When I was eight-years-old, I had my first white Christmas.
My parents, my ten-year-old brother Will and I were in Cincinatti, Ohio with Dad’s sister’s family. We were hosted by Ros, her American husband Norv and their three daughters, Jen, Katie and Meg.
The three girls, my cousins, were older, in high school and at university, had American accents and their lives looked to my eight-year-old brain like what I had seen in the movies; they were the coolest women I had ever been around. They were creative and confident and their house had a basement! I was in awe.
They got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas that year we were there and Jen, the oldest – about 20 at the time – proceeded to kick my arse in 007 Goldeneye and her cool rankings continued to grow. Based on her influence I think it is still the only video game I have ever really enjoyed.
I went back home to Australia in 1998 and begged my parents to buy me a Nintendo so I could practise Goldeneye and eventually challenge Jen on what might be an even footing. I can’t remember if I ever got the chance to verse Jen again in Goldeneye. She was more than a decade older than me and her life was truly beginning at the end of the 90s.
I wish I had a better memory, or had known to pay better attention to the woman Jen had grown to be before our entire family’s attention was focused suddenly on her in early 2012.
I knew she was a teacher, fiercely intelligent and with a passion for history. I knew she, like her mother and sisters, had some of the most vibrant red hair I had ever seen and she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I knew she had found the love of her life in a man named Brad, and together they were raising two absurdly cute daughters.
But beyond that, it would be dishonest of me and disrespectful to say I knew enough about my cousin, this woman who lived on the other side of the world, to say I really knew her before she was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly eight years ago.
I had a visceral reaction to the news, crying out in the kitchen of the home I shared in Manjimup, Western Australia with my brother and his partner Nic. There was little to do in that town for a bloke in his early 20s, so I was swimming a lot for exercise. Shortly after hearing of her diagnosis I went straight to Manjimup’s local pool to clear my head, to make room for the processing of potential grief to come. I have been a strong swimmer with little training for most of my life, but I have never swam as fast and hard for as long as I did that evening. Though my grief for Jen, Brad and their daughters was – at the time – misplaced.
She fought, and fought, and fought. For eight years Jen fought, although the cancer spread viciously, taking pieces of her body with it as it went. And for so long it seemed, in my irrelevant opinion, that with each surgery, chemo treatment and radiation therapy she endured she would raise her head, now often beautifully bald, stronger and more enthusiastic about life than ever before.
She began writing about her treatment, her life, and her family in a blog called Do Today Well. That phrase has become a memento of optimism and solidarity within our family.
She wrote openly, honestly and without fear. She wrote in a way that was often shocking, heartbreaking and just emotionally hard to read. But she also wrote in a way that was often hilarious; she found humour in everything from the monotony of extended stays in hospital to stories of her youngest daughter’s enormous personality. She drew strength and love from her family, friends and her unshakeable Christian faith.
I am often a critic of religion, and knew I was an atheist from a young age, but Jen’s faith always reminded me my opinion of another’s belief is, at best, irrelevant. Her writing of her life, including her faith, became a daily source of inspiration for my own writing and how I approach each day of my life.
A few years ago she had small metal tags made, designed to be fitted over shoelaces and inscribed with the words ‘DO TODAY WELL’, and below ‘inspire & be inspired’. I was living in Canada when they were made and my parents brought me one during a Christmas visit. I attached the tag to a simple string necklace alongside a piece of pounamu, a New Zealand gemstone, a friend had given me a few years earlier. For three years the simple message of Do Today Well; inspire & be inspired hung around my neck and was the first thing I saw when I looked in the mirror each morning.
Last Friday nightI took the necklace off before bed, something I seldom do, and the string snapped. Jen had been hospitalised in the days prior, was in palliative care over the weekend and on Monday morning I woke to the heartbreaking news that she had died.
Sometimes it is hard to know if I am writing something worth reading, or if I am just adding to the noise. Mostly it is the latter, and this week I am having a hard enough time cutting through the noise to properly process anything let alone understand how to situate it within this world.
I am in Europe, on holiday with a dear and beloved friend. My family is in Australia and the USA and we are joined in this tragedy. We are dealing with grief, though dealing is probably not the right word.
We are experiencing grief. We are being subjected to grief; we are defenceless and at its mercy. We are being thrown around in the waves of grief, held under by its power and pressed against the sands of the time we have had to process. My ability to process her death has so far been to cry, collapse in my friend’s arms and mutter some variation of ‘fuck cancer’.
But Jen, the genuine inspiration that she was, had continued to write in her blog in the days leading up to her death. Even in her final post, from her hospital bed on November 8, she was able to direct her fatigue and failing body into a darkly funny commentary:
“Hospital life, yo. It’s a thing.”
And then a few lines later, after writing about the sunset her husband Brad described to her, some peace:
“My life is beautiful.”
I have not yet come to terms with the symbolism or coincidence of my necklace snapping in the same week Jen died, and I am sure others will ascribe their own meaning to those events. But I do know that Jen’s death does not mean I will not continue to try, each and every day, to Do Today Well. On Tuesday I took the broken string and re-tied it around my wrist, so now I see her message even more frequently.
I implore you to do the same: Do Today Well.
For you, for Jen, forever.
The Council of Cousins: My cousins and I, including Jen, listen to a story from the youngest among us – Jake, at cousin Ben’s wedding in October 2018.