Jenna glanced over the party planning list one last time. Everything seemed to be in relatively sane order. She wanted the event to be as close to perfect as possible. Of course, glitches always cropped up, but now she could take them in stride. Not everything could be anticipated. Jenna had always tried to live her life as fully as possible and expected glitches to be a normal part of life. Glitches happen when people take risks, going the distance in all aspects of living. If you don't want glitches, sit still and do nothing.
She stared at her list and pondered the idea of perfection. She had once read that striving for perfection was the highest form of self-abuse. That made sense to her. No one could be in control of everything, and knowing when to let go was a hard-learned lesson for some. Yes, it was definitely a better goal to feel balanced and whole than to waste energy in pursuit of perfection. Her own life was far from perfect, and she had made peace with that.
She sipped her tea and reviewed her mental checklist.
More bad news, check
More screaming, check
Chemo, chemo, chemo, check, check, check
Pure, giddy unhindered acceptance.
Cancer had won. She fought the battles but lost the victory. Well done cancer, well done. There will be no concession speech, thank you.
She had been a warrior, spoken publicly about her condition, cried, raged, thrown up, shaved her head, talked to newly diagnosed c-pats (cancer patients) at the request of the clinic, left countless letters for her kids and future grandkids, made a video, updated her will, held every family member while they sobbed, comforted many of the town folk while they sobbed, hugged her knees while she rocked on the cold bathroom floor and sobbed alone, spent a month in Italy eating and drinking wine (and gaining weight), spent a month in Hawaii doing nothing, moved her investments, purged her belongings then splurged on a modest but high quality wardrobe to fit her new underweight frame, cleaned out the basement, raked the yard, milked the cow...wait, that was a dream.
The only items left on her list were 107 and 108; the party and death, respectively.
The entire town, friend and foe were invited. Jenna took heed of the saying, "Holding onto anger is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die," or something like that. It was a fake Buddha quote but no less meaningful. There was nothing left in the negative emotion department worth saving. EVERYTHING MUST GO! CLEARANCE! People really shouldn't wait for death to figure that out. Dying with all these bits of insights was a shameful waste. Jenna wished there was a way to transfer her disease-induced visceral knowledge to others. She detested she would die holding these precious cards. Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till' it's gone -- Joni Mitchell.
So she wrote down as much as she could in a little book of quotations and thoughts. Sometimes people have to experience things in their own way in their own time. They don't think the wisdom relates to them, like it's a series of end-life epiphanies. Ha! There's the rub. It's all relevant; it's just a matter of when you figure out the stuff that has real meaning. Besides, at forty-eight Jenna was barely half way through with her own journey. She had plans; more travel, more writing, more, more, more!
The unwelcomed yet permanent guest of death does not drain one of motivation, of dreams and goals and plans. All it does is bring an abrupt halt to those things. Unforgiving, ruthless, insensitive--death is void of emotion, uncaring about who it reaps, indiscriminate about the desire held by its victims.
Death doesn't give a shit. It was simply Jenna's turn.
Ironically, she was thankful for having the time to prepare. There was an advantage to death coming in drips and drabs. You could get a lot done. Sudden, unexpected death shakes survivors to the core and the time spent wallowing in disbelief can last forever. Cancer is a slow jam. It asks for a dance which you initially refuse then must accept because you can't keep turning down a persistent suitor. When you crawl into bed together it's for a long time, and family members can only wait and hold on, hoping the affair ends. The radiation and chemo is the rough stuff, the climax, and when you come down you just want the dysfunctional relationship to end. And if you're lucky it does.
But sometimes cancer insists on staying, and while you can stand with the door open clearly pointing to the exit, cancer shakes its head and returns to the guest room with the high thread count sheets. The family sacrifices while you visit the guest room daily to negotiate the terms. Cancer is the drunk uncle with smelly toe jam who over stays his welcome. Cancer doesn't give a shit.
