Monday, May 30, 2011

Jennifer: A Different Kind of Hero

I respect and admire the people who rush to save us and our possessions in emergencies, and those who place themselves between us and people who wish us harm, but they have chosen the professions that make them heroes.  

There are others who have the opportunity for heroism thrust upon them, who have not asked for and do not want it, yet perform in ways that make those around them better people.  Jennifer was such a hero.

Soon after she was born doctors discovered severe immune deficiencies, so severe that the family was told she wouldn’t live into her teens.  When I met her she was thirteen.  Jennifer and her two sisters, age ten and eight had come with their father to our house for a barbeque. Our three kids, for reasons I can’t recall, wanted to sit on the roof of our small brick cape and invited the girls to join them.  Jennifer, hands as red and raw as a scullery maid, tiny determined mouth looking chapped as a skier’s, smaller than both her sisters and so frail I worried that a light wind could blow her off our roof, was first at the ladder.  She scrambled up like a playful kitten, scooting to the peak of the roof before any of the other children reached the eave.  She had claimed the high ground.

In spite of her many hospitalizations and consequent absences from school, Jennifer graduated with a more than acceptable grade point average. 

At her college freshman orientation, students were asked to stand and introduce themselves.  When Jennifer’s turn came, she stood and noticing she was still shorter than many of the seated students, climbed onto the desk seat and introduced herself proudly in the high nasal twang that life had forced on her.  She made it clear to all by that gesture that she was neither to be pitied nor denied.  That Jennifer went on through school to become a pharmacist, struck no one who knew her as strange.  She had knowledge of exotic drugs almost from birth.  

When this tiny wraith, who wasn’t supposed to reach her teens, was in her early thirties she was attacked by the one disease she couldn’t beat into submission, cancer.  Even this horrible killer had a fight on its hands.  It took more than two years for her to succumb, and even then she didn’t exactly lose the fight.  When her father struggled to find the next miracle drug to add to the litany of medications that had both formed and damaged that tiny body; when she saw the pain and frustration on his face, she reached out and held his hand.  “I’m tired,” she said in that funny voice that always sounded as if someone were holding her nose.  “It’s time.” 

During the next two weeks, until she closed those eyes so magnified by her thick glasses, Jennifer consoled her family, went with her two adult sisters to get matching bracelet tattoos around their right ankles, and made herself ready to die.  Even cancer had to take Jennifer on her own terms. 

So remember all the heroes this day and every day. 

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