My cousin Jeannie was rushed to the hospital where they determined that her brain is filling up with blood. Jeannie is my cousin, but we were raised more as sisters because our mothers were two of triplets and were therefore inseparable for extended periods of time.
When I got the call, I had this flashback of Jeannie and me at 12 and 10 years old racing across a meadow on her horse Rusty, braids flying, the heat coming off Rusty’s unsaddled back -- entirely present in the moment.
A little about Jeannie: She was a nurse in the military and once delivered a baby in a helicopter over Guam. When she was discharged, she became the head nurse in the Emergency Room at UC San Francisco Hospital. At 30, she was starting her studies to become a doctor when a lump in her heel was found to be malignant. In fact, the cancer had already metastasized throughout her body. She was admitted to a very experimental treatment trial in Texas.
There were 30 other participants in this trial. None of them survived more than a few years -- except Jeannie. She’s still here more than thirty-seven years later. The treatment saved her life but still took a considerable toll. The first thing to go was her vision; she’s been legally blind all these years. CAT scans over the years have shown mysterious black spots growing throughout her brain, and the last few years she moves so slowly that you can almost sense the synapses in her brain trying to find an alternate route so that she can instruct her foot to move forward, her hand to grasp a fork.
I’ve never heard Jeannie complain about the cards she’s been dealt. Instead I’ve watched her spread joy wherever she goes. In her neighborhood in Redwood City -- before she needed constant care starting a couple of years ago-- all the children would head to her house every chance they got; that’s where the dollhouses were, and the massive Beanie Baby collection, the musical instruments, the puzzles and games, the Disney movies... I thought of her as the pied piper, except all the neighbors knew exactly where their children had gone.
When my children were growing up, we saw Jeannie at every holiday, but the culmination was Halloween. I would go pick Jeannie up and off we’d go to the Halloween stores to buy supplies for the annual haunted house. Duncan and Mayme and Jeannie would come up with a different theme every year to convert one whole floor of the house into a spooky experience complete with stage smoke, creepy music and grisly surprises. One year it would be an alien hideout; another, it would be Spider World. One year, there were body parts crawling around and a bathtub full of blood.
When Jeannie was visiting my kids learned not to fight, because Jeannie would say, “If you fight, I’m going to leave -- because it will kill me.” She was not being dramatic. She delivered this calmly, as a matter of simple fact. She protected herself from anything and anyone that might disrupt the beneficent and grateful attitude she maintained and which she still believes is the reason she’s survived against all odds. As she was wheeled into the hospital yesterday in considerable pain, the caregiver reports Jeannie commented, “Well, here comes the next great adventure.”
My children, now 27 and 30 years old, keep texting me since the news about Jeannie’s aneurism. They’re desperate to tell Jeannie how much they love her, how much they learned from her, how much of who they are they can credit to her influence. I pray that they -- and I -- get the chance.
Maybe it’s time to think, “Who have been my great teachers? Who has shown me a truth that has greatly enhanced my life? How can I pass this great truth forward?”
Before it's too late...