The theme of the party was prom night. Jenna had never attended a high school prom. Her parents had moved so much she had never settled in one place long enough to get asked, much less establish friendships. Riff Barnes took construction jobs where he could find them and Jenna and her mother Francine followed. When cancer came to visit Francine, it decided to stay long-term, and they lost her when Jenna was twelve. Jenna had believed by taking care of herself and being a good person, she would dodge the deadly genetic mutation. But cancer doesn't operate on character judgment. If that were the case, only bad people would get it. Jenna did have the advantage of better drugs and treatment options than Francine, whose life ended at thirty-five. But for determined carcinoma cells improved care is like having a bigger guest room with higher thread count sheets and room service. The difference was that treatment, if you could get it, had become white collar. Francine had blue collar care that had left Riff bankrupt.
Jenna splurged on a local designer to create a Vera Wang-ish dress in periwinkle blue, simple and elegant. She had the same designer tailor a tuxedo for her husband Chris. The caterer was her daughter-in-law Courtney. She and Jenna's son Drew owned a café in town. They had initially objected to providing the food for her 'death party' until Jenna sat Courtney down and said, "You will do this. I want to take the smells and taste of your food with me." Then Jenna had smiled and delicately pushed a strand of hair away from Courtney's round face. Courtney sobbed again, but managed a nod.
No one said no to Jenna. Not because she was dying. No one said no to Jenna because she had a tendency to be right about most things, and was always quite persuasive.
The invitation was printed in the newspaper, posted on the Facebook event page, and delivered personally to VIP attendees. It read as follows:
Jenna's Passing Party
Friday, April 21, 5:00 PM
Gelman Towne Square
By now you know I'm dying. Get over it.
Come to my party and celebrate my life.
If you don't have a valid excuse, like illness or death (yours),
I will presume you to be a coward.
The dress fit her like a glove and Chris couldn't resist nuzzling her neck as he wrapped his arms around her from behind. "My perfect wife." Chris had been a rock. Jenna often thought that without him she may have died much sooner. He was a fighter, unselfish, strong and optimistic up until Dr. Morrison managed to convince him there were no more treatment options available. Jenna had left the room and let Chris break down in Morrison's private office. She had waited in the reception area for twenty minutes.
They met in college, the last semester in fact, before embarking on their post-graduate goals. Jenna had found the irony of their eleventh-hour meeting amusing at first, and then not so much as they tried to sustain a healthy long-distance relationship between Boston and New York for two years. Jenna had considered giving up due to the constant ache of his absence when one day Chris showed up rain drenched with an engagement ring. He joined her in New York and managed to finish his masters and internship enduring a brutal six month commute.
Jenna had tried to make Chris promise that he would not close the door to the possibility of a future relationship with a nice woman. "I will never marry again. That was us, you," he had said. In truth, she loved hearing that and really couldn't bear to think of him with someone else. But it was worse to be selfish, and she wouldn't know what he did anyway so there was no point in being jealous.
She knew she would always be the love of his life and that was enough. And of course twenty-year habits couldn't be replicated in the same lifetime, like holding each other in the morning and laughing at some silly thing no one else would understand or just breathing in synch. Chris didn't know it but she would usually wake before him and wait for him to open his eyes because she had so much to talk about before their feet hit the floor. No, she wouldn't know the difference, but Chris was sentenced to lie alone in the dark, the warm spot on his chest cooler without Jenna.
"Who said anything about marriage? Jeez, I'm just talking companionship and sex." Saying that made Chris cry, so she didn't bring it up again. She worried, because sex was such a huge part of their relationship. They both loved it and she couldn't imagine Chris as a lonely widower forever. What a catch.
She tried talking to her kids and told them to, sometime in the future, encourage their dad to find someone to play with. That made them cry too, and she resigned herself to the fact that not all things could be put on a to-do list. Not everything would be perfect before she left.
She decided to go a la natural to the party, without a wig or hat, and let everyone sign her bald head. Jenna had hired a DJ because she had a mile-long, eclectic playlist no cover band could possibly accommodate. Besides, she wanted the pleasure of dancing all night to the original versions of her favorite songs. Dancing was actually one of the three requirements listed on the invite.
