Among my most vivid childhood memories are two: the day my friend Jenni Harris died and the following Monday when while sitting in homeroom just one chair behind her empty one (Harrison always immediately followed Harris), her death was announced over the PA system to the entire school. The death of a loved one hurts. Losing a close friend at such a young age leaves a scar. If you’re lucky, the death of someone close can also leave an unexpected gift.
Like our names, my and Jenni’s birthdays were also back to back, in this case hers two days after mine. For her 15th birthday, I made a personalized box for her to keep trinkets and bought a silver butterfly necklace that I placed inside. On May 23, 1981, my mom drove me to Jenni’s house so I could leave the box and necklace for her as a belated birthday gift. It was one month to the day after her birthday. She had been at CHOP for an extended stay, and I was eager for her to know her birthday hadn’t been forgotten. Unfortunately, I was too late. That embroidered personalized box and necklace sit in a box of childhood keepsakes that has traveled with me throughout my life.
At first, I didn’t understand. When I arrived at the Harris home, Jenni’s mom came to the door and tried to explain to me that she was gone, yet I kept pressing with questions: what do you mean she’s gone? I know she’s at the hospital. I just want to leave this for her? Looking back, I realize this must have been just hours after Jenni passed. As an adult, as a mom, my heart breaks for Mrs. Harris who in those raw hours was faced with me trying to understand what she herself was just starting to process.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew Jenni had Cystic Fibrosis (CF). We all did. She talked about it openly. She told us she was lucky because she was only supposed to live to be 7 or 8 years old. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, today over 50% of those with CF are over 18. Many live into their 20’s and 30’s, but Jenni was born in 1966. I visited her during many of her hospital stays. I saw the bad moments. I watched her treatments where they beat her sides while she had to inhale that icky mist to loosen the phlegm. I saw her hooked up to the IV that sustained her. I witnessed her taking it in stride as she got poked and prodded by nurses. So, yeah, I knew she was sick. Really sick. I knew it was serious. What I didn’t fully comprehend was that my funny, vibrant friend would actually die – let alone without warning. I thought I’d at least see it coming.
Luckily, I have many memories of Jenni’s life to offset the ones surrounding her death. Her beaming smile and her sense of humor are foremost. Cystic Fibrosis may have ravaged her body, but it didn’t consume her spirit. Even when the illness would flare up and hospitalization was required, as it too often was, she made fun out of it. I’m surely not the only friend she’d engage in wheelchair races with up and down the halls of the peds unit at Holy Redeemer Hospital. That’s how Jenni approached life. With zest, eagerness, and a desire to have fun no matter the circumstance.
Of course, as any kid would, Jenni hated the CF. She couldn’t stand being sick. She couldn’t stand being so skinny and physically childlike when everyone around her was growing up. And, she certainly couldn’t understand one of her close friends doggedly refusing to eat, fighting against those normal processes of puberty that she herself was so eager to embrace. Jenni, like so many others, would implore me to eat. I didn’t, I couldn’t listen. Then Jenni died. Jenni’s death was my wake-up call. I recall the very moment later during that day her death was announced over the school’s PA system when I realized I could choose what she couldn’t. How dare I waste that opportunity when she wanted it so badly. I had a journey ahead of me for sure, but Jenni got me to the start. I wish I could thank her for that.
Memory is an interesting phenomenon. Two people can experience the same exact events while their memories of these shared events can be diametrically opposed. I could continue sharing personal memories of Jenni, but anyone who knew her has their own unique and special memories of their time with her. Differing and varied memories for sure. Some crystal clear and others faded with the passage of time. All of us who knew Jennifer Lynn Harris, though, can share in an incredibly important lesson from her life. Jenni had 15 years in this world. That’s it. She made the very best of those few years facing each day with courage and all the joy she could muster, but she only had 15. So many of us choose to avoid talking about our age as if we should, or could for that matter, ignore the passage of time simply by refusing to count. Why? Jenni’s life and death taught me very early on to celebrate the very opportunity to have days and years to count. Had she lived, who knows if my and Jenni’s friendship would have endured the passage of time. Her death has made her memory indelible, eternally present in my life as a gift. A reminder to savor growing old.