negative feelings and provided a silly outlet for us. We’d gossip about the celebrities’ fashion, lives, and we would gush over which guys were the hottest. We NEVER agreed on the same “hot” guy. We had such different tastes. We also played a lot of travel board games (except Monopoly. After one Monopoly game in Pigeon Forge, she said she’d never play Monopoly with me again) and a lot of Sudoku. We met people from all walks of life. We befriended the staff and learned about their personal lives. We read many books.

I knew Jennifer extremely well by this point. And I knew she needed to “KNOW” her schedule. However, clinical trials are not something that can be mapped out months in advance. After many attempts with the research nurse and scheduling, I was finally able to get an action plan. Jennifer said it was better than giving her a prescription of “Xanax”. It made both of our lives easier to schedule childcare for our children’s many activities now that school had started.

Even though I was spending so much time with a friend who was fighting death and encountering people weekly at the infusion center who were on death’s door, God sustained me through it all. In fact, looking back, it was truly the happiest summer of my life. You can read what I wrote about that summer here.

About every six weeks, Jennifer had a CT scan with contrast. She was doing well until 10-12-2010. Her cancer had progressed. I kept the notes.

 Notes from visit with Dr. Yardley at the Sarah Cannon Center on 10-12-2010

  • Blood Work: Jennifer’s labs looked good. Her platelet, white blood cell counts, and the red blood cell counts were all increased.
  • Blood Work: Jennifer’s labs looked good. Her platelet, white blood cell counts, and the red blood cell counts were all increased.
  • Blood Pressure: Jennifer’s blood pressure was the best ever… 134/84.
  • CT SCAN: Jennifer’s scan showed progression of cancer. The lymph node masses in her bronchi increased and appears to be compressing the middle lobe of Jennifer’s bronchial tube which has collapsed the middle part of the lung. A new lymph node has appeared near the left shoulder/collar bone. Due to this “significant change which demonstrates a developing resistance to current treatment,” the PARP clinical trial is considered as failed.
  • However, there are still other clinical trials.
  • Plan:
  • 1. Refer Jennifer to a local (Knoxville) Pulmonolgist for a procedure known as a bronchoscopy.
  • 2. Get Jennifer to sign consent for the original tumor to be tested to see if it is a positive protein match for a new clinical trial, CDX011 – one infusion given every three weeks. (Consent was signed today on 10-12-2010)
  • 3. While the tumor is being tested, Jennifer needs have to the bronchoscopy procedure and can be in touch with Dr. Yardley as often as needed.
  • 4. In approximately two weeks (depending on progress of tumor tests and bronchoscopy), meet again with Dr. Yardley in Nashville to sign consent for the CDX011 trial (if a positive match) and if not a positive match, discuss and implement new plans of action.
  • 5. Jennifer needs to continue receiving her Procrit shot on Fridays at Dr. Ibach’s office. This shot will not be approved to be given before Friday.
  • 6. Follow plan for Lymphedema (appointment on 10-18-2010 in Knoxville).
  • If the clinical trial of CDX011 is not successful, then Jennifer will be eligible for a physician’s ordered chemo treatment plan and if that is unsuccessful, then she will be considered for the MEK Inhibitor Clinical Trial.
  • Dr. Yardley was positive. She stated, “I will fix this.” She will continue as Jennifer’s Oncologist, referring to Dr. Ibach for local tests and referrals.

This was a very difficult day. We went to dinner before driving back to Knoxville. Jennifer was so somber, so upset. ONLY with God’s grace, I remained positive. I read back the notes to her. We went over the  plan. A little more reassured with a list of what to do next, we drove back. Thankfully, my mom was in town taking care of my kids. I broke down and cried when I returned home, not the first time to cry on my pillow and definitely not the last.

10-17-2010 L-R Bottom: Katyana, Ethan, Grace, Sierra L-R Top: Noah, Zoe, Sydney

Ethan turned nine that following Sunday, 10-17-2010. Ethan wanted Jennifer and her girls to attend (ZOE) and two other good friends of mine, whose children were also good friends with Ethan. One family was unable to attend. Nana and Grammy were also in attendance much to Ethan’s delight. The kids had fun playing and surprising Ethan with a huge drawing on the drive way. The adults enjoyed talking. It was a great visit until Zoe’s foot was smashed by a teeter-totter. She had somehow caught her foot underneath the post and it sliced off the skin on the entire top of one side of her foot. Jennifer took Zoe to the Emergency Room and I ran to my room where I cried angry and bitter tears. If it had been any other child but Zoe, my reaction would have been less severe. But that anger  I was feeling turned to anger against the cancer that was killing my dearest friend.  That night I accepted the reality that Jennifer’s death was imminent and that, like Zoe’s foot, the future was ugly. I also felt so grieved for Zoe because she would most likely have a scar that would be a reminder of the last months of her mom’s life. I was able to gather my wits to finish the party but I went to bed very sorrowful that night. I was once again so thankful that my mom was visiting so she could distract my kids in my distraught.

I didn’t see Jennifer for a few weeks, which was unusual because we were both so used to seeing each other twice a week for at least 14 hours. Zoe couldn’t dance so I didn’t even see her at the studio. We did keep in contact by phone. Jennifer followed her “plan”; had the local tests and was finishing up everything required for her next clinical trial.

We went back to the Nashville on November 9th, 2010, as all of Jennifer’s “criteria” had been met for the new CDX-011 Clinical Trial. We were both so nervous. Clinical Trials are random selection. We both knew Jennifer HAD to be in this trial. But Jennifer’s history with clinical trials in the past had been negative. We waited anxiously for hours, playing her travel games, while we waited to see the research nurse and then the doctor. They sent her name into the study and after two more hours of waiting, we got the news she had been accepted. SHE WAS ACCEPTED! We both screamed. And then we cried happy tears.

This post will be continued at a later date. It’s so hard to write about the following events. But I leave you with two amazing songs that have really meant something to me since her death. Listen to the song Evanescence “My Immortal” here and watch Amy Grant Video “More Than a Hallelujah”. And Amy Grant sang “More Than a Hallelujah” at a concert Sydney and I attended. It was amazing. And yes, I cried buckets of tears… every tear that HE holds in His hand.

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5 Responses to "Memory Eternal Jennifer (11-12-1966 – 3-29-2011) Part I/II"

[…] I’ve written Part One of this journey and you can read part of that journey by clicking here. Part Two will come eventually.  Our last trip to Nashville was December 2010. My dear friend died […]

[…] to say farewell to our faithful and loyal dog, Moose. He was a gift from my dear sister-friend, Jennifer, several years ago. He’s been such a good dog but he will not enjoy our new life. He needs a […]

[…] friends who are family in Scottsdale, AZ, doing FABULOUS. He was a special gift given to me by my sister-friend, Jennifer, who passed away eight days shy of a year ago after a long battle with metastatic breast cancer. […]

[…] I hated forty because my precious sister-friend died. There is just so much grief that lingered for so long. I still miss her. If you haven’t read that journey, you can read it by clicking on here. […]

[…] The first part of this story is here. […]

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