1. Everyone must dance
2. No leaving the party before 12:00 AM
3. No visible crying
Jenna was so weary of all the crying and had looked forward to the party for months. To help with her pain, she smoked half a joint before she left home and tucked a fresh one into her clutch just in case. She actually hated pot, detested smoking, and preferred her doses baked in something. But smoking was quicker, and at this point she didn't care.
In the car she dropped Visine in her eyes, applied a nude lip gloss and examined her pale skin. "Not much longer before your mortal eyes won't have to look at this vampire complexion." She laughed, but Chris shot her a scornful sideways glance that made her stomach drop. "I'm so sorry. I just can't stop with the dark humor. Okay, no more. Tonight there is a moratorium on my sick jokes."
"Thank the gods," Chris said, breaking out the smile that still made Jenna weak in the knees.
They were greeted at the square by clear, twinkling lights strung everywhere, long tables with cream linen tablecloths, and centerpieces bursting with Jenna's favorite spring flowers; amaryllis, tulips, peonies, sweet peas. Did she even have a favorite? They were all perfect in their beauty. Maybe there can be perfection sometimes, she thought.
By 5:30 friends and family had taken over Gelman's, filling the square with laughter and music. Jenna stood off to the side for a few minutes sipping a Cabernet, drinking in her full life, her people. The picture was as close to grace as one can feel even on the worst day. It was about love, it always had been.
Jenna made the rounds and was the impeccable hostess, spending time with everyone, and making each person feel like they were the most important thing in her life. Hours passed and shoes were traded for bare feet. Jenna mostly danced with Chris, but others cut in too, and she was delighted when they did. The food was exquisite. Courtney out did herself, serving all of Jenna's favorites, including some recipes from her trip to Italy. The pasta and breads were made from scratch, and Chris had cases of Jenna's favorite wines. And the desserts! Scrumptious red velvet and chocolate mousse cakes, delicate layered pastries with layers of fresh fruit and cream -- Jenna's stomach couldn't keep up with her eyes.
By midnight Chris was rubbing Jenna's feet at their family table while guests stopped by to chat. She was exhausted, and started to rethink the whole party all night until dawn idea. But instead of fading, she dropped her legs, kissed her husband, and said "It's time." She walked over to the DJ booth and asked for a microphone.
A few people who were slow dancing cleared away, some with a stumble from the booze, until Jenna stood alone under the fairy lights. Chris caught his breath when he saw how utterly beautiful she was standing there like a baldheaded goddess, even with all the messy ink scribbles where guests had signed. He had thought the whole signing of the head was too much, and he had argued with Jenna and lost, as usual, but could now see the humor of it, and the utter purity.
"Testing... okay. I didn't want the night to end without saying a few words..."
Jenna turned around away from the crowd, chomped down on her bottom lip, winked at the DJ then turned back. She took in all the faces, one by one. She decided not to be nervous, or scared, or maudlin. She decided she could make the decision to be brave, and fierce, and say what she had to say. She would stand with great comfort in her small space.
"I look at all of you and see so much. I don't even know where to start, or if it's possible to start, because then there would need to be an end, and I don't like endings. All of the love has been expressed, the tears have fallen, and I feel like... I feel like all of you are still missing the point."
The crowd fell silent. They wondered what Jenna would possibly say that had anything to do with them. She scratched an itch on her head where Don, the high school vice principal, had used a red sharpie.
"Don't wait to get cancer before you become desperate about living. You should all be panicking. You should be scared shitless. This... she made big circles with her arm, causing the microphone to squeal with feedback... this all goes away so very fast." She shook her head.
All the things you want to do, but you don't, because you're lazy, or think you'll just do it tomorrow, or next week or next year? You don't have one more bloody second guaranteed in this life. Jenna had spent time in England, and frequently used bloody as a swear word. Why aren't you ALL more desperate? I'm really NOT being cynical. I just don't think you're all doing what you want to be doing. For instance, Marnie...she pointed to her dear friend in the crowd, you have been talking for five years about getting your college degree. What the hell is stopping you? You can take online classes now. You could have been done had you started five years ago. What are you waiting for?
Jake... yes, you... 'one day I'll have my own bakery.' Really? I certainly won't be around to taste your chocolate crepes. Will anyone else be around? You HATE your job. Quit and find a way to open your shop.
There aren't enough hours in the day... seriously. I don't have religious beliefs, but if some of you are right about the afterlife and I bump into the almighty I will ask him or her 'what's the deal with the short days?' I don't get it. I pick up a pen to write, or a brush to paint, or a rag to clean, and five hours disappears. Poof! Just like that. It's all wrong, but it's all we have. You should all be running scared. And you should all be clinging to the joyful moments, because they are fleeting but glorious. Happiness is a myth and striving for it implies complacency. Go for the short bursts of joy and be otherwise content, and remember that joy can't exist where there is cynicism.
Oh, and nothing is perfect. Just jump into life with gusto! We are all beautifully flawed and will make mistakes but who cares, just jump! Perfectionism is a myth, and sometimes striving for it carries you away from those who need you. So always have time for people, for your kids, your partners, your spouses, because trust me--in the end it's not about the laundry you left unwashed. It's about how well you gave love to others.
And don't get so stressed over nothing. Honestly, you all gripe about being stuck in a traffic jam like its personal and don't realize you have the luxury of driving. You carry problems around with you like affixed weights, like badges of honor and you're all so full of shit! It's all about love. It's the truth. It's the clichéd truth. The Beatles knew what they were talking about...'all you need is love'--and Trey, I want you to play that next by the way.
Jenna turned and smiled at the young DJ, her son's friend since grade school. Trey wiped a tear, and Jenna scowled at him.
"Okay, so raise your right hands..."
Everyone looked around, baffled over the request.
Raise. Your. Right. Hands. Please. Thank you... repeat after me: 'I *state your name* swear before Jenna, that I won't waste another day creating worry...Jenna paused between each section for the crowd to catch up. When they finally caught up with her, their shared voices came together.
...manufacturing my own obstacles... making excuses... and instead pledge to wake each day...and pursue my goals and dreams... until they put me in the grave... the last line was delivered a bit sloppily, because it made people uncomfortable, so she made them repeat it clearly. Until they put me in the grave... say it, you imbeciles!
And they did, so she smiled, wide and bright and pretty.
Thank you all for coming tonight. It means everything that you are here, that we are here together. Now, I've always wanted to do this... last on the bucket list, promise.
She screamed, "Peace out!" then lifted her arm to drop the microphone but not before Trey ran from behind his station and gently pried it away, saying "Sorry. No abusing the equipment." She kissed his cheek and the music started again.
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
Her daughter Kara, who had been quiet all evening, stood behind Jenna, rubbing her neck and shoulders. Kara was finishing her Bachelors in Fine Arts in June, and Jenna's wish was to attend the ceremony. There was always one more finish line, another milestone to wait for, a reason to live. Graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, future grandchildren. There would always be more, and that was the horrible part--knowing at some point in the near future there would not be more, and that was the raw deal.
An impromptu light breakfast was served to curb the effects of the alcohol, courtesy of Courtney and Drew, and the party officially ended at about 3:00AM. There was a renewed energy following Jenna's speech, but now there were lives to return to, routines to abide by. Jenna smiled to herself over the absence of routine in her own life. Where there was once so much to do, her days were mostly spent resting now. So bloody boring. A cup of tea and conversation with Chris on the porch was the new idea of a hot date.
The early morning air felt chilly and Jenna was physically spent. Chris carried her to the car then up the stairs to their bedroom when they arrived home. He gently laid her down on the bed, kissed her forehead, and covered her with a duvet before backing out of the room.
Her eyes were closed, but she whispered, "I won't die during the holidays. I hate when people do that. It ruins the festivities, like, forever. I'm just letting you know. I wouldn't do that..."
"I know baby, I know. The holidays are months away. Get some sleep."
And she did.