The Blog

Cancer's No Match For A Joyful Girl

Jenny doesn't seem terrified of this thing that is so far beyond us, this thing that none of us can now see. This same cancer took her mother, and she knows what lies ahead.
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"I know there's no grand plan here
This is just the way it goes
When everything else seems unclear
I guess at least I know
You do it for the joy it brings
Because you're a joyful girl
Because the world owes me nothing
And we owe each other the world."
-- "Joyful Girl," Ani DiFranco

When my friend and neighbor Jenny Rie Van der Linden and I first started going up Flagstaff Mountain above Boulder, Colo., to watch sunsets five years ago, I was embarrassed to tell her that she scared the crap out of me when she scrambled out to the very tip of the rock outcropping, then perched herself up on top of another boulder. When she urged me to come join her, I said I didn't have good shoes and settled on a second-place view from a safe rock. I can admit to her now that I don't go to the edge because I'm scared and that I worry the entire time she's out there that she will fall.

"You don't seem terrified," I said to Jenny last week as we drove to her 50th birthday bash on Lake Powell. We were talking about her battle with ovarian cancer, which no one would know by looking at her that she isn't winning. She crackles with energy, back to the Jenny we all love and can't keep up with as the last of the chemo chemicals leave her body. She quit chemotherapy in March, after the doctors couldn't promise that it was doing much of anything. She's not in remission, they say. Cancer lurks, and I get that same feeling I have when Jenny's out on a Flagstaff precipice when I think about that. I can't beg her to come back and join me in a safer spot, as I've been known to do since we became better friends. I step carefully out with her and into this, knowing I can't truly comprehend her courage from my safe, cancer-free perch.

Jenny doesn't seem terrified of this thing that is so far beyond us, this thing that none of us can now see. This same cancer took her mother, and she knows what lies ahead. We talk about the possibility of alternative treatments, extreme diet changes, energy work. She dismisses none of these, nor the possibility of more chemotherapy, but she refuses to chase down miracle cures with a blind faith that could turn on her. Instead, she's investing her unconquerable energy in living the spectacular life she's always lived -- skiing, canyoneering, rafting, traveling and raising four amazing children -- with a bit more urgency.

With this birthday gathering on Lake Powell, Jenny brought friends from all parts of her life together to celebrate her living. Our excursion was blessed. We parked our massive rented houseboat in a private cove watched over by a rock outcropping that some of us thought was a Buddha, some a native god and some a Transformer. We danced to Dave Matthews, took turns on Jet Skis and kayaks, and bonded over meals and mojitos. Most of us had never met each other, and we all understood the gift that Jenny was giving us. We will all be there for her as she needs us. And now we will be there for each other.

"So, when is this cancer going to be gone?" asked Ben, the 27-year-old captain of our boat full of women, as we sat around a campfire on a Lake Powell beach. Jenny and Ben, who coached her daughter in ski racing, have been friends for years. "It's not, Benni," Jenny said. "I am going to die of this." I looked away from both of them, down at the sand. "It's tough to love me," Jenny said.

She's wrong about that. It's so easy to love Jenny. The hard part is accepting that this vibrant woman, who raced off on a Jet Ski with such extreme delight every morning and who shouted "the future is no place to place your better days!" to all of us at every opportunity, is going to die.

I stayed off the Jet Skis until the last day. I didn't want to admit that, like the cliff edges that Jenny maneuvers, Jet Skis scare me a little. I finally climbed on back of one with Jenny because I couldn't possibly go home and tell my kids that they were available and I didn't partake. I held on for dear life, screaming with laughter, as we careened across the open channel and swerved in and out of tight canyons. Eventually I let go of my vice grip on Jenny's waist and relaxed as dramatic red cliffs and sparkling grottoes sped by.

Jenny and I explored every cove and crevasse that we could find during that last excursion. She kept pushing on past one more bend, saying, "I don't know when I'll get back here." I urged her to keep going. I may get back to Lake Powell, but I doubt I'll experience the freedom, discovery and reverence for the gift of perfect time and place that I felt that day. I've called that "Jenny Magic" since I first started hanging out with her, and I believe it has depth that not even Jenny has tapped. Next time we watch the sunset, I think I'll follow her out to the ledge so we can talk a little more about that.

Scenes From A Joyful Life

For more by Robyn Griggs Lawrence, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.