Some of my happiest memories are of visits I had with my friend, Jolene. I met Jolene in a quilting class in Turlock in 1995. We grew to be good friends quickly. In the late 90’s I opened a little quilt shop out behind our almond packing plant. I didn’t get a lot of walk in customers but I had a long-arm quilting machine and quilted non-stop eight to ten hours a day. Jolene came out and helped me with the shop. I loved to quilt and she loved to teach classes and do the binding on the quilts.
I believe it was in August of 2000 Jolene started having backaches. At first she medicated herself to find relief but they kept getting worse. Eventually she went to her doctor who immediately sent her to a specialist. Her first visit to the specialist was tests and more tests. She seemed to like her new doctor and the new doctor seemed to give Jolene just a little bit more news at every visit. I’m sure now if he’d told what he knew at the beginning it would have been overwhelming for Jolene…for all of us.
The first visit after all the blood work the doctor told Jolene she had liver cancer. The second visit to the doctor was during one of our quilters luncheons. She called me from the phone outside the doctor’s office to tell me her latest news. “Joyce, the doctor said I will not die an old woman. He said my liver caner is secondary and not primary. That means it is from somewhere else in my body. Tests show it is probably from my ovaries, it in my lungs and in my brain. Tell all the girls I love them. We start treatments next week.” She sounded so frail and so very far away. I hung up the phone, turned, and told our circle of friends the news.
I asked all of our quilting friends to make a block with their name on it for a quilt to give Jolene. In a period of five days every single one had been given to me. I put them together making a quilt about 60” by 80.” It was a quilt of heart blocks. When I loaded it onto my machine to quilt instead of a pattern I used all of our names for the quilting. One of our friends finished it off with binding and we all went to Jolene’s house that weekend to give it to her. It was purples, and yellows, and oranges, and pinks. It was reds, and turquoise, and blues, and greens. It was a busy, colorful, wonderful quilt. When Jolene opened it she immediately spread it over herself hugging it around her shoulders. Her face beamed. She said she could feel the love and she’d never give it up.
I think it was her next visit her doctor told Jolene she could expect to live about six months. She could have treatments but they would not prolong her life they would simply make it more bearable.
During one of our afternoons together I asked Jolene if we could exchange pictures. To my surprise she said she hadn’t had a picture taken of herself since her picture for the High School Yearbook. I called Mike and asked him if he’d help me with a surprise for Jolene. He was to bring her to my house and leave her for a couple of hours and she wasn’t to know why. She just thought he had to do something and wanted her to be with someone.
I booked an appointment at a local photo studio for the very next week. When Jolene arrived at my house we told her what we were going to do. Amy fixed Jolene’s hair, Heidi brought her a colorful blouse and helped her change her cloths, Robin did her nails, and I supplied stuffed animals and silly hats. We all made a point to put on makeup in front of Jolene and then put a ton of it on her to cover her pale skin. We looked ready to go to church…..then I brought out the silly hats. We laughed at one another trying them on to find the perfect one for our outfits. When we looked just right we each grabbed a stuffed animal to hold in our pictures and we headed to the studio.
I must say of all the things I’ve done for people that day was one of the best. We had a blast taking the pictures. First we took pictures of the whole group of us, then pictures of just Jolene. After a few minutes Jolene asked if she could take off the hat and have one picture taken for Mike. When the hat came off we did some rearranging of her thinning hair and stood back to look. She was beautiful! While she posed for that last picture I was really biting my lip. It was then I realized this picture was her parting gift to him.
The little gal taking the pictures had tears in her eyes. I had told her what we were doing and that Jolene would not be healthy enough to stay long so she got right to work posing us. Jolene kept grabbing her oxygen mask and taking a few breaths to regain strength. It was easy to see she was having fun. We must have played for half an hour before Jolene admitted she was too tired to continue. What a good time we had. What a good memory we made.
For the next three months Jolene and Mike made trips to the hospital for her treatment. Jolene got sick for days after each visit to the hospital. We finally found popsicles and shaved ice with juice were the kindest things on her stomach. She never really did feel better and the chemicals started to have an effect on her memory and mental attitude. They decided to stop the treatments. A few days later, when she was feeling better I went for one of my many visits. Mike met me outside and asked if I could stay for a couple of hours. I usually did anyway so it was fine with me.
Mike’s eyes filled with tears and he blurted out that he had appointments at the Mortuary and the Cemetery and would I please not tell Jolene. Of course I agreed. Telling her where Mike went would be the very last thing I’d want to talk about.
