Monday, January 26, 2009

in gratitude for Janice

Janice-webHer name is Janice Borndahl, but, in the same way that I always knew my mom's oldest friends by their maiden names, she will always be Janice Wisbrock to me.

Every girl should be so lucky to have a friend like Janice live down the street from her. We met in second grade, that pivotal year in a Catholic school girl's life when she makes her first communion. I can only smile at the memory of us, two religious zealots at age eight, sometimes choosing to forgo playing four-square during recess to go pray in the chapel. Even though it would end up leading us in very different directions, that youthful hunger for faith, inspiration, and meaning always united us.

My family switched parishes at the end of that school year, but we were reunited in 6th grade. We would walk home from school together---cutting through the college campus near our street. Laughing with Janice is what I remember most, and, forgive me for telling it now J, but one time Janice laughed so hard, she wet her pants (actually her uniform skirt) on that walk home. I never told till now.

We had a falling out the first year of high school, but at the beginning of senior year we both broke up with our boyfriends and started working at the local hospital. I believe we walked every block of our hometown that year, telling each other stories of the two years we'd missed out on, and sharing our hopes and ambitions.


Janice would visit me at Loyola, and push me to explore the city all around me. From her I learned of the treasures within thrift stores.  I remember staying up all night with her and Kim Justice in the basement of Coffey Hall, and missing the first hour of my PoliSci final exam the next morning (she'd tease me that I never forgave her for the resulting B+). I remember calling her late one night with the news that I had discovered the meaning of life. That was her gift to me---I could be as embarrassingly earnest or sentimental or corny as I really was, without fear of ridicule. Janice didn't have a fake or pretentious bone in her body, which must have made growing up in Elmhurst all the more difficult.

Janice and I couldn't have been more different in some ways---she loved to dance and I loved to read. She introduced me to the Smiths on the turntable in her grandmother's living room, and I introduced her to Simon & Garfunkel's oldies. She was an artist---my first apartment was decorated with her ink drawings and collages. She was adventuresome and I was always hesitant. But we both loved words and language, discovery and learning.

Taking the train downtown, running through Lincoln Park Zoo, getting harassed at Oak Street Beach. Too many memories, too few recent ones.

I remember introducing her to Brian. She was home from California, visiting with her boyfriend. We met at Taste of Chicago, and watched the fireworks on a blanket in Grant Park.

Years later we'd visit her after she'd bought a house on the same block as Brian's grandmother. How that little coincidence made us happy.

Then I had babies. That's my excuse for losing touch. There was an email here and there, an even rarer phone call, some Christmas cards.

I never planned to lose touch, I just thought there'd be time later. I'd see my mom, and Brian's mom too, both closer to their childhood girlfriends now than they ever were while they were busy raising kids, and I'd think, that will be us. I'll have time then.

Last week I learned I was wrong.

Janice was diagnosed with melanoma tumors on her spine and four lesions in the brain last August. She died three months later.

I type that still not believing it. It is impossible. She just went to Thailand last July---working at a Christian children's camp. Now that sounds like Janice. But sick? Unable to walk? No.

And selfishly, I can't help thinking, how did I not know?

She kept a blog during those last months, My Rehab Notes, that gives you a glimpse into her grace and sense of humor and faith. And reading it has helped, because it sounds just like her, despite the huge storm all around her. And I can understand how I never knew.

Perhaps all this belongs better in a journal, like the ones Janice and I kept as young girls. I am full of sadness and of rage. My sense of fairness is furious; it doesn't matter that intellectually I know there is no fairness involved.  "Were you there when I created the universe?" No, yet I know she deserved more time. Time for babies and grandkids and 100s of students. For more of everything.

Maybe I should wait before writing this, wait for it to sink in, to be just a little less raw. But I think years from now it will still be a shock to think she is not here.

From Mary Oliver:

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Janice took the whole world into her arms, sucked the marrow of life, and inspired everyone who knew her well.

I imagine Janice reading Mary Oliver now, and saying to all of us these words:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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