August 4th would have been Jennifer’s birthday if cancer had not wiped away that celebration from my life. I still commemorate her by remembering her unstoppable spirit. Jennifer woke up every day and grabbed the bull rope with one hand, threw the other high above her head, and yelled, “Let’s go do life.” For Jennifer, there was only one way to live and that was to ride it to the bell. Jennifer did not become that way after learning she had cancer. She was born that way.
One September night, windows open, wind calm, total silence, I heard two bells: One, two, swift ring, ring. Only twice did it ring, one, two. Whatever was tugging on the bell-rope knew it would be understood. Two rings, loud and clear. I have ears that have always heard even the tufted feet of my Maine Coon cat as he crossed my carpeted floor, but I had never heard this sound before. But now, two bells clean, clear, and near, just outside my window. Once, twice, gone, silence. Earlier that day, we had learned that my wife’s fourteen-year battle against cancer was entering a zone of last chances. “Chemo is not working. We have nothing else to offer you at this time.” Those words will haunt me for the rest of my life, and they ring as clearly as bells in the middle of the night.
The summer of 2010 was her last generally healthy summer, but she was also in phase one trials at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Phase one trials are done with experimental drugs on people when traditional chemo treatments have failed. She took a drug that less than a dozen people had ever tried; I think the actual number was only six people before her. Jennifer would say lab rats had a better life than she did, but she said that with a big smile and a happy heart, feeling much sadder for the lab rat than herself. She also said that she knew it was unlikely that the drugs would save her life but maybe somewhere down the road and just around the bend they would save someone else’s. In this final summer, Jennifer decided against my better judgment to become part of a small crew aboard an all-wooden, 118-foot, totally wind-blown sailing ship with the appropriate name of Raw Faith. Raw Faith ( pictured above) was well known for not being seaworthy, having been rescued several times by the Coast Guard, and had come dreadfully close to descending to the bottom of the Atlantic at least once. She had been built by a man whose heart was bigger than his shipbuilding and sailing abilities, and her purpose was to take handicapped children on seafaring adventures. While I wasn’t sure how far we would make it, surer we would more likely sink than sail, Jennifer was sure we were going sailing and by god then, sail we would, or sink trying.