When I went into the house Jolene looked as if she felt a bit better. She explained the treatments were not working and only made her feel worse. She was lying on the bed Mike had brought into the living room for her. She took my hand and ran it back and forth over her tummy. Even through the nightgown I could feel what felt like a dozen or more golf balls under her skin. “That’s some of the tumors,” she said. “They’re everywhere now.”
During the next few weeks Jolene progressively got weaker and worse. She became less and less alert. She didn’t interact so much. I learned to have a one sided conversation involving two people. That is an art in itself. In those six months I’m happy to say I got to know her so much better than I had previously. We shared our deepest thoughts and dreams. I think God gave us a special connection that made us love and accept one another as true sisters. We shared a lifetime in six months.
Jolene was full of questions about Heaven and dying and what comes next. She said she was a Christian but wanted to have some reinforcement in her belief. I have a wonderful little book called, “Heaven Has a Floor,” written by a fine Christian woman. The book is written for children but it hit the spot with me and Jolene. It has beautiful pictures and as those six months went by the pictures of that book were a great comfort to Jolene.
At that time there was also a series of books being written called “Left Behind.” We listened to the Left Behind tapes together. They brought up many questions for Jolene. Somehow God generously gave me answers to her questions as I needed them. I think the series was twelve books with one being released every six months. When we caught up to what had been published one day Jolene looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Joyce, I won’t be here for the last books, I won’t get to see how this all ends.” We held one another as we sat on the edge of her bed. We both cried and cried.
It was as if God thumped me on the head and I blurted out, “This whole series is to get us thinking about what happens to those left behind on earth after Jesus comes to take us believers away. You wouldn’t have been here anyway Jolene, neither will I. We’ll we watching from the Heaven side when this all happens.” We cried and hugged and cried some more. That day was one of the last coherent conversations we were to have. It was my way of comforting her and her way of saying goodbye to me. I continued visiting with her for another month. Heidi and Robin would take turns going with me. Jolene didn’t make sense much some of the time, but once in a while we’d get a good sentence or a look of understanding in her eye.
On my last visit to Jolene’s home, I sat with Mike and softly talked by Jolene’s bed. Mike has a hard time with religion but he was happy Jolene had found peace. He asked some good questions but his attention continually turned back to Jolene. We sat, both trying to be supportive in front of the other. Jolene was laying on her back, wearing one of Mike’s T-shirts for a nightgown, oxygen tubing gently moving back and forth with each breath she took. She gently raised her hands over her stomach area and began a familiar motion. Jolene was holding a quilt with her left hand and stitching with her right hand. It was comical because there was no quilt. It was sad because she thought there was. Her eyes were closed as she worked. She would stitch for a few seconds, then gently feel across the imaginary stitches making sure they were perfectly spaced.
Jolene seemed content. Mike seemed almost ready for what was coming. Jolene had the quilt we had all made for her draped across her legs with her favorite cat snuggled atop her feet. Mike said he promised Jolene he’d bury her with that quilt. He confided to me she had taken it to every single doctor appointment and treatment. He said she had not been anywhere without it since the day we gave it to her.
Mike called me the next morning around 6 to tell me Jolene had died in the night. It was just a few days before her fortieth birthday. It was five months and three weeks since she had first heard her diagnosis. Mike asked me to write something for her funeral. I did. It was a great privilege. Robin read it at the funeral for me.
That was a tough funeral. Heidi and Robin went with me to the service. We were sure we could put on a good front. But, when we entered the hallway to the sanctuary there was Mike’s picture of Jolene. All the laughter and fun of that day filled my mind. Needless to say it was hard to keep walking. I bit my tongue. When we entered the sanctuary we sat in the row of quilters near the rear. With hugs and kisses and whispers we encouraged one another.
The music stopped. One gentleman came from the back carrying Jolene’s picture and the quilt we’d made for her. He draped the quilt across the coffin and balanced the picture on top the quilt. Well, that did it. The quilter’s row lost our composure. Tears rolled freely down everyone’s cheeks and the handkerchiefs started emerging from the purses. It didn’t matter at that point. We were all in the same boat. There was not a dry eye in view and it just didn’t matter. There is a time to mourn. That was the time.
The service was beautiful and Robin did an excellent job. As I shook hands with Mike on my way out he asked if I thought Jolene would be mad if he kept that quilt we’d made for her. I told him I didn’t think it mattered to her anymore and she’d probably like him to have it.
A few days later I received a tear stained letter from Mike thanking me for taking the time to spend with Jolene these last hard months. He said I’d never know how much I’d helped Jolene. He said I’d never know how much I’d helped him. It is a full circle…this thing called gratitude. They will never know how much it meant to me!