The Christmas get-together is an annual tradition with our small staff of four, and three office volunteers. Jeanne helped out whenever she had the energy. Eleven years living with metastatic cancer meant there were good 'energy days' and bad ones, and she never knew until she woke up which it would be. As an office volunteer she stuffed envelopes, wrote thank-you cards, ran errands, or weeded and watered the little garden out front. Mostly, she kept us laughing with her brilliant sense of humour. She knew that levity was necessary to keep us buoyant in our line of work.
Celebrating the work of the past year is always a joyous occasion. On December 13th, the plan was to meet at the Wedgewood Hotel in downtown Vancouver. The cozy lounge bar was festive with its red velvet couches, enormous live Christmas tree in one corner, and twinkling white lights along the mantelpiece above the fireplace. Jeanne was determined to get out for what she knew would be her last Christmas get-together.
We hoisted her out of the backseat of the car into her wheelchair, her grin as wide as ever. Her black cap was pulled down over her thinning salt and pepper hair, and her leather jacket hung loosely over black jeans. She could stand if she had someone to hold on to, but she hadn’t walked for three weeks.
“You made it! I’m so happy to see you,” I said, giving her a hug.
“Well, what did you expect? A free Christmas cocktail at a place I could never afford to come to? Of course I made it!” she said.
“I’ll have a mojito with an extra shot of rum, please,” she told the server. Jeanne didn’t usually imbibe. “And a mini pizza with caramelized onions and goat cheese.” She looked at us and smiled. “What are you all looking so serious about? Lighten up, you guys. This is my last supper.” Jeanne's imminent ending had obscured the happiness of the present moment.
We raised our glasses and Jeanne toasted, “To good health.” We laughed.
“Highs and lows of the year?” I asked, after most of us had downed our Christmas cocktails, and demolished the bowls of peanuts and spiced almonds set out by the hotel. The tradition of reviewing the ups and downs of the year helped bring the year to a close.
Jeanne began. “My low this year has been knowing I will miss out on the ongoing stories of my life, and yours…...soon. Having to kick the bucket at 52 is a bummer,” she said, brushing away tears with her red Christmas napkin. “And my high has been hanging out with you for the past eleven years, my chosen family. I love you all. Thank you for helping me heal.” Jeanne paused, looking around the table, meeting our eyes. “But you better work harder on finding the cure for cancer. You haven’t been so good at that.”
Jeanne was admitted to hospice four days later and I called her from Scotland to say goodbye. She died on December 19th, 2010.
She had always hated Christmas.