Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I'm angry

Today I finished my annual report for our Relay for Life team. Of course, it was due yesterday. I'm a reporter, which means I'm deadline-oriented... only, you know, sometimes those deadlines kinda creep up on a person.

What. I'm not team captain because I'm organized, I'm team captain because I was the one without a chair when the music stopped.

Silliness aside, we had a good year. We topped our goal by more than $600, which means in the ten years that St. Andrew's has had a Relay for Life team, we've raised more than $25,000 for the American Cancer Society. I have a fantastic team: we are small but mighty. And we pulled it off last year despite me being so terrifically distracted by weddings and babies and an above-average busy year for Ye Olde Newspaper that I think I actually forgot to do one whole fundraiser.

Still, I fired off my report, and then Boy and I spent way too much time going through old photos. It was ostensibly for Throwback Thursday, but really it was just nostalgia. Boy enjoyed the years of Cub Scout shenanigans and pictures of him fighting invisible enemies with the superheroes of Six Flags.

"We had a good time, didn't we?" he said, unusually philosophical. Mom wibble.

But on one of the photos, I had a heartsick moment. There were four Facebook comments on a particularly awesome photo of Boy.

Two comments were from friends who are now dead.

Rachael Wise died of breast cancer in 2011. She had been fighting it since her early twenties, and it was the beast that chased her all the time I knew her. She was my age, and she wrestled it to the ground over and over, but still she died at the age of 37. She deserved more time with her husband, more time with her friends, more LIFE.

David Black died of cancer in 2014. I met him when I hired him a few years before to tutor my son, who was really struggling with junior high. David had just finished his teaching certifications, and ended up with a classroom of one. With understanding and the tough-love compassion of a born teacher, he got Boy through the seventh grade, and became a friend. Less than a year later he was diagnosed with a pervasive cancer, and fought it like the hard-cursing bear he was for much longer than the doctors expected.

Both Rachael and David had cheered on the photo. It was heartbreaking, and it made me mad all over again.

Because Jayne Matthews died of cancer on Tuesday. Jayne and I worked together in the Collinsville bureau for years. Our desks were opposite each other for most of that time, so I was the beneficiary of much of Jayne's wisdom - that which she dispensed to me, and which she dispensed to many others. Friends on the phone, other co-workers, sources... As others have pointed out, you didn't know Jayne for five minutes before you'd start hearing the stories. She was a fine old country talker in the tradition of her beloved Tennessee, and she could keep a story going forever.

She loved our profession unabashedly, and I remember that every Election Day she wore a loud red-white-and-blue outfit with a flag baseball cap. She stuck her I-voted stickers on the edge of the computer with which she struggled every day, and I got into the habit of doing the same, until information services told me to stop doing that.

It's been a couple of days since Jayne died, and I have struggled with what to say. While I knew she'd been in poor health for years, surviving a stroke in 2012, I didn't know that she was diagnosed with cancer at Christmastime. Whatever it was, it killed her quickly. Those who had kept in better touch with her said after more than two years in a nursing home, she was ready to go. I will trust their judgment.

But I'm still angry. Age 67 just doesn't seem like enough, not when you loved life as Jayne did. Oh, the stories. And the quotes; I used to keep a running list of them. For a while on Facebook yesterday, a bunch of us got into a quote-fest, putting up Jayne's Greatest Hits. "Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel," was one favorite. My favorite was, "It's hard to be professional when you're drooling on someone's shoes." That one was about her interview with Gloria Steinem. Jayne was not shy with her opinions, either: a staunch feminist and devoted Democrat, you didn't get away without hearing everything she thought about both.

And even then, the brassiest woman I know still knew how to be kind. My first husband and I divorced in 2003, having married too young and without really understanding the pressures that a career in journalism puts on a marriage. I took the day off when my divorce became final, and when I returned there was a "divorce present" on my desk from Jayne.

Now, Jayne had definite beliefs on marriage: that it held women back, that it was solely for the benefit of men, etc. So I was a bit leery when I opened it.

It was a small toy man, and when you squeezed him, he popped out with lines like, "You look tired, honey, I'll make dinner." "We can watch whatever you want." "Would you like me to do the laundry?"

It cracked me up, and I could definitely use some humor that day.

In the newsroom, she would sometimes ask me to help her spell something. She called me Ms. Spelling Bee, because I am a champion speller (hey, everybody's gotta have some talent) and she said that was rare among readers, that people who read a lot tend to read fast and miss the spelling o the words. I don't know if that's anything like accurate, but I think I would absolutely love to spell something for Jayne one more time.

Jayne was one of a kind, and on Saturday we will gather to bid her farewell. Her ashes will be returned to her home state of Tennessee, the place she always said she would go once she retired. She often talked about her "old lady house," how she intended to decorate it and settle in for a long sunset in which she would write angry liberal letters to the editor and donate to Democrats.

Jayne never got her old lady house. And she may have been ready to go, but I'm still angry that she doesn't get to write her letters for another 20 or 30 years.

If I needed a reminder why I still rev up the Relay team each year, why I'm still the one without a chair when the music stops, it's because I am tired of seeing the voices of dead friends echoing online because cancer silenced them.

Goodnight, Jayne. I'm going to light a luminary with your name on it this June, and maybe I'll write a few of your best quotes on the bag for good measure.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Angelia Sparrow said...

If I can afford it, and probably if I can't, you're getting a donation. Cancer has hit us hard this last year. My dad did radiation for lymphatic cancer. My mother died of leukemia. My 17 year old niece had brain surgery to remove tumors. My 13 year old niece had surgery to remove a tumor on her thigh bone.

12:40 AM  
Blogger jilly-bear said...

Damn it we need a like button on here! This made me cry - thank you. (We'll see about June - it's a busy year.)

7:47 AM